The Buffalo Bills preseason started with a loss at the New Era Field against the Carolina Panthers, 28-23. It was a pretty entertaining game, given the circumstances, with lead changes and big plays from both sides. Here’s my report card grading how each Bills positional group performed in the first game of the Bills’ season.
It looks like the Bills’ coaching staff has a real QB competition on their hands. Nathan Peterman started and looked sharp, executing the offense nearly perfectly. He made quick decisions, always delivering the ball at the tops of his dropbacks, avoiding the Panthers’ pass rush. His only incompletion happened on a check down pass on which he threw the ball a little bit behind Chris Ivory, but the pass was catchable and the running back dropped it.
AJ McCarron came in and kept up the level of QB play, moving the offense efficiently, and hitting his targets with good accuracy. He held the ball longer than Peterman but also pushed it down the field a bit more. The QB duo finished the day completing 16 of 20 passes for 235 yards, one TD, and one INT. That’s a statline that surely brings hope to Bills fans.
Josh Allen made his Bills debut on the start of the 3rd quarter, and it was a fun ride. He was always looking to push the ball downfield and kept plays alive with his legs. Allen did make one poor decision on a 4th down on which he refused to let the turnover on downs happen. The gunslinger threw an awful pass with a defender bringing him down, which was nearly intercepted.
Other than that, Allen shined with his live arm, completing impressive lasers all over the field. He finished nine of 19 passes for 116 yards and one TD, and added 29 yards rushing on three carries. His 47.4 completion percentage was poor, but it would have been better if not for a pair of drops. He showed enough to make me think about what he can do with a better supporting cast. Hopefully, we’ll see him playing a bit with the first team offense soon.
Running Backs: A-
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) August 10, 2018
Another positional group that really impressed. Without LeSean McCoy on the field, Travaris Cadet and Chris Ivory split the workload early, with the former on passing situations and the latter in more traditional running formations. Ivory showed good burst after receiving a check down pass and gaining 29 yards.
After those two, it became the Marcus Murphy show. The free agent pickup from last season was impressive doing a bit of everything and showing he’s ready to contribute in multiple ways. He was my player of the game.
Later in the game, rookie undrafted free agent Keith Ford also took advantage of his snaps and displayed good running and receiving capabilities. Veteran Taiwan Jones contributed only on special teams. That’s a position in which the Bills have traditionally found nice contributors, and this year, it’s not looking different.
Tight Ends: C+
Charles Clay started and played very few snaps, catching one pass for four yards. The entire group blocked really well in the running game. Jason Croom received one pass from AJ McCarron for 22 yards, and Khari Lee made a great play on a jump ball thrown by Josh Allen. But other than that, no one could offer consistent help in the passing game. Behind Clay and O’Leary, that’s a group that’s still fighting for spots on the 53-man roster, and none could separate themselves from the others so far.
Wide Receivers: B-
Kelvin Benjamin proceeded to catch an opening drive TD 👀pic.twitter.com/ME29BKmbrK
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) August 9, 2018
Kelvin Benjamin and rookie Ray-Ray McCloud were the bright spots here. The veteran played only the first drive and was dominant against his former teammates. KB13 hauled in his four targets, gaining 59 yards and scoring one TD. He also made a beautiful tiptoe catch down the sideline, showing off his freakish catching radius. It looks like Benjamin is really motivated to have a career year in 2018 and cash in this offseason.
Ray-Ray played mostly late in the game and was the only consistent target Josh Allen had, catching some impressive throws from the fellow rookie, including the first TD of their careers. McCloud also showed speed on a jet sweep and returned one punt for eight yards.
On the other hand, a pair of rookies had a day to forget. Robert Foster had a few opportunities to make big plays on Josh Allen bombs but wasn’t able to capitalize. He also struggled with a drop on an easy catch, the same problem that Austin Proehl had on a quick out route that resulted in a three-and-out. Both recorded zero catches on the game and will need to do better to have any chance of cracking the final roster.
Offensive Line: B
The first team OL did a nice job keeping Nathan Peterman clean most of the time but was definitely helped by OC Brian Daboll’s calls and the QB’s quick decisions. Vlad Ducasse committed a false start penalty, but other than that, the unit had a solid day. Ryan Groy received the first shot as the starting center and was his usual reliable self.
The second team unit allowed a sack on the very first AJ McCarron play, but after that recovered nicely and was able to protect the veteran QB. Wyatt Teller showed his strength on a couple of plays, and overall, this group was successful, especially opening rushing lanes for Marcus Murphy.
The 3rd team OL struggled, forcing Josh Allen to run for his life on several plays, but this doesn’t come as a surprise, as generally, the 3rd stringers have a hard time in game action. For a group that’s been a consensus big question mark coming to this season, it was a solid first showing.
Defensive Line: B-
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) August 10, 2018
Kyle Williams and Trent Murphy didn’t play, with Harrison Phillips and Shaq Lawson starting in their respective places and playing really well. Shaq looks revitalized going into his make or break year as a Bill, and Phillips showed his power stopping the run and recording his first NFL sack, taking advantage of a one-on-one opportunity.
Jerry Hughes played the first series and was quick to show he’s already in midseason form, beating Carolina’s LT with an inside move and almost sacking Cam Newton. If Hughes figures out a way to convert his pressures into sacks, look out. Newly-signed Star Lotulelei played sparingly too, not recording any stats, and Adolphus Washington failed to impress again.
The depth guys were unspectacular, doing a decent job against the run but not being able to pressure the Panthers’ QBs, with rookie DE Mike Love being the only exception. The undrafted free agent showed flashes as a quick edge rusher and looks like a sure practice squad guy at this point.
The trend continued here, with Lorenzo Alexander, Tremaine Edmunds, and Matt Milano playing few snaps before being substituted. They did a really good job against the run, but Edmunds was a bit too aggressive, biting hard on play action plays and missing a tackle on a third down play on which he tried for a big hit on shifty RB Christian McCaffrey, instead of just wrapping up and securing the stop.
Behind the starting trio, there were not many positive things to say. Deon Lacey replaced Alexander very early and was quickly caught on a mismatch against McCaffrey on a quick pass. Ramon Humber was targeted later on the same type of play, this time against CJ Anderson. Despite the group keeping a solid level of play stopping the run, they clearly struggled in coverage, and it’s clear the Bills lack depth at this position.
Defensive Backs: C+
If not for the really good play by Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and Tre’Davious White, this would be the worst-graded group. Poyer was all over the field, almost intercepting a poor Cam Newton throw, and White and Hyde were their usual selves.
Vontae Davis made his Bills debut and was solid, but allowed the best passing play by the Panthers’ first team offense, when he failed to track the ball and made the play on a back shoulder throw by Newton. Phillip Gaines didn’t stand out in any way, but behind this group, things looked ugly. Rookie Taron Johnson had a rough NFL debut, allowing completions the four times he was targeted, including one for a TD.
The other cornerbacks and safeties really struggled, allowing Carolina’s backups to shred them en route to the win. That’s another area Brandon Beane should be concerned about at this point; the Bills can’t afford to lose one of their starters or they’ll have big problems.
Special Teams: C+
Steven Hauschka was perfect on the day, hitting his lone field goal, a 26-yarder, and two extra point attempts. Colton Schmidt and Chris Carter were average on their three punts. The returners didn’t stand out, and the coverage team allowed a couple of dangerous returns, but nothing to be overly concerned about.
The Bills looks like a very well-coached team on both sides of the ball. The first team defense held its own against a dangerous Panthers offense, but what really impressed was how exciting the new offense looked under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
His passing schemes, featuring pre snap motions to help the QBs recognizing coverages, worked perfectly, and his running schemes better fit the types of offensive linemen the team has. He was also very creative and unpredictable on his play calls, making them difficult to defend. His call for a deep shot on Josh Allen’s first NFL snap was a plus — and hopefully a sign of things to come. It was a really encouraging first game by Daboll, and his offense was the biggest positive I took from this game.
We know from last season we can trust Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s defense; now it looks like the Bills found the right man to helm the offense, too.