The long wait finally ended for the Buffalo Bills. After over seven months, the Bills got back on the field to participate in their first game of 2016.
The first preseason game of the year came and went, and ended with a Bills 19-18 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The game’s outcome is far less important than the performance’s on the field from the depth players all over the roster.
So, how did it all play out? Seven observations from the Bills game against the Colts:
1) Cardale shows flashes of potential
- The Buffalo Bills gave EJ Manuel the first drive of the second half just to simulate coming out of the half, but after that one set of plays, Bills fans got exactly what they were craving from the first preseason game of the year. Rookie quarterback Cardale Jones made his grand debut with the Bills, and Bills fans had to have liked what they saw. Jones started off with a couple of great throws in his first action in the NFL, and showed off that arm strength of his to fit the ball into tight spots. He flashed a big arm later in the game with a simple flick of the wrist, chucking it deep down the field on two separate occasions — that were way incomplete — but showed the arm strength that we’ve seen all summer long. He had to get fans incredibly excited with his last minute, pressure-packed drive with the Bills down by a touchdown. Jones fed a nice ball over to the sideline, and then followed it up with his best throw of the night, a fastball put right into Walt Powell’s breadbasket in stride over the middle of the field. It was a throw that put everything that he’s been being taught together — stepping into the pocket, scanning the field, and using his feet to help his arm and accuracy to make the right throw. Rex Ryan said after the game that Cardale Jones is an interesting young man, and went on to call him “pretty special.” More games like this, and the Bills will have to feel pretty good about his potential to be the backup in the 2017 season and beyond.
2) Washington steps up
- It’s been a bit of a ho hum training camp for third-round pick and rookie defensive lineman Adolphus Washington. He hasn’t really shown up through the first 11 practices, allowing for other players like Corbin Bryant, Jerel Worthy, and Leger Douzable make more of an impact on the field. However, there are countless examples over time of players that perform better in games than they do in practices, and certainly vice versa as well. Washington was one of the best Bills players on the field by constantly making high impact plays on the backfield. He may have only ended the day with two total tackles, but he set the table for plenty of his teammates by constantly winning his matchups with the Colts offensive linemen. He got a lot of time down the stretch of the game, and he handled all the reps quite well. The Bills will likely be up against a much stiffer test with the New York Giants offensive line next week, which will be a brand new challenge for the rookie.
3) Hankerson has a night to forget, but Rex might not forget it
- It might be about time to write off Leonard Hankerson from making the Bills 53-man roster. Hankerson has had a quiet camp, and has been buried on the depth chart in favor of players like Marquise Goodwin, Greg Salas, Greg Little, Dez Lewis, and even Walt Powell. That development has been a surprise at camp mostly because of his history as a productive receiver in both Washington and Atlanta, but he just hasn’t been good. There was at least some thought that what happened for Adolphus Washington would be true for Hankerson, that once it got to a game Hankerson would raise his playing level. That, simply put, just wasn’t the case. In case, if possible, it got even worse. Hankerson has struggled with drops here and there during camp, and Saturday provided an all out implosion in terms of bringing in the ball. Hankerson had three drops — one of which that possibly would have gone for a touchdown — and threw his helmet down in disgust. I don’t think any criticism I could give is worse than what Rex Ryan said after the game:
“Hankerson had a horrible game. There’s no two ways about it. Three or four drops, and this is an NFL receiver, a guy that’s been there and done it. So I’m sure he’s very disappointed in himself and I know I’m disappointed. Sometimes I don’t hide it very well, but I shouldn’t. I mean, we expect more.”
It certainly doesn’t appear as though Hankerson is long for Buffalo as it stands today.
4) OLB group gets even more thin
- First the injury bug attacked the outside linebackers with both Shaq Lawson and Manny Lawson, then it hit the inside linebackers with Reggie Ragland and Jamari Lattimore, and it once again hit the outside linebackers with the loss of IK Enemkpali on Saturday. Enemkpali suffered a gruesome injury against the Colts and required the cart to leave the field. After the game, Rex Ryan said the knee injury to Enemkpali was a major one, which means that the pass rusher’s season could be over before it even got started. That would bring the Bills down to either Lorenzo Alexander, or undrafted rookie Eric Striker as the starting right outside linebacker if Manny Lawson is unable to return for the start of the regular season. The depth was thin enough as it is, and this is just another huge blow to that group. The first order of business on Sunday will be to comb the free agent market for outside linebackers that are capable of playing in a 3-4 defense.
5) Hints of Rex’s defense
- We didn’t see it all that often, but the Buffalo Bills showed signs of the Rex Ryan defenses of old. Not the watered down one we saw in 2015, but the ones that he boasted about from his time in both Baltimore and with the New York Jets. Rex Ryan overloads certain sides of the offensive line, shows blitzes at one place, and has pressure coming from a completely different stop just to keep the offense guessing. While he didn’t want to give up the keys to the store in the first week of the preseason, we saw little signs of it all night. He brought a safety and an inside linebacker on an inside blitz one play that resulted in a pressure on Scott Tolzien, and even sent some overload blitzes the Colts way. It’s good to see Rex Ryan as a defensive play caller getting back to himself a little bit, even if we couldn’t see exactly what he fully had up his sleeves for a game.
6) Wilder, Jr. buried on depth chart
- Running parallel to Leonard Hankerson’s evening to forget, training camp fan favorite James Wilder, Jr. had one of the worst games of any member of the Bills roster. Wilder, Jr. has done everything right in the offseason to try and impress the coaching staff, but he’s fallen a bit flat during live practices and now the first preseason game of the year. Granted, it wasn’t all his fault in the run game because the third-string offensive line was getting next to no push. However, when he did have some spots to advance the ball, he ran it straight into a wall of defenders and ended the game with just one yard on five carries. Making matters worse, he failed in the best chance he has to make the 53-man roster: Special teams. Wilder, Jr. was put out on coverage and return units all throughout the game, and ended the contest with two 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. It certainly didn’t help that rookie runner Jonathan Williams also ended the game with 44 yards on eight carries, either. All in all, Wilder, Jr. will now need to show the Bills in a short amount of time that Saturday’s game was merely a mirage.
7) Seymour stands out… again
- Sixth-round selection and rookie cornerback Kevon Seymour has certainly caught the eye of the coaching staff through the offseason, training camp, and he had to have done the same following the first preseason game of the year. Seymour worked with both the second and third-team defense, likely on purpose for the Bills to expose him to everything. If you recall, the Bills did similar things with Ronald Darby in 2015, and that ended up working well for them last year. Seymour played on both the left side and the right side, and showed well with pass breakups and solid coverage for much of the game. His legs got tangled with a wide receiver and he was flagged for a pass interference penalty, but that was an anomaly to the rest of his evening. The Bills might have themselves a really solid depth cornerback, and because injuries happen every single year, one that will likely see some reps on defense at some point in the 2016 season. He’s certainly earned it, that’s for sure.
Bills MVP: QB Cardale Jones
- How can it be anyone else except Cardale Jones? In a mostly boring game, Jones got the fans still in attendance out of their seats with an electric last minute drive that would have tied up the game had it not been a preseason game.
Bills LVP: WR Leonard Hankerson
- Veteran receiver. Seven targets. One catch. Five yards. Woof.
Up Next: The Bills have Sunday off, then return to practice at St. John Fisher College on Monday, August 15. They’ll next take on the New York Giants at home for Week Two of the preseason on Saturday, August 20 at 4:00 pm.
- With a team that had starters missing all over the field, the Bills first unit played really well defensively — and that’s certainly a great omen for the next few weeks as a buildup toward the start of the 2016 season. While the offense sputtered at times, and the punting game was heavily featured, it did at least provide some sparks here and there in the form of running back Jonathan Williams, Cardale Jones, and even wide receiver Walt Powell. Saturday also provided some lines in the sand being drawn on the depth chart, with certain players (Leonard Hankerson, James Wilder, Jr., offensive tackle Chris Martin) losing valuable ground on other players at their position (Greg Little, Jonathan Williams, and Cyrus Kouandjio) in their quest to make the final 53-man roster. We’ll see much more from the first-team offense in the next couple of preseason games, but the important thing is this: they got through one week without any major injuries on offense. And with due respect to the preseason, that’s really all that matters this time of year. The Bills have one more full week of training camp, and then that’s when things start to get real for 2016. We got a brief taste of the Bills identity in 2016, and we’re likely to get a bit more over the next two weeks, too. With all the additions and personalities, it will be fascinating to track.