BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The talk all offseason for the Buffalo Bills was that if they are going to end their 14-year playoff drought, second-year quarterback EJ Manuel and the offense around him must improve significantly from last season.
Might not want to make any postseason plans if you’re a Bills fan.
It’s only the preseason, but so far the Bills offense has shown virtually no improvement from the unit that ranked 19th in the NFL in yards per game and 22nd in points per game last year.
End zone keeping its distance from first-team offense
The Buffalo Bills first-team offense finally ended its 3.5-game preseason touchdown drought Saturday with two third-quarter trips to the end zone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
However, while the Bills still had their starters in the game for those two drives, the Buccaneers defense had already gone to its backups.
The third-quarter surge was a good thing for Manuel and the unit around him—it might give them some much-needed confidence—but it shouldn’t overshadow how terribly the Bills offense played throughout the first half.
Buffalo’s first three games of this preseason were bad enough for its offense—it came away with no touchdowns and just nine points from 10 drives led by Manuel and the first-team offense—but Manuel’s group was downright futile in Saturday’s first two quarters.
Across eight first-half series, the Bills managed just 82 total yards of offense.
Three of Buffalo’s first six possessions ended in turnovers. On its first series, a fall by tight end Scott Chandler resulted in EJ Manuel’s pass intended his way being picked off by Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson. Two drives later, running back C.J. Spiller was stripped for a fumble by Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David on a run up the middle. Worst of all, a strip sack in the backfield on Buffalo’s sixth possession was recovered by Tampa Bay and returned for a defensive touchdown.
Even when the Bills offense looked as though it was getting something going, it shot itself in the foot. Buffalo kicked off its fifth possession of Saturday’s game with back-to-back first downs on a 18-yard run by Spiller and a 20-yard pass by Manuel, beautifully caught with a midair adjustment and a sideline toe-tap by wide receiver Mike Williams.
After that, however, the drive completely imploded. Back-to-back penalties by offensive linemen Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears, a Fred Jackson run stopped for a 5-yard loss in the backfield and an illegal forward pass by quarterback EJ Manuel pushed the Bills back to a 3rd-and-40, which brought up a punt one play later.
Buffalo’s abysmal offensive display led the team into a 24-0 halftime hole from which it could not recover in the second half. The Bills aren’t going to be able to overcome any similarly awful play from their offense in the regular season.
Hope in Manuel waning
Early in Saturday’s game, Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole dropped an interesting note about the Bills’ faith—or lack thereof—in Manuel.
#Bills coach Doug Marrone was told by several staffers, players at end of 2013 that QB EJ Manuel wasn’t good enough. Preseason is troubling
— Jason Cole (@JasonPhilCole) August 23, 2014
It’s unlikely those staffers and players are feeling any better about Manuel based on what the 2013 first-round pick has shown thus far this preseason. Manuel’s final stats from Saturday’s game actually look decent. He completed 19-of-28 passing attempts for 198 yards with one touchdown and one interception each, good for a 85.1 quarterback rating. The first-half stats—the only ones accumulated against Tampa Bay’s starting defense—tell a different story.
Halftime stats for EJ Manuel: 9-18, 67 yards, one interception, one fumble lost. 3.7 yards per attempt. He’s been sacked twice.
— Matthew Fairburn (@MatthewFairburn) August 23, 2014
Manuel made a few impressive throws on Saturday—his best might have been his rolling strike to the right sideline on the aforementioned 20-yard connection with Williams—but there was far more bad than good in his latest showing.
The interception wasn’t his fault, but the strip sack returned to the touchdown absolutely was. His offensive line gave him enough time to make a play with the ball, but instead Manuel remained stagnant in the pocket. When two pass-rushers collapsed in on him, he braced himself to be sacked rather than trying to throw the ball away, yet still had the ball knocked out of his grasp and left to be recovered and returned by Buccaneers defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.
Manuel had a number of his passes deflected by defenders while some were simply way off target.
Manuel’s passing game continued to be checkdown-heavy Saturday. In total, nine of Manuel’s 19 completions were to running backs.
Even in his 10-for-10 third quarter, he made a dumb error. Being chased by pressure, Manuel simply ran out of bounds at the left sideline, taking a 7-yard sack rather than throwing the ball away or trying to cut upfield. Plays like that simply should not be made by NFL starting quarterbacks.
All in all, Manuel has struggled this preseason. He has completed 62.7 percent of his passing attempts, but has only thrown for 6.1 yards per attempt and has three turnovers in his past two games.
Manuel’s disappointing preseason can quickly become irrelevant and forgotten if his play improves when the regular-season games begin.
That said, the hope that Manuel would show clear progress this preseason has not been satisfied at all. There have been few moments this August that would renew any confidence in those who have become doubters in Manuel’s ability to be a franchise quarterback.
Those doubters seemingly include many Bills fans, if the boos that rained down in Ralph Wilson Stadium on Saturday were any indication.
The Bills have little choice but to remain committed to Manuel as their starter for the 2014 season. Backup quarterbacks Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis have been so disappointing this preseason that the Bills gave second-team quarterback reps to Dennis Dixon, who did not take a single snap in the team’s first three preseason games, before Tuel and Lewis. There’s no hope of the Bills finding an upgrade within their roster.
Buffalo’s offense could remain in big trouble for the 2015 season if Manuel fails to come around. Since the Bills traded their first-round pick in the 2015 draft to the Cleveland Browns in order to move up for wide receiver Sammy Watkins (who did not play Saturday) in this year’s draft, they won’t have the option of using another top pick on a quarterback if it becomes clear this year that Manuel is not the answer.
Considering his job is seemingly in no jeopardy for this season, the book cannot yet be written on Manuel, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remain optimistic about his franchise quarterback potential.
Not all Manuel’s fault
Quarterbacks tend to take the brunt of the blame when a team’s offense struggles. Manuel hasn’t done much in his first season or in this preseason to make that blame unwarranted. Still, the entire offense—not just its quarterback—has to play better than it has this summer.
Spiller looked pretty good Saturday, showing speed and agility with the ball in his hands, but his fumble led to a Buccaneers touchdown. Jackson has averaged just 3.2 yards per attempt this preseason, which opens the door to questions about whether age is finally catching up with the 33-year-old back.
Williams, who had an advantage of familiarity while playing against his former team, had an impressive showing Saturday and led the Bills with three receptions for 46 yards. Woods had one dropped pass when he slipped on a comeback route, but had nice moments on 21- and 18-yard receptions later in the game. Chandler had some impressive plays as well, but was responsible for the interception when he fell on his route.
The Bills had four offensive linemen playing in new starting roles for the first time this preseason Saturday. Cordy Glenn completed his return from illness by starting at left tackle, Seantrel Henderson became the new first-team right tackle and Cyril Richardson and Erik Pears took over as the starting left and right guards.
That grouping might be more experimental than it was an indicator of how the Bills expect their starting offensive line to look this year, but Saturday’s results weren’t impressive.
The group was flagged for six total penalties—Glenn and Pears had two each, Wood and Richardson had one apiece—and Manuel was sacked four times.
Suspect play up front and inconsistent performance from Buffalo’s skill-position players has made it much easier for opposing defenses to expose Manuel’s lingering flaws this preseason.
Defense, special teams can’t carry Bills
The Buffalo Bills defense, specifically its defensive front, is clearly the strength of their team. The Bills ranked 10th in yards allowed per game, second in sacks and tied for eighth in takeaways last season.
The components that allowed the Buffalo defense to succeed last year appear to still be in place.
The defensive line has shown its explosion and depth throughout the preseason, and it’s expected that Buffalo will continue to be one of the league’s best pass-rushing teams this year. The linebacker group is without Kiko Alonso, but that unit’s three new starters—Brandon Spikes, Nigel Bradham and Keith Rivers—have all played well for the most part this preseason, especially versus the run. Buffalo’s secondary lost star free safety Jairus Byrd from last year’s team, but still looks solid thanks to the presence of players like Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Williams and Nickell Robey.
Even with great defensive play, however, Buffalo only won six games last season. The play of the defense itself was rarely a reason for the team’s 10 losses.
Any defense, however, is susceptible to giving up points when consistently placed in bad positions. The Bills did that frequently last year thanks to stalled offensive drives and 26 giveaways. They did that again Saturday.
The Bills gave up 24 first-half points despite playing their starting defense for the entire first half. But seven of those points came on a defensive touchdown, while two of the other three scoring drives started inside Tampa Bay’s 48-yard line.
The losing field-position battle wasn’t only because of the Bills offense, but also because of its special teams. Punter Brian Moorman caught a break on a 34-yard punt that failed to cross midfield, because the Bills intercepted a Josh McCown pass two plays later. His shanked 27-yard punt later in the game, however, led to a field goal drive.
As the Bills form their 53-man roster next week, they would be smart to keep a close eye on which punters hit the waiver wire from other teams’ cuts. Moorman was one of the NFL’s worst punters in 2013 as he averaged just 41.2 yards per punt. Saturday’s game was a reminder that the lack of consistent distance on Moorman’s punts can inhibit Buffalo’s ability to win games.
This all might be an overreaction to one bad preseason game, and Buffalo’s 1-3 start to its preseason will have no bearing on its ability to put together a successful regular season. That said, the Bills are going to have to do everything better than they did against the Buccaneers if they are going to make the 2014 season one to remember for good reason.