Standouts and Disappointments from the 2014 Hall of Fame Game

EJ Manuel’s performance in the Hall of Fame Game left much to be desired. (Photo: Andrew Weber — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

An exciting weekend in Canton for the Buffalo Bills, highlighted by Andre Reed’s enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has come to an end.

Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game wasn’t quite as enthusing for the Bills, who lost 17-13 to the New York Giants, but the first preseason game should always come with its ups and downs. The good news for the Bills is that the loss, even though they tried to win, won’t matter at all when the regular-season games begin.

It’s important to remember that just one game into the preseason—there’s still four more exhibition games to go but the games that matter begin—it’s still way too early to jump to conclusions about any players. Young, inexperienced players are expected to have some hiccups early in the preseason.

With that being said, there were members of the Bills whose performances from Sunday night deserve praise, while there were others who need to be better to make positive contributions his fall.

Struggles continue for EJ Manuel

There’s nothing more important to the success of the Bills this season than the development of second-year starting quarterback EJ Manuel. There wasn’t much to show for it on Sunday night.

Manuel had more passes batted down (three) than completions (two). The knockdowns—two by defensive linemen, one that should have been a leaping interception by Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams—came as a result of Manuel staring down his targets and not getting passes high enough out of his hand. This is an issue that Manuel, a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a strong arm, should not be having and needs to absolve from his game.

Jeff Tuel might have a leg up on Thad Lewis in Buffalo’s backup quarterback battle after a strong showing against the Giants. (Photo: Kirby Lee — USA Today Sports)

The second quarterback into the game for Buffalo, Jeff Tuel, was the Bills’ most impressive passer of the night. In his first drive—which came against a Giants defense that still had many first-teamers out on the field—Tuel completed eight of 11 passes for 43 yards, and also showed some speed on a 13-yard option keeper run off a fake handoff, to lead an 80-yard touchdown drive that gave Buffalo a lead early in the second quarter.

Overall, Tuel completed 12 of 17 passes for 74 yards with one touchdown and one interception, the latter of which came off a deflection.

Tuel was listed ahead of Thad Lewis on the Bills’ initial depth chart, but he played before him tonight and played well enough to likely take the lead in Buffalo’s backup quarterback battle. Lewis, who played the entire second half, led the Bills with 87 passing yards but did nothing particularly impressive against Giants defensive backups.

Preston Brown is no Kiko Alonso

Rookie linebacker Preston Brown, a third-round pick in this year’s draft, has been touted as a possible replacement for Kiko Alonso, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, at weakside linebacker. It was quickly clear on Sunday, however, why Brown could be a significant downgrade in the linebacker corps from Alonso.

Simply put, Brown doesn’t have the range and athleticism that Alonso does. While Alonso’s lateral acceleration and speed allow him to make plays all over the field, Brown is more limited outside the box. This was readily apparent on a first-quarter drive by the Giants, in which Brown was working with the second-team defense. New York had three big gains on which running backs exploded to the left side of the field, and all of them exposed Brown, who struggled to get into position quickly enough to make plays outside at the second level.

So far, Nigel Bradham seems to be the heavy favorite to start at the Will linebacker position. He started the game in Alonso’s place and did a great job rallying to the ball, which enabled him to record four tackles despite playing just two defensive series.

Brown’s preseason debut was disappointing but the team’s other drafted linebacker, Randell Johnson, made a good first impression.

Johnson didn’t show great instincts or understanding of positioning, but he was active to the ball all night, and finished the game with a team-leading five tackles. If he continues to progress and make plays, the seventh-round pick should earn his way onto the roster.

Promising start for Seantrel

Buffalo’s other seventh-round pick, Seantrel Henderson, started the Hall of Fame Game in place of Cordy Glenn at left tackle and performed very well for a player in that situation.

Henderson was able to consistently control his opponents as a pass protector, including a number of one-on-one battles with New York’s top pass-rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul. So far, Henderson looks like a more than capable backup to Glenn on the field, and should safely earn a roster spot as long as he keeps his nose clean off the field.

He’s been the most impressive offensive tackle on the Bills, but while Buffalo should be very pleased with Henderson’s preseason debut, the same cannot be said for that of their second-round pick, Cyrus Kouandjio.

Kouandjio checked into the game in the second quarter at right tackle. On his first series, he was beaten badly by Giants defensive end Damontre Moore on back-to-back play, one of which allowed Moore to take down Tuel for a hard sack.

Overall, Kouandjio struggled in pass protection in Sunday’s game, and it’s clear he is not ready to challenge Erik Pears for the starting job at right tackle. He has long-term potential but a long way to go.

Hogan and Easley in, Graham out?

In my first 53-man roster projection for the Bills this summer, I had Chris Hogan and Marcus Easley earning roster spots and T.J. Graham getting cut. That projection only solidified itself Sunday night.

Hogan, in a surprising development, actually played with the first-team offense—ahead of Robert Woods—as the slot receiver in three-receiver sets. While it would still come as a huge shock if Hogan stayed ahead of Woods on the depth chart, it is an indicator that the Bills value Hogan’s place on the team. Once nicknamed 7-11 because he is “always open,” Hogan caught three passes for 12 yards Sunday night.

Easley’s never done anything significant as a wide receiver for the Bills, but his value comes with his special teams play. He showed that value Sunday night. On two different occasions, Easley exploded around the edge to bring pressure against Giants punter Steve Weatherford. The second time, Easley got his hand on Weatherford’s punt and blocked it.

Graham caught two passes for 23 yards, but his play continued to disappoint. Despite having speed that should enable him to be a deep threat, he clearly struggled to separate from coverage Sunday night. Then, late in the first half, he allowed a pass that came his way in the end zone to be tipped away by Giants cornerback Zack Bowman and caught off the deflection by safety Cooper Taylor for an interception of Tuel.

Cohen, Charles stand out up front

The Buffalo Bills have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, but as its four highly talented starters played no more than a couple series, the Bills’ backup defensive linemen had their chance to stand out.

In the first half, defensive tackle Stefan Charles was one of Buffalo’s most impressive players, as BBD assistant editor Joe Marino noted.

Even more impressive in the second half was Landon Cohen.

That’s not to say Cohen should be ahead of Charles, or for that matter Corbin Bryant or Alan Branch, on Buffalo’s depth chart. He’s a journeyman currently with his 10th NFL team. Still, the burst he showed off the snap and ability to blow up plays in the backfield was real, even if it came against backup offensive linemen. If he can continue to impress this preseason, he could fight his way onto the roster as defensive tackle depth, especially if Marcell Dareus ends up with a suspension for his arrests this offseason.

Special teams

Dustin Hopkins made his case for a roster spot on Sunday night. All four of his kickoffs were touchbacks.

Still, he should be considered a longshot to make the 53-man team. Dan Carpenter made field goal attempts from 51 and 30 yards out Sunday, leaving the Bills no reason to reconsider their plan to keep Carpenter as their field goal kicker and to only keep Hopkins if he can earn his way onto the team as a kickoff specialist.

As for the punting battle, Jake Dombrowski didn’t show anything Sunday to create belief that he could beat Brian Moorman for the job this summer. His two punts had subpar hangtime and were returned for a combined 18 yards. Moorman had one punt returned 15 yards, but it was a 58-yard boot, the longest of the night for Buffalo.

Tags: Brian Moorman, Buffalo Bills, Chris Hogan, Cyrus Kouandjio, Dan Carpenter, Dustin Hopkins, EJ Manuel, Hall of Fame Game, Jake Dombrowski, Jeff Tuel, Landon Cohen, Marcus Easley, New York Giants, Preseason, Preston Brown, Randell Johnson, Seantrel Henderson, Standouts and Disappointments, Stefan Charles, T.J. Graham

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