Buffalo vs. Tampa Bay: Report Card Grades for Each Bills Unit
While the renovations are complete at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it was evident Saturday afternoon that this team is still a work in progress. A 17-point second quarter allowed the Tampa Buccaneers to jump out to a 24-0 lead at halftime and hold on for a 27-14 victory over Buffalo.
The game started just like the past three preseason games. The Bills offense continued to struggle moving the ball, but the defense was able to keep the opposing team in check. However, due to the offensive struggles and poor punts by Brian Moorman, the Bucs consistently got good field position, and eventually the floodgates opened for Tampa Bay in the second quarter.
EJ Manuel and the rest of the Bills offense really didn't get going until the third quarter with two back-to-back drives ending in touchdowns. Over those two drives, Manuel went 10-of-10 for 117 yards and one touchdown pass. Unfortunately, these numbers came against the second string, which causes concerns about whether it finally clicked for Manuel or he was playing against a weaker defense.
The following slides contain grades for each positional unit, taking a closer look at how each group performed against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There is a lot to be desired from the quarterback position at this point in the preseason. The group of EJ Manuel, Jeff Tuel, Thad Lewis and Dennis Dixon has not performed well enough so far to instill much confidence.
Against the Bucs, Lewis was the only one not to get on the field, but the other three finished with a stat line of 27-of-43 for 264 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Manuel accounted for most of the stats, finishing the day 19-of-28 for 198 yards as well as the touchdown and interception.
The interesting note in this game was that Dixon, not Tuel, came off the bench in relief of Manuel, which raises the question of who exactly is the backup quarterback. For the majority of training camp, it was a battle between Tuel and Lewis, while Dixon had yet to throw a pass in a preseason game.
Overall, this group made some good plays; however, they did not happen until the second half when the Bucs' starting defense was out of the game. The first half is one that can't be forgotten, and that is why the quarterbacks finish with a low grade.
The running back position is one of the strengths of this offense, and it showed against Tampa Bay. With very little help from the passing game and poor play by an offensive line, the running backs still found some room to work, in particular C.J. Spiller.
Spiller finished the day with 36 yards on nine carries, but that total would have been higher had a couple of runs not been called back on holding penalties. The electric running back looks to be back to his 2012 form when he ran for more than 1,200 yards. He appears to be completely over his nagging ankle injuries from a season ago.
As every preseason game passes, it becomes more and more evident that this offense is going to need to rely on Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. This will have to be the case until Manuel can prove he can effectively throw the ball downfield—and that has not been the case so far this year.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The team was without its No. 1 receiving option, Sammy Watkins, who was dealing with a rib injury suffered against the Steelers a week ago. The Bills ended up with 12 players registering a reception, and six of those players had three or more.
Mike Williams was the team's leading receiver and the one who caught the lone touchdown pass from Manuel. This game certainly meant a little more to Williams, as it was his first game playing in front of his hometown as a member of the Bills and came against the team that traded him away in the offseason.
It is hard to judge the wide receivers and tight ends because their production is based a great deal on the play of the quarterback. The one thing that was noticeable over the course of the game was that there were few dropped passes, which is why I gave the pass-catchers a little bit of a higher grade.
There was some shuffling along the offensive line this week with the return of starting left tackle Cordy Glenn to the starting lineup. This allowed the team to move rookie Seantrel Henderson to right tackle and bump Erik Pears inside to right guard. The team also held Chris Williams out of this game, which gave rookie Cyril Richardson the opportunity to start at left guard.
It was evident that this group has the potential to get the job done, but the early reviews were not good. The Bucs defensive line was constantly in the backfield, disrupting run plays and getting pressure on the quarterbacks, who were sacked five times in the game.
The biggest concern right now for the coaching staff is with so many players missing time due to injury and all the shuffling, it will take time for this group to jell. Hopefully, Chris Williams will be healthy enough to return Thursday, so this starting offensive line can play together at least once before the start of the regular season.
This group was without one of its leaders in Kyle Williams, who was inactive for this game. As a group the defensive line played well, but not nearly at the highest level that has come to be expected from them. It finished the game with two sacks, but only three quarterback hits. Josh McCown seemed to have more time than opposing quarterbacks have been used to against this front four.
The defensive tackle position is one of the deepest positions on this roster with the recent emergence of Landon Cohen. This is Cohen's sixth team in his six-year career, and at the start of camp he seemed like a long shot to make this roster. He has had a strong camp so far and most likely would be first in line to replace Alan Branch on the 53-man roster.
Branch was inactive for the game due to an arrest, according to ESPN.com's Mike Rodak. It has been a tough offseason for Branch, who skipped offseason OTAs, failed the conditioning test entering camp and now was arrested. This would seemingly be enough for the Bills to go in another direction.
The standout from this group has to be middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. So far this preseason, Spikes has been exactly as advertised with his ability to stuff the run. Ever since Kiko Alonso went down with his knee injury, the Bills coaching staff has given Spikes every opportunity to show he can play in cover during passing downs.
The play that stood out for Spikes in pass coverage came in the third quarter when he was asked to drop back in zone coverage. He was able to recognize the pass going to rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He got a great jump on the ball and broke up the play, ending the Bucs' drive.
The group as a whole played well with Spikes, Keith Rivers and Nigel Bradham combining for 17 total tackles, including four tackles for losses. Even with the loss of Alonso, this group should be much improved from a season ago.
The return of Leodis McKelvin should have helped this secondary, but the size of the Bucs wide receivers was no match for the Bills. Josh McCown finished the first half 13-of-16 for 113 yards and one touchdown. The majority of those passes went to his top two wide receivers, Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, who combined for eight catches, 87 yards and one touchdown.
The Bucs have a unique pairing at wide receivers that should create mismatches for opponents every week, as both Evans and Jackson are 6'5" and 230 pounds. The Bills cornerbacks, McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore, gave up at least five inches to each player and struggled to match the physicality of their opponents.
One thing the defensive backs do well, and it was evident Saturday, is they are not afraid to come up to the line and stop the run. Early in the game, Doug Martin tried to run to the right, and when he had no room to run, he spun back to the left and was met at the line of scrimmage by Stephon Gilmore. He didn't make the tackle, but he disrupted Martin enough that the rest of the defense was able to get over and stop the play.
The special teams unit certainly had its ups and downs with some areas clearly stronger than others. One thing that is clear is that the coverage unit should be much improved from a season ago. The punt coverage in particular looked much better as the Bills held the Bucs to only eight yards on two punts they tried to return.
Something else that is clear—and it isn't good—is that the coaching staff may need to be worried about Brian Moorman. Last year, the Bills finished 28th in the league in punt average at 43 yards per punt; however, Moorman is averaging only 41.7 yards this preseason. Against the Bucs, he only averaged 40.3 yards.
Moorman's low punt average, in addition to the stagnant offense in the first half, allowed the Bucs to win the field position battle. This, in turn, puts more pressure on the defense, as the margin of error is much smaller when trying to keep an opponent off the scoreboard.
It is tough to grade a coaching staff for a preseason game because generally not a lot of game planning takes place leading up to it. Coaches try to limit the plays during the preseason, making it tougher for opponents to game-plan for them in the regular season.
I hope this is the case for the Bills, as the play-calling in the first half had very little creativity and seemed predictable. The coaching staff relied on the run and short passing routes for most of the first two quarters, and the play-calling didn't really change until the Bills came out in the third quarter.
This is when fans got to see a little more creative play-calling, including more throws down the field. I will give the coaches credit that they were able to make that adjustment and call plays that allowed this offense to get into some kind of rhythm before the starters came out.
|Wide Receiver and Tight End||B+|
This was not how the Bills hoped their first game back in Ralph Wilson Stadium would go. The offense looked stagnant, and every time the Bills were able to make a positive play, it was negated by a penalty that brought it back. The first-team defense started strong, holding the Bucs to only a touchdown in the first quarter, but looked worn-down toward the end of the first half.
It is a short week, and the Bills will need to learn and move on from this game. The team will be back on the field Thursday night to take on the Detroit Lions in the final preseason game of the season.