Without the worry of being overly hyperbolic, it's quite apparent to see that the Buffalo Bills' upcoming contest against the Cincinnati Bengals is the most eagerly anticipated preseason game for the organization in quite some time. And it all has to do with one man.
The summer has brought along a slow buildup to the point we find ourselves now, and the game against the Bengals will go a long way in deciding if the future of the Bills begins at the start of the 2018 season.
Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Bengals:
1) Number-17, Josh Allen
- Duh. When the Bills proclaimed Josh Allen to be the starter for the third preseason game, it went from an important game for the organization to the game that will tell the tale of how the 2018 season begins. The stakes are easy to see. If Josh Allen plays overwhelmingly well, head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane will have no other option than to start the rookie quarterback to open up the season -- even if that's ahead of schedule of what they initially preferred. Allen's improvements from the first preseason game to the second preseason game was vital in all of this, and while there are still things to conquer for the rookie, the advancement of his game in specific areas have led him to start such an important contest with the hopes of winning the job. From the first time we saw Allen against his veteran teammates in the spring, his ability to process what he's seeing, his decision making, and even his lower body mechanics have all improved to the point that the Bills are considering letting Allen fly if he earns it on Sunday. With Allen, it's not a matter of 'if' he will start, it's just a matter of time before he does take his place in the starting lineup. However, what makes this game, the third preseason game, so crucial to the Bills is because this will be the last guilt and risk-free time for them to get Allen the reps of being a starting player before this whole thing gets real. Once you rip the band-aid off and decide to start the rookie, there's no going back on it. By no means is the starting quarterback competition over at this point, as Nathan Peterman still has a shot to be named the opening day starter for the Bills. However, Allen is only battling against himself for the starting job, and if he shows the powers that be that he is ready now, then they have no other choice but to begin the Josh Allen era of Bills history right from the start.
2) The time is now for Corey Coleman to show well
- Since the Bills acquired wide receiver Corey Coleman from the Cleveland Browns, we haven't seen much from the former first-round pick. Of course, he was getting acclimated to his new surroundings all the while in less than three weeks attempting to master the nuances of a complicated playbook that he'd never seen. Coleman was barely noticeable against Cleveland, other than one seven-yard reception and the fact that he was out there in game action for the first time as a member of the Bills. Now after a long week of practice, and even mixing in with the first-team offense in that work, the game against the Bengals will be the real test. For Coleman, this opportunity is more than just the Bills finding out if he can be an offensive contributor. They have to figure out if Coleman is worthy of a roster spot over the likes of Brandon Reilly, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Rod Streater. Even though he was a former first-round pick, he wasn't the Bills' first-round pick. All they gave up for him was a measly future seventh-round pick, which effectively means that the Bills owe Coleman nothing and aren't forced to keep him if he doesn't deserve it. As the first-team offense gets plenty of time on Sunday, I'd expect Coleman to mix in quite a bit -- perhaps with as high of stakes as you can get.
3) Will the OL bounce back?
- The last time the Bills played a game, the first-team offense brought on an unnerving trend for the front office, coaches, and fans alike. The offensive line played quite poorly and couldn't keep a clean pocket, which hurried the whole operation. Of the group, I want to see how Dion Dawkins responds to his first on-field adversity of 2018. Dawkins had an incredibly strong training camp and looked the part in the first preseason game against Carolina, but Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett gave him fits in the contest last weekend. I think he's a talented player with a bright future, but this is a key moment for him in his development to push through the barrier of last week. I'm also eager to see how different the offensive line performs with Ryan Groy as the starting center rather than Russell Bodine. Groy will get the start along with the majority, if not all, of the first-team work. He's been the stronger player of the two from my view, and his performance against the Bengals can go a long way in securing the job -- especially if he holds up against the likes of Bengals DT Geno Atkins.
4) A good look at Vontae Davis
- Since joining the Bills, veteran cornerback Vontae Davis has been in the starting lineup without many questions. However, we haven't heard much from Davis and how the transition to life as a mostly zone cornerback has gone, following being a man-cover corner for the majority of his career. Davis received 28 snaps against Cleveland, which tied for the most of any Bills defender, to get him more acclimated to that defense. Past Davis, they don't have much else at the position. Phillip Gaines is a journeyman player at this point in his career, Lafayette Pitts is a more consistent special teams player than a defender, and neither undrafted rookie Levi Wallace or Breon Borders has shown enough to lock in a spot on the 53-man roster. They have to hope that Davis is even as good as E.J. Gaines was in 2017 because if not, that could become a glaring weakness for the defense in the upcoming campaign. I'll be keeping a close eye on him all game long to get a sense of how far he's come in this defense.
5) A massive opportunity for Adolphus Washington
- Since the Bills drafted Adolphus Washington in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, there have been multiple opportunities for him to grab a substantial role and never look back. In 2017, the Bills tried Washington both at three-technique and one-technique defensive tackle, and it only left them wanting more. Washington will make a flash play every once and again, but it's the vast majority of his other snaps that make him so maddeningly inconsistent. For that reason the Bills added both Star Lotulelei and Harrison Phillips in the offseason and combined with Kyle Williams, things were set up to be a three-person rotation more often than not. Of course, as we all know, Williams suffered an injury in Cleveland which has brought on yet another chance for Washington to shine. He's now the primary backup at the position and will see plenty of time on the field on Sunday. However, the Bills also have to assess if they need to find someone on the waiver wire to bring in to provide them with the depth that they desire -- especially if Williams has to miss any time in the regular season. He'll probably make the team with how things are currently set up, but I don't consider Washington to be a lock for the 53-man roster by any means. He still has much to prove to the Bills if he wants to hold a substantial role on this defense.