Takeaways: Buffalo Bills vs. Carolina Panthers, 2014 NFL Preseason Week 1

Sammy Watkins made his first three catches as a Buffalo Bill on Friday night as the Bills passing offense made progress. (Photo: Jeremy Brevard — USA Today Sports)

Sammy Watkins made his first three catches as a Buffalo Bill on Friday night as the Bills passing offense made progress. (Photo: Jeremy Brevard — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

The Buffalo Bills went into Friday night’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers with one distinct advantage: while the contest was the first game action of the year for the Panthers, the Bills had already strapped on the pads Sunday night for the Hall of Fame Game against the New York Giants. The Bills parlayed that advantage into a 20-18 victory.

The team can some pride in its win, but it shouldn’t take any time to celebrate. Preseason victories, though better than losses, are essentially meaningless. There are still many things the Bills need to be doing better to consistently win games in the regular season. However, there were some promising areas of progress in Friday’s game, especially in the play of quarterback EJ Manuel and the Bills offense.

Promising progress for EJ Manuel, Bills passing offense

After a rough rookie season, Manuel needs to exhibit consistent progress this preseason. The second-year signal-caller delivered on Friday.

Manuel completed nine of 13 passes for 96 yards on Friday. For the most part, he made efficient decisions with the football. He showed his ability to put velocity on his throws with air strikes of 28 yards to Mike Williams and 14 yards to Sammy Watkins on post routes into the middle of the field.

It’s progress in itself that Manuel had no turnovers or particularly head-scratching moments Friday. There’s still clear room for improvement.

A sack came as a result of Manuel holding onto the ball too long with multiple rushers closing in on him. He also continued to be too reliant on his initial reads; on one play, he stared a screen pass to Watkins down directly and threw the pass toward him despite Watkins being blanketed in coverage that left him unable to make a catch.

Nonetheless, Friday’s display was far more competent than Manuel’s preseason-opening display. He showed a willingness to throw the ball downfield and over the middle. His performance was a good building block for the rest of the preseason.

Manuel also gave his wide receivers the opportunity to look good.

His throw to Williams was a bit high, but Williams made a terrific play on the ball, elevating to make a leaping grab and securing it up above his body despite having Panthers conrerback Josh Norman all over his back.

Watkins’ 14-yard catch was made through contact off a crisp route; he finished with three receptions for 21 yards.

Slot receiver Chris Hogan showed why he has been getting first-team work when he ran a smooth fade route to the right sideline, then made a clean hands catch downfield and ran to finish with a 32-yard gain.

Hogan, who has been working as the slot receiver with the starters while Robert Woods has been coming off the bench as an outside receiver, led the Bills with 43 receiving yards Friday. Woods had a decent showing of his own with a team-leading four catches, but Watkins, Williams and Hogan are all doing enough to potentially bury Woods as the fourth receiver on the depth chart.

More struggles than standouts in offensive line battles

The Bills have no shortage of skill-position weapons who can make Manuel’s job easier, but the play of their offensive line remains a concern.

At this point in the preseason, the only certainty is that Eric Wood, barring injury, will be Buffalo’s starting center. Cordy Glenn is a sure bet to start at left tackle if healthy, but he is currently on the non-football illness list. The other three starting spots on the line are up for grabs.

If the preseason were over after this game, it’s likely that left guard Chris Williams, right guard Kraig Urbik and right tackle Erik Pears would be the starters as they were Friday. None of them generate great power as run blocker and they all have some issues in pass protection, but while some of their competitors have more standout traits, they haven’t been able to put it all together yet in preseason action.

The three linemen Buffalo selected in this year’s draft—second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio, fifth-rounder Cyril Richardson and seventh-rounder Seantrel Henderson—are the most likely candidates to seize starting jobs. But although Kouandjio was the first drafted, he’s probably the least likely to end up in the lineup this year.

Henderson, who once again started in Glenn’s place Friday, wasn’t as impressive as he was in the Hall of Fame Game. He suffered no bad beats in pass protection, but had some struggles as a run blocker as he failed to generate much push and allowed defenders to set the edge.

Richardson didn’t start Friday, but he took Urbik’s place with the first-team offense just one series into the game. He seemed a bit overwhelmed in pass protection, but it’s clear that the Bills are prepared to give him a real opportunity to unseat Urbik. That shouldn’t happen unless Richardson improves significantly against the rush in his final three preseason games, but he is demonstrating power as a run blocker, where he could be an upgrade over the incumbent.

While Henderson and Richardson saw a great deal of playing time, Kouandjio did not enter the game until the second half. As has been the case all summer, he continued to struggle when he checked in. The biggest weakness of Kouandjio’s game is kicking out to block speed rushers around the edge; on a number of occasions Friday, defenders were able to loop around him to bring pressure into the backfield.

Perhaps the worst offensive lineman Friday, however, was incumbent starting left guard Doug Legursky. He was noticeably pushed back on a number of occasions and struggled with interior quickness. His roster spot is likely safe as a swing backup on the interior offensive line, but it’s very much in Buffalo’s best interest to replace him in the starting lineup.

Defensive line depth shows

It’s true that many defensive line players would look good against the Carolina Panthers backup offensive lineman and quarterback Matt Blanchard, whose play under center Friday made it pretty clear that he does not belong on an NFL roster. Even so, Friday was another impressive for Buffalo’s second-team defensive line, who made it clear that their unit continues to be the strongest on the Bills roster.

No one has helped himself more than Landon Cohen in Buffalo’s first two preseason games. Just as he did in the Hall of Fame Game, Cohen showed an impressive combination of quickness and power as he hounded the backfield on a number of plays in this contest.

Cohen was not credited with any sacks of his own, but he was present on the field and bringing pressure when Corbin Bryant, Jarius Wynn and Randell Johnson each recorded quarterback takedowns.

Bryant, also a defensive tackle, had a very good night penetrating and bringing heat up the middle as both an interior pass-rusher and run-stopper. Wynn made one of the best plays of the night when he looped around the edge and hit Blanchard for a strip sack. Wynn’s play led to a takeaway as Buffalo’s other second-team defensive end, Manny Lawson, tracked down the loose ball and made the fumble recovery.

As BBD’s Ryan Talbot noted, the Bills are likely to end up having to make a tough decision at the defensive tackle position. Cohen, Bryant and Stefan Charles have all made impressive cases for themselves, but there might not be roster spots for all of them; it’s also possible the Bills could cut veteran Alan Branch, despite re-signing him last season, as he has done little to stake his case this summer.

At defensive end, the play of Wynn and Lawson has been encouraging and has made it appear as though the Bills have solid depth behind starters Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.

Less-than-banner night for special teams

Bring on the Danny Crossman haters. Friday night’s game was riddled with moments on special teams that should have gone better for the Bills.

In all seriousness, blaming those miscues on Crossman, the special teams coordinator, would be misguided. Many players, however, failed to help themselves with errors they made on special teams.

Dan Carpenter’s job as the kicker is likely safe, but his 45-yard field goal attempt that he missed off the left upright is one he’d certainly like to have back.

Dustin Hopkins, a long shot to make Buffalo’s roster as a kickoff specialist, didn’t do much to help his case Friday. Only two of his four kickoffs were touchbacks. That said, it is possible that the non-touchbacks were by design; as Ryan Talbot noted in his live analysis of tonight’s game, “there’s a chance the Bills asked Hopkins to not kick the ball through the end zone to get their special teams some work.”

The Bills have trotted out Nickell Robey as their punt returner in the first two games, but that could change after he muffed a punt Friday. The muff did create an opportunity for Ty Powell, a linebacker and core special teamer fighting for a roster spot, to have a positive moment as he dove on top of the ball to save Buffalo’s possession.

The final special teams error of the night came from a player who could least afford it. Wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt, already a massive long shot to make the Bills roster, failed to secure an onside kickoff in the final two minutes of the game, which set up an opportunity for the Panthers to come away victorious before Joe Webb threw a game-sealing interception to Bills safety Jonathan Meeks.

Bryce Brown had a strong performance Friday night as he led the Bills with 11 carries for 64 yards. (Photo: Sam Sharpe — USA Today Sports)

Bryce Brown had a strong performance Friday night as he led the Bills with 11 carries for 64 yards. (Photo: Sam Sharpe — USA Today Sports)

Running back depth

Buffalo should be loving what it has right now at the running back position. Fred Jackson had a subpar performance Friday, gaining just 10 yards on five carries, but that’s not much to fret about. The team’s other three running backs—C.J. Spiller, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon—all looked great Friday, combining for 114 yards on 23 attempts.

Spiller and Brown both showed great explosion at hitting holes both inside and outside. Dixon was the least impressive of that trio, and was stopped for a loss on a crucial 3rd-and-goal run late in the game, but beyond the line of scrimmage, he showed the ability to bounce through contact without losing speed.

Question of the Night: Where was Ross Cockrell?

Buffalo gave no shortage of playing time to cornerbacks like Mario Butler, Kamaal McIlwain and Michael Carter with their second- and third-team defenses on Friday. Cockrell, a fourth-round pick, barely saw the field.

It makes little sense for the Bills to be giving reps to Butler, McIlwain and Carter—who all had moments of terrible play and have no business making Buffalo’s roster unless a wave of injuries beset the team at the position—when they could be giving the rookie valuable playing time. Perhaps Cockrell’s nursing an unknown injury, but it’s a questionable strategy nonetheless.

On a brighter note at the cornerback position, one player who needed to help his cause Friday and did so was third-year player Ron Brooks. He is firmly on the roster bubble after two forgettable seasons to start his career, but he looked good against the Panthers: He was credited with a pass breakup, made a strong stop against the run and made a big hit as a gunner in punt coverage.

Tweet of the Night

From the makeup of the roster to early preseason takeaways, it seems as though the tight end position is destined to be minimized in the Bills offense this year.

Scott Chandler is a decent starter and Lee Smith is a solid blocking specialist, but neither of them strike fear into opponents. Expect the Bills to use an abundance of three- and four-receiver sets this season, where Watkins, Williams, Hogan, Woods and Marquise Goodwin leave them loaded with talent.

Tags: 2014 Preseason, Anthony Dixon, Bryce Brown, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chris Hogan, Corbin Bryant, Cyril Richardson, Cyrus Kouandjio, Doug Legursky, EJ Manuel, Jarius Wynn, Landon Cohen, Manny Lawson, Mike Williams, Preseason, Preseason Takeaways, Sammy Watkins, Seantrel Henderson, Takeaways

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