By BBD Guest Columnist Bryan Ault
This is the third preseason game for the Bills. Traditionally, this is the game where the starters get the most playing time, and, unlike most preseason games, Bills coach Chan Gailey said his team would do some game-planning. People will argue back and forth about how much can be learned about a team from preseason, but this is the closest thing that the team will have to a dress rehearsal.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m out of market, so I was unable to watch the game live on Saturday. I’m writing this after the Monday NFL Network replay, so I have the curse of being influenced by what I read before watching the game and the benefits of knowing how the Bills addressed some of the problems (backup QB, anyone?).
The starting offense began the game strong, then seemed to get more out of sync as the evening went on. Fitz had some nice early hook-ups with Stevie, but then they couldn’t stay on the same page, and Fitz also seemed out of sync with the other WR’s. His accuracy problems and struggles under pressure still plague him. Stevie had a drop, and he also had a play where he would have had a 1st down if he didn’t double back, and there was another play where he broke his route off early. The guy has talent, but continues to lose concentration at key points in the game.
Spiller was terrible, but Fred Jackson was by far the star of the offense. It’s pretty obvious why the team elected to pay Jackson rather than rely on Spiller.
I tried to keep as close an eye as possible on Cordy Glenn. He held his own against a strong defensive line, which is a very encouraging sign. However, I think the true unsung hero of the offense was Andy Levitre. The guy was mauling people all over the field.
I think the worst part is the way the offensive struggles plagued the defense. Spiller’s fumble gave the Steelers a short field, so it’s tough to put the first Pittsburgh touchdown on the D. The second touchdown was on a 99 yard drive, so, conversely, it’s hard to put that on the offense. But, the offense had the ball at midfield with 3:37 to go, and went 3 and out. If they had gotten 1 first down, or even managed to take a little more time off the clock, Pittsburgh never would have had time to score. The only mildly encouraging part was that, despite the sputtering offense, the Bills were only down by one score going into the half.
The starting D fared much better, save for one blown drive that was largely the result of the big play. The negatives of the D are the linebackers. They are slow, they don’t shed blocks well, they don’t wrap up their tackles, and they can’t cover TE’s (although I don’t understand why the safeties weren’t being used on the TE’s more). In addition, Aaron Williams looked lost at times, and McKelvin gave up a few plays.
However, the defensive line was spectacular. Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams were completely clogging up the middle, and opening Mario Williams up for big plays. Kyle Williams is a freak of nature. He has a rare trifecta of size, speed and strength. The Bills need to start preparing for teams breaking runs to the outside, because no one will want to run at the middle of that D.
Stephon Gilmore started the game well but struggled on the long TD drive before the half. To be fair, he left the game with cramps at the end of the drive, so perhaps he was hurting. Still, for someone with so little experience in a position that’s notoriously difficult to learn, his performance was encouraging as well.
The special teams unit was impressive as well. Moorman had excellent placement on his punts, and the coverage unit was there to make the plays. McKelvin had some decent punt returns, and I think he could be better if he was a little more decisive. Brad Smith had a decent kickoff return. I love the way Potter booms kickoffs, but I wish they had let him attempt some FG’s in the preseason because I don’t like the idea of using 2 roster spots on place kickers.
As far as depth and back-ups: well, the score was 14-7 when the starters came out. The final was 38-7. That more or less says it all. The defensive line depth is solid, and in fairness, the Steelers did leave their starters (other than Rothlisberger) in for most of the 3rd quarter. But that’s no excuse for such poor play. Vince Young was so bad that the Bills traded for another backup the next day.
If there was a bright spot from the back ups, it was TJ Graham. Granted, he was mostly playing against scrubs, but he also had Vince Young throwing him the ball. Hopefully he can emerge as the #2 WR that Fitz desperately needs, especially since Marcus Easley is buried on the depth chart and seems unlikely to come through.
Overall, despite the lopsided score, the game wasn’t completely discouraging. Clearly the depth isn’t there for this team yet, and the Bills still lack talent at WR and LB. On the positive side, the defensive line looks dominant, and the O showed flashes and kept the game close despite a poor performance. And special teams looks like they’re returning to Buffalo standards after a few average seasons. This team will be competitive if the offense can find some consistency.
-The best thing about this game: no injuries to starters. Avoiding injuries is the most important part of any preseason game.
-No penalties on the starters, offensive or defensive. That’s a huge improvement over the first two preseason games.
-David Nelson is huge. I always think he’s a TE out there because of his size.
-Great heads-up play by Donald Jones to save the INT in the first. He also had a nice block to seal the edge on the first play of the 2nd half for a Fred Jackson 1st down run.
-It’s tough to read too much into coaching in preseason, but I will say this: Gailey’s use of timeouts and challenges is infinitely better than Jauron’s. This will be crucial if we have to go into the season with replacement refs. The replacements have been brutal all pre-season and this was no exception.
-I loved the stop on 3rd and 1 in the 2nd quarter. For too many years, converting short yardage situations has been all but guaranteed. With Williams and Dareus clogging up the middle, that won’t be the case anymore. I just wish they could have done the same thing on the goal line.
-If I’m an opposing defensive coordinator, I’m blitzing every time the Bills go 5 wide. The OL seems to struggle with the pickup and Fitz is terrible under pressure.
-Powell is a decent punter and has a place in this league, but it won’t be here. He just has no chance against Moorman.
-I really wish Tashard Choice looked as good in the regular season as he does in the 3rd quarter of preseason games.