Takeaways: Buffalo Bills vs. Detroit Lions, NFL Preseason Week 4

EJ Manuel and the Bills offense continued to sputter in their preseason finale. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman — USA Today Sports)

EJ Manuel and the Bills offense continued to sputter in their preseason finale. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

If you missed Thursday’s Buffalo Bills preseason finale because of the local blackout in Western New York, you didn’t miss much. The Bills fans who watched it might already be trying to erase the game from their memory.

The Bills lost, 23-0, against the Detroit Lions to finish their preseason with a 1-4 record.

Thursday’s score will not matter as the regular season begins next week. Neither will any team’s preseason record. That said, the Bills will need to play drastically better, especially on offense, to have any chance of emerging as a contender and avoid giving the Cleveland Browns a very high selection with the first-round pick they traded to Cleveland in the Sammy Watkins deal this year.

Offensive woes continue

The only two touchdowns scored by quarterback EJ Manuel and the Bills’ first-team offense this preseason came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ backups in the third quarter of Buffalo’s fourth preseason game. Against opposing starters, the Bills offense never reached the end zone this August.

Quarterbacks typically take the blame when offenses struggle, but it’s not as though that blame has been unwarranted in Buffalo this preseason.

The Bills’ success hinges greatly upon the progress of Manuel in his second year in the NFL, but there wasn’t much of that to be seen in five exhibition contests this month. On Thursday, Manuel completed just three of seven passes for 56 yards and the Bills punted on all three of his series in the game.

To be fair to Manuel, he took some shots downfield in this game, completed two of them to Robert Woods and didn’t get much help from the players around him—one of his incompletions was a third-down drop by running back Fred Jackson that would have otherwise converted a 3rd-and-6. Nonetheless, Thursday’s performance did nothing to alleviate any doubts or change any perceptions about his potential to be a franchise quarterback.

Manuel’s play isn’t the only thing to be concerned with on the Bills offense.

If Manuel’s play is going to range somewhere from inconsistent to incompetent, the Bills must have a strong ground game to move the ball offensively. On Thursday, they had just 54 yards on 19 carries—including a net total of minus-one yard in the first quarter, when the starters were in the game—despite the fact that the Lions played without their best interior run-stopper, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

There’s been some reason to believe that Jackson, one of the Bills’ top two backs, is starting to be caught by his 33-year-old age. The Bills are going to have to do a better job getting C.J. Spiller, who had minus-three yards on two rushing attempts Thursday, into position to make plays in space. The biggest reason Buffalo struggled to move the ball Thursday, however, was the continued shaky play of their offensive line.

The Bills aren’t generating much push between the tackles as a run-blocking unit, while they have also been allowing too many sacks, including two that helped thwart Buffalo’s first possession in this game. One of their projected starting offensive linemen, left guard Chris Williams, has missed their past three preseason games due to injury. That said, their entire unit needs to be better in both pass and run blocking for the Bills offense to perform better in the regular season.

It’s easy to overreact to a preseason game—the Bills should have a more diverse offensive gameplan for their regular season games that could give their players more opportunities to flourish—but the lack of execution throughout the summer session was troubling.

Jordan Palmer's first game in a Buffalo Bills uniform did not go well. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

Jordan Palmer’s first game in a Buffalo Bills uniform did not go well. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

No better backup

Despite how underwhelming Manuel’s play has been this preseason, there’s no hope that the Bills could bring in a better option off the bench.

After Manuel played all three of Buffalo’s first-quarter series Thursday, the Bills gave the rest of the game to Jordan Palmer, just two days after he was signed to replace Thad Lewis on Buffalo’s roster.

Palmer was put into a very difficult spot Thursday; it’s unfair to expect any quarterback to play well after having just two days to become acclimated to an offense. Still, there’s no better way to describe his play Thursday night than awful. He completed just nine of 22 passing attempts for 73 yards and threw three interceptions, leaving him with a woeful passer rating of 10.4 for the game.

Released on Sunday by the Chicago Bears, Palmer’s likely to be cut again Friday or Saturday if the Bills use Thursday’s performance to decide whether they should keep him on their roster. They might not—as Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler himself suggested, per Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune, it might behoove the Bills to keep Palmer around for their Week 1 game against the Bears—but there were no positives to be taken from his play Thursday.

The Bills’ decision to play Palmer for each of the last three quarters Thursday suggests that they wanted to see him seize the team’s No. 2 quarterback job. That’s certainly not what happened Thursday, and if the game was an audition to stay on the roster, he flunked it. But the Bills might also just have wanted Palmer to get up to speed as quickly as possible, in hopes that he can be the team’s backup ahead of Jeff Tuel, who did not play Thursday and “is not locked in” as the team’s second QB, according to ESPN’s Mike Rodak.

Ultimately, the decision to keep Palmer and/or Tuel could depend on which quarterbacks are released by other teams in the next two days, as the Bills are likely to explore their options for someone else in light of Palmer’s struggles Thursday.

Rough night for rookies

The Bills set the bar for Watkins to be a savior of their offense when they traded their 2015 fifth- and fourth-round picks to move up just five spots to draft the Clemson wide receiver. The No. 4 overall pick’s ability to impact the offense has been setback thus far, however, by a rib injury that he suffered against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 16 and apparently aggravated Thursday night.

Watkins finished his preseason with just three catches for 21 yards, all in Buffalo’s second preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.

Considering the Bills need all the help on offense they can get, they will certainly be hoping Watkins can play in Week 1.

Their second-round pick, Cyrus Kouandjio, should not play under any circumstances in Week 1. The right tackle had an awful preseason, which continued Thursday as he was beaten for a sack on an outside rush by Lions defensive lineman Andre Fluellen, and was later flagged for a tripping penalty. Kouandjio has developmental potential, but he’s far from ready to contribute in 2014.

Buffalo’s fourth-round pick, cornerback Ross Cockrell, also had a tough game Thursday. He had five total tackles but was also flagged twice for defensive holding penalties. He didn’t see any significant playing time this preseason and had some struggles when he was on the field, so it’s likely he will only play on special teams in his rookie year.

Arguably the Bills’ best rookie this preseason has been the last one they drafted this year, seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson. Penciled in as the team’s starting right tackle, Henderson has performed well for the most part this preseason but had some issues Thursday against Lions defensive end George Johnson, who had 1.5 sacks.

One positive among the rookies Thursday was third-round pick Preston Brown, who got his first start at weakside linebacker and performed well.

Brown played a majority of the game and led the Bills with seven total tackles, including one tackle for loss. He’s not the caliber of player injured starter Kiko Alonso was, or even as good as Nigel Bradham at this point, but he displayed improvement over the course of the preseason and is in line to start in the team’s regular-season opener with Bradham suspended.

Brian Moorman's punting has been below par this preseason. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

Brian Moorman’s punting has been below par this preseason. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

Punter problems

The Bills should not be committed to Brian Moorman as their punter going into the regular season. Moorman, who had one of the NFL’s worst punting averages last season and has struggled this preseason, averaged just 35.1 yards per punt Thursday night. Only two of those punts were downed inside the 20-yard line, and none of them were inside the 15. His worst punt was a 30-yard pop up that was downed at the 35-yard line, but lack of both power and precision have been issues for him ever since the Bills brought him back last season.

The Bills signed Jordan Gay earlier this week to compete for a roster spot as a punter and kickoff specialist, but Gay made no case for himself Thursday. His lone punt was a 33-yarder fair caught at the 20. His lone kickoff failed to clear the goal line. Much like at backup quarterback, the Bills should keep a close eye on which punters get cut around the league this week and look for another candidate to potentially take Moorman’s job.

Searching for positives

There’s nothing the Bills should be proud of from Thursday night’s game. They have to be better in all phases of the game to break their losing ways.

Defense continues to be Buffalo’s strength. The first-team unit played fine on Thursday, forcing punts on Detroit’s first two possessions and holding the Lions to a field goal on their third. The success the Bills had Thursday is nothing for them to hang their hat on, however, as they went up against a team that its offensive stars, including quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Reggie Bush and wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

No player stood out more for Buffalo this preseason than Landon Cohen, a defensive tackle who was seemingly a roster long shot when signed by the Bills in July but was dominant in preseason play. His impressive performance continued Thursday, when he continued to show off his quickness in penetrating to make three defensive stops, including two tackles for loss.

Cohen’s August greatness doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a playmaker this fall.

All of Cohen’s preseason play came with second- and third-team units; his athleticism won’t stand out against starting guards and centers the way it does against backups on the interior line. Nonetheless, Cohen should have at least locked up a roster spot this summer and made a serious push for playing time in a rotational capacity.

I won’t be making another depth chart and 53-man roster projection prior to the next wave of cuts, and that’s largely because nothing of significance changed Thursday. As National Football Post’s Greg Gabriel suggested in a tweet about the relative insignificance of all Week 4 preseason games, most of the Bills’ decisions were probably already made prior to Thursday’s game. Anyone who was going to earn a roster spot Thursday would have had to clearly stand out; that didn’t happen with anyone who wasn’t already projected to make the team’s roster.

Tags: Brian Moorman, Buffalo Bills, Cyrus Kouandjio, Detroit Lions, EJ Manuel, Jordan Gay, Jordan Palmer, Landon Cohen, Offensive Struggles, Preston Brown, Ross Cockrell, Sammy Watkins, Seantrel Henderson

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