August 30, 2012
The Buffalo Bills entered preseason as a potential sleeper pick in the AFC and seemingly poised to end a playoff drought that extends to the Doug Flutie era and the Music City Miracle. After three preseason games that have left Buffalo on the wrong side of the ledger, the team heads into its preseason finale against the Detroit Lions with questions to answer and ten days to prepare for the regular season opener against their division rival, the New York Jets.
The Bills spent a small fortune in the offseason in efforts to improve their pass rush, which was anemic in 2011. Outside a 10 sack performance against the Washington Redskins, Buffalo managed a measly 19 sacks in their other 15 games. Much of that was attributed to the loss of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who sustained a foot injury and was placed on injured reserve midway through the season.
Rather than sit on their hands, general manager Buddy Nix and owner Ralph Wilson Jr. took a bold stance and were aggressive in free agency. The team went after and signed the top free agent on the market when they inked Mario Williams to a six year deal worth $100 million with nearly half of that guaranteed money. The Bills then went out and got Mark Anderson, who posted 10 sacks with division rival New England a year ago.
With the additions of Williams and Anderson to the defensive tackle pairing of Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, the Bills have one of the strongest defensive lines in the NFL on paper. Mario Williams picked up his first two sacks of the preseason on Saturday night against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. The starting defense looked impressive up until the final two minutes of the first half, when they gave up a 99 yard drive that culminated in the decisive score of what ended as a 38-7 thumping. The loss dropped Buffalo to 0-3 in the preseason.
The on field performance of the reserves didn’t do much to impress head coach Chan Gailey and his staff. The Bills cut several players to get down to the league mandated number of 75. That number drops to 53 by 9 p.m. ET Friday, meaning another 22 players will have the word former in front of the words member of the Bills. Let’s take a look at a few of the things that unfolded in recent days for the team and what might happen next.
QB Shuffling: After a solid performance in Buffalo’s second preseason game, it seemed that Vince Young had the inside track on the number two quarterback role for the Bills. With Gailey saying that wide receiver Brad Smith, who played quarterback for Missouri in college, would be the number three man on the depth chart and also in charge of the Wildcat formation, it seemed to leave Tyler Thigpen, who backed up Ryan Fitzpatrick a year ago, as the odd man out.
What a difference a week makes. Young was awful against Pittsburgh, completing 12 of 26 passes for 103 yards and two interceptions. Thigpen didn’t take a snap in the game, which seemed to confirm that had Young put together a second consecutive decent outing that he would have locked down the backup role and had Thigpen looking for work. Fitzpatrick wasn’t sharp either, hitting on 7 of 18 throws for 89 yards in the opening half.
Late Sunday night, the Bills, clearly dissatisfied with the way that Young looked and uncertain of Thigpen’s capabilities to be the backup, made a move. The team traded a late round pick to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for Tarvaris Jackson, who is 17-17 as a starter in the NFL. Like Young, he is a mobile quarterback that fell out of a starting position. Jackson was bumped as a starter in Minnesota by the signing of Brett Favre and was an afterthought in Seattle this year with the signing of Matt Flynn and drafting of Russell Wilson.
The Bills proceeded to release Young on Monday, after restructuring Jackson’s contract to a more cap friendly number for a backup quarterback. The timing was awkward but the message was clear: Buffalo was not convinced that Young was picking up the offense and wanted to bring in someone that could step in if Fitzpatrick went down.
What to Do at RB: The Bills have a happy problem at running back; two capable backs but only one football to use. Fred Jackson was one of the league leaders in total yards from scrimmage before breaking his leg against the Miami Dolphins. That injury caused him to miss the final six games of the season and allowed C.J. Spiller, the second year man out of Clemson, to step in to the starting role. Spiller answered the call, averaging better than 100 total yards per game down the stretch and averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Now, with both backs healthy and ready to go, Chan Gailey needs to figure out how to get both of them on the field at the same time. It’s expected that Jackson will still get the bulk of the carries and Spiller will be flanked out in the slot, creating mismatches in the passing game. It would surprise no one to see the two combine for 1,700 yards rushing this season; they had over 1,400 last year and that included Jackson missing time. Tashard Choice will likely be the third back in the rotation and Johnny White is fighting to try and claim a spot on the roster.
Stevie and Who: Buffalo has relied on a cast of unknown receivers and for the most part it has worked out all right. Stevie Johnson posted his second consecutive 1,000 yard season last year, making him the first receiver in Bills history to reach that mark in back to back years. David Nelson put up good numbers as well, grabbing 61 passes and Scott Chandler gave Buffalo an actual pass catching tight end for the first time since Pete Metzelaars left town over a decade ago.
The problem is finding someone to step in on the outside to play opposite Johnson while Nelson mans the slot role. It’s possible that Spiller could be put out there on occasion but the team needs a consistent starter at the #2 wide receiver role. Donald Jones has the inside track there, having started eight games last year before going on injured reserve but he had only 21 catches a year ago. Rookie third round pick T.J. Graham has been impressive in preseason but may still be green. Marcus Easley has the size but has missed both seasons since he was drafted with a heart condition that placed him on injured reserve.
Buffalo needs to figure out who will be the #2 receiver and get rolling.
Cutting the Corner: With the addition of Mario Williams and Anderson to the defensive line, the Bills expect to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. The Bills cut Drayton Florence in the offseason and watched him sign with the Broncos but the team still has plenty of depth at the position. It’s expected that first round draft pick Stephon Gilmore will step right into the starting lineup. He had a tremendous camp playing opposite Stevie Johnson and has been solid in the preseason.
Things aren’t quite as clear on the other side as there is a three-way competition between Leodis McKelvin, Terrence McGee and second year man Aaron Williams for the role. Gailey said Wednesday that McGee had suffered a weakening of his knee in recent days and would not be on the field at all during Thursday’s preseason finale. McGee has been injury prone in recent seasons, sustaining a torn patellar tendon last year. There is no timetable for his return to action and he may well find himself cut in Friday’s roster moves.
McKelvin has had ample opportunities to prove himself as a starter and always fallen short. Williams looked good in his opportunities a year ago and may have locked himself in as the starter. Should that happen, McKelvin would still see the field a fair amount as the nickel back, while McGee’s up in the air status makes it questionable whether he’ll do anything at all.
Two Kickers or One: Buffalo drafted John Potter in the seventh round and he has been serving as a kickoff specialist in the preseason. He has a strong enough leg and left Western Michigan as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 333 points as well as the leading tackler for a kicker with 36. Bills fans remember that Rian Lindell was lost for the season with a broken collarbone after tackling the Jets’ Joe McKnight on a kick return last season. Opposing teams have yet to return a kickoff this season when Potter boots; it’s hard to argue a 100 percent touchback rate.
Could the Bills really keep two kickers on the roster? It’s not that unheard of: after all, Buffalo had Brad Daluiso as a kickoff specialist when Scott Norwood was the kicker on the team. During that time, the Bills were in their Super Bowl years. No one’s predicting that right now but it shows the idea is not unprecedented.
According to Scott Van Pelt this afternoon on “The Scott Van Pelt Show” on ESPN Radio, tickets for tonight’s preseason clash were going for as low as two bucks on StubHub. If you live in the Detroit area, go out and have a cheap evening. The Bills and Lions kick off at 7 p.m. ET as they prepare for games that count beginning next week.