Everything was set up for a big night at New Era Field. The Buffalo Bills named their rookie quarterback and top 10 selection the starter for the most crucial preseason game of the schedule, and it was a nationally televised game to boot.
What we found out, after the first half of poor play across the board, was that Sunday wound up being a let down after all the anticipation from fans and media leading up to it. Fans went from the natural high of thinking their young quarterback being on the cusp of winning the starting job to the painful reminder that the rookie can't cover up warts at other positions that have followed them for the entire summer.
No, it wasn't an ideal night for the Bills and their fans, but an enlightening one nonetheless. What did we learn?
Seven observations from the Bills' 26-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals:
1) Tough to get a fair gauge on Josh Allen
- It was a rough night for Josh Allen. With an opportunity to potentially win the starting job with an overwhelming performance that exhibited all his progress over the past several months, it seemed he didn't even get the chance to do it. As a precursor, there were many factors to consider with his evening of work. The Bills didn't have LeSean McCoy, nor was starting left tackle Dion Dawkins available to them. He was going up against an opposing first-team defense for the first time in his career, all the while the Bills experimented with their interior line by using different combinations in the event of an injury at each of the positions. As a result, Allen wound up on the ground five times, almost as many times as he completed a pass (six). The offensive line continually lets him down, and there were some plays that he didn't have a chance to achieve. Now, there is some responsibility you can pin on him for the performance. For instance, it seemed he held on to the ball a touch too long on some of those affected plays, which brought on some pressure that wouldn't have gotten there had he been quicker to release the ball. That facet is the mental processing that I discussed heading into the game and seeing where Allen was in his development. On a few of those plays, he looked a bit more like a rookie than he had the previous week, which might mean that he isn't quite ready just yet. However, it is tough to judge him against all of those other factors and how it factors into the starting consideration. And for what it's worth, Sean McDermott continued to harp on the penalties and not being able to protect the quarterback as limiting factors for the offense this evening. However, what could be the most persuasive factor is not how he played, or his teammates that played around him, but how the man that subbed in for him performed in the second half.
2) Nathan Peterman looks closer to being QB1 of the three
- Over the first three preseason games with the starting competition, only one thing has remained consistent: Nathan Peterman. AJ McCarron looked solid in the first game, only to falter in the second and then suffered an injury on top of it. The rookie Allen has had his moments but didn't take that jump forward that you would have liked to see for the team to name him the outright starter in 2018. While those other two have struggled in spots, there remains Peterman, standing upright and operating the offense efficiently in each of his three performances. And through it all, it's that consistency and good fortune of avoiding injury that ultimately could make him the starter to begin the 2018 season. It's not to say that Peterman is without fault in the preseason. For instance, his primary bugaboo of not being able to push the ball with enough force to the boundary on out routes almost came back to haunt him against Cincinnati. On some of those throws, there is more of an arc to the ball than there needs to be and the placement winds up a tad behind the receiver, which leads to competent defensive backs being able to jump the route even with a cushion. Outside of that, though, Peterman has looked confident and has hit his receivers in stride, he's taking some chances down the field in trying to let his players make something happen, and he's not trying to force the issue as he did after his first two interceptions in Los Angeles last season. Peterman is the hold steady option, and it doesn't matter when he's brought up, head coach Sean McDermott is quick to effuse him with praise for the job that he's done. For all of those reasons, through the three crucial preseason contests, the signs all point to Peterman being the guy to start 2018. Now, the Bills could throw a wrench in all of this by wanting to see all three perform on Thursday in the preseason finale, but with the start of the regular season quickly approaching, I don't know that the Bills would want to play with fire with their potential starting quarterback. Of the three, Peterman seems the closest to obtaining that vaunted QB1 status. It's now a matter of when the Bills want to finalize their decision, and if it's between now and Thursday, or if both Peterman and Allen don't play in that game, Peterman might be the man under center in Baltimore on September 9.
3) Is it time to showcase AJ McCarron?
- After the game, Sean McDermott snuck in a bit of information on AJ McCarron that is vital to consider moving forward. According to the head coach, McCarron was healthy enough to play against the Bengals should anything have happened to Josh Allen or Nathan Peterman, and that they believe he's healthy moving forward. And that, friends, is telling of where all of this stands moving forward. Two things are evident with the quarterback competition, even though the actual starter is not. The first, McDermott loves him some Nathan Peterman and has for a long, long time -- especially when the coach said to me one-on-one after the game that Peterman continues to grow and his "best football is ahead of him." Oh, by the way, McDermott said that with a slight but quite noticeable smile. The second thing we know is that Josh Allen is ahead of schedule and was on the cusp of breaking through to the starting lineup, which means he's competent enough -- and they're confident enough in him -- for him to be the backup at least to start the season. So, where does that leave McCarron? Peterman has outplayed him and seems to be preferred by the head coach, and if McCarron isn't starting, he'd likely be inactive on game days as the third string player. They surely won't make their rookie quarterback inactive on those game days. So, for all of those reasons, I believe the Bills have a unique opportunity on their hands to give McCarron as many snaps as he can handle on Thursday night in a game where he can shine, potentially to elicit trade offers from another team. Of course, this is pure speculation -- but it's also speculation based on logic. McCarron signed a two-year contract with the Bills at an utterly manageable cost, and with the lackluster backup quarterback play that runs rampant around the league, the Bills could find themselves in the position to capitalize on the market and add a mid-to-late round pick for McCarron's services. It makes perfect sense because the Bills wouldn't have a use for McCarron as their third quarterback, they could use that roster spot on a position that craves depth and other options, and they're able to divvy up the practice reps between the two quarterbacks that they have invested with their future employment. Heck, if McCarron isn't going to be the starter or the backup, why would he want to remain in Buffalo behind two young players that the organization invested in? It all adds up, at least to me. I will not be surprised, at all, if Thursday in Chicago winds up being a showcase game for McCarron.
4) Panic over the interior offensive line
- The struggles of the first-team offensive line just cannot be understated, especially when they were blocking for Josh Allen in the first half. It didn't matter what the combination was, and the Bengals found a way to bully or knife their way into the backfield almost more often than they completed a pass -- which is a concerning thing to see moving forward. It's a wise thing to not overreact to one preseason performance, but when that performance is coupled with the same thing the week before, that creates some distrust that the group won't be able to do the job well enough in the regular season. And with the offensive line, it's well-founded. The play of the whole unit and more specifically the interior of the line has raised significant question marks as the Bills march toward the start of the season. Ryan Groy had moments of both strength and weakness, Russell Bodine wasn't much better, and then the play of the guards sent flares from the minds of many fans into the sky. Vladimir Ducasse and John Miller, the two starting guards, couldn't get a handle on things in the first half. Miller took three penalties, allowed a pair of sacks, and Ducasse was responsible for at least one sack. We also saw the Bills rotating different combinations of that three-person unit in through the first half, which was done to prepare them in the event of injury to one of the starting players. However, don't expect to see significant changes between now and the start of the season. After the game, McDermott told me that he thought the play of the "starting five" was reliable up to tonight. The "starting five" portion of the response is especially important because that means the Bills aren't considering a change at the guard positions. Even though I've liked how Wyatt Teller has progressed through the summer, it doesn't appear the Bills are in any hurry to give him a shot for even pushing for a starting gig. For now, get used to seeing the five-person unit of Dion Dawkins, Ducasse, probably Groy, Miller, and Jordan Mills.
5) Vontae Davis struggling to hang on to his job
- Heading into the game, I wrote about needing to see how presumed starting cornerback Vontae Davis performed as a zone cornerback -- especially coming back from an injury that ended his season in 2017. Alarm bells rang in the first quarter when Bengals receivers ran right past Davis, and he looked too slow to catch up and make a play on the ball. To his credit, he had a good pass breakup in the end zone in the second half, but that was the only time he stood out for a positive reason. However, it appears the Bills haven't been happy with how Davis has performed. McDermott told me after the game that Phillip Gaines worked in with the first-team defense for the first time this past week in practice. It's something we hadn't seen at all in training camp, and now the Bills have yet another starting job up for grabs -- and one that no one expected given the contract Davis signed. Should Davis lose the job to Gaines, the minimal cap savings wouldn't justify letting a veteran player like him loose -- especially when they're hurting for depth at the position as it is. The more concerning point is that the starting cornerback opposite Tre'Davious White could wind up being a liability if one of those two doesn't step up. Keep an eye on this position. It's a sneaky weakness on this roster.
6) A glimpse of the contingency plan at running back?
- On Sunday, the Bills were without LeSean McCoy which certainly limited their offensive effectiveness, but it also gave us a look as to what the actual depth chart at running back looks like -- and especially if McCoy had to miss any regular season time. As the first half went on, there was a healthy substitution going on between only two players: Chris Ivory and Marcus Murphy. The Bills attempted to keep each of those players fresh, and it seemed to work, as the rushing offense was the most useful part of the attack. While we still don't honestly know what the running back rotation will look like with McCoy in the lineup for a full game, you'd have to assume that he gets the majority of time on the field. However, if he's not, it seemed like the Bills were content to platoon Ivory and Murphy -- the two players that have cemented themselves as the second and third runners on the roster.
7) Tremaine Edmunds settling in
- In addition to the running game, one encouraging sign for the Bills from this game was the ongoing progression of young starting middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. The first-round pick struggled some in his first preseason game, looked a bit better against Cleveland, and had his best game of the preseason against the Bengals. He looked much quicker to respond to running plays and trusted what he saw while going for the tackle, all while utilizing that long frame and plus-athleticism to get there. There are still some things I'd like to see him improve on, namely, when he's just reading the quarterback and the receivers around him while in zone coverage, but you can't ignore the strides Edmunds has made already. The young linebacker is trending in the right direction, which is a good sign for the Bills.
Bills MVP: TE Jason Croom
- Nathan Peterman was close to taking these honors, but I have to go with the young tight end that looks like he cemented a spot on the 53-man roster following his tackle-breaking and diving touchdown in the second half.
Bills LVP: RG John Miller
- Three penalties in the first half, two sacks allowed... yeah, things didn't go swimmingly for Miller on Sunday.
Up Next: A quick turn for the Bills, as they take on the Chicago Bears on the road on Thursday, August 30.
- As the Bills now go to their final stage of the preseason and are closing in on the decisions that will impact their 2018 regular season, it's essential to keep one thing in mind -- this is only one game, and it is still just a preseason game. However, the Bills have some glaring weaknesses that they must fine-tune before that first game in Baltimore comes around, and they need to do so in a hurry. Furthermore, they have to choose when they want to decide on their quarterback group because now there is a chance to help their future roster building if they come to a consensus sooner rather than later. I believe there is a clear opportunity to get McCarron a bunch of action on Thursday to try and bring on a trade, and knowing how the trigger-happy general manager Brandon Beane operates, I certainly wouldn't put something like that past him. At least for now, it appears we have a tiny bit of clarity as to what the quarterback depth chart might wind up being at the start of the season. Now, it's just a matter of how the Bills want to attack Thursday night's game in Chicago. Should they choose to rest both Peterman and Allen, we'll have at least a semblance of the answer we've been looking for over the past three months.