The Buffalo Bills have spent a good chunk of time every day in training camp on their red-zone offense, but thus far in the preseason games, it has not paid off. In the 19-16 loss to the Steelers Saturday, the Bills scored a touchdown on just one of four trips into the red zone, settling for two field goals, and failing once with a turnover on downs at the 3-yard-line. The only touchdown in the red zone came after the defense had forced a turnover and the offense took possession at the Steelers 16.
"We've done a lot of work in the red zone, so with all the work we've done, I was trying to see who's going to make a play for us down there this season, who's going to do that, who's going to force that situation, who's going to come up," said coach Doug Marrone. "In the two games we've lost, we've had a lot of opportunities. I'm going to credit the other team, they've done a good job, but we've got to be able to score more."
In the three exhibitions, the Bills have penetrated the red zone 11 times and scored only four touchdowns. Breaking it down, the first-string offense is now 0-for-5 and twice it was stopped on a fourth-and-goal play when Marrone eschewed the field-goal attempt. Overall this summer, the first-team offense has had 10 possessions and the results are four field goals, an interception, two punts, and three turnovers on downs.
"It was frustrating when we came off the field," quarterback EJ Manuel said after the Bills were stopped on fourth down late in the first half against Pittsburgh when his pass to tight end Scott Chandler was broken up at the goal line. "I even pleaded with coach Marrone to let us go for it on fourth down. I went to the right place with the ball, the defense just made a good play on it. The past two weeks, we've got to capitalize. We have to get that fixed before we play Chicago, we have to score in the red zone."
There are several things holding the Bills back. For one, the offensive line is a mess right now. Left tackle Cordy Glenn is still working his way back from a medical condition and has not played in any of the games, so rookie Seantrel Henderson is starting. At left guard, starter Chris Williams hasn't been very good, and now he's suffering from a back injury and was inactive against the Steelers, so Doug Legursky started in his place. On the right side, right tackle Erik Pears and right guard Kraig Urbik are nothing more than mediocre and are both fighting to hold onto their jobs, so the Bills are really having a tough time in pass protection.
And then there's Manuel. The second-year pro claims he's getting better every day, but it's tough to decipher what he's seeing. Manuel had trouble with his throwing accuracy as a rookie, and that problem has not abated this year. Rarely does he put the ball right where it needs to be, and too often his receivers either can't make a play on the ball, or have to turn their bodies or reach above or behind them to make a catch.
Against the Steelers, Manuel completed 17 of 27 passes for 148 yards, but of the 11 completions, seven were caught by running back Fred Jackson for a meager 28 yards, and four went to Chandler for 40 yards, 24 coming on one play when the Bills were in a third-and-27 and the Steelers were in prevent. Manuel threw only two of his 27 passes at least 20 yards downfield - one was incomplete to Robert Woods who caught the ball out of bounds wide of the end zone, and the other was a seam route down the middle to Chandler that Manuel underthrew for an interception.
"The interception, I went to the right place, I just need to get the ball up for Scott," said Manuel. "He's a tall guy, so I have to get it over his head and let him go up and make the catch. The whole night we had long drives, we just didn't capitalize in the red zone and the goal line."
--A case can be made that Buffalo has the worst quarterback depth chart in the NFL, and coach Doug Marrone might be starting to realize that. Asked after the loss to Pittsburgh if he was satisfied with the play of backups Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel, Marrone offered a terse "No." One word is all it took. Lewis served as the No. 2 quarterback, starting the third quarter after EJ Manuel had played all of the first half. Lewis compiled a 0.0 passer rating as he completed one of six passes for 18 yards with an interception. Tuel took over and went 5-for-9 for 48 yards, then lost a fumble on a sack with less than a minute to play that led to Pittsburgh's game-winning last-second field goal.
The Bills' coaching staff saw Lewis and Tuel play during the regular season last year when Manuel missed six games due to knee injuries, and they combined to go 2-4, but in none of those games were Lewis and Tuel a difference-maker. Both wins came in games Lewis started against Miami, and he was a combined 36 of 57 for 395 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The failure to sign a competent veteran backup quarterback could come back to haunt the Bills this season if Manuel proves to be injury-prone again. Then again, given Marrone's one-word response, the Bills may begin to scour the waiver wire to find a legitimate backup when teams begin releasing players.
--Wide receiver Sammy Watkins suffered a rib contusion on the Bills' first series of the game and his night was done. He appeared to be in pain when he left the field, but Marrone had almost no news on his condition after the game, and an update isn't expected until Monday night before the Bills resume training camp at St. John Fisher College. The injury seemed innocuous because it did not look like Watkins took a hit as he tried to catch a poorly thrown pass from Manuel, but obviously something happened.
"During the game it's difficult (to know what happened) because you're going and the momentum and the adrenaline is flying, so I don't think during the game you say 'oh,'" said Marrone. "I don't want to say worse than whatever, but if it's bad, that takes something out of it if he can't come back for a couple weeks or couple months."
--One player who could be in trouble is defensive lineman Alan Branch. He has been relegated to third-string duty in the preseason games, and he has not looked good in the games, or in practice. Branch joined the Bills in 2013 as a free agent and performed pretty well, especially when he became a starter after Alex Carrington was injured and lost for the season in Week 4. The Bills re-signed Branch to a three-year deal in the offseason, but Branch then skipped all of the "voluntary" OTAs and was present only for the mandatory three-day mini-camp in the spring. When he reported to training camp, he was out of shape and failed his conditioning test which cost him a week on the field. With the emergence of veteran free-agent signees Jarius Wynn and Landon Cohen, Branch is in danger of being cut.
"Yeah, I was pretty surprised," Branch said of not getting into the Steelers game until the fourth quarter. "That's coach's decision. That has nothing to do with me. I just have to keep on practicing and doing what I can to go ahead and try to make the team, I guess."
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Bryce Brown vs. Anthony Dixon at backup running back. The Bills have a strong 1-2 punch with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, but they added quality depth by acquiring Brown in a trade from Philadelphia, and signing Dixon as a free agent from San Francisco. Both Brown and Dixon have had strong training camps and preseasons as they battle for the third-string job. Brown has been the leading rusher through three preseason games, while Dixon has scored a touchdown in each of the last two games. Brown has more speed and a bit more versatility as a pass receiver, whereas Dixon has been a tough goal-line runner who can be an asset on special teams. It looks as if both will make the team, but it's uncertain at this point who would get the call if Spiller and/or Jackson were to get hurt.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--LB Stevenson Sylvester was placed on reserve/injured by the Bills Wednesday (Aug. 20).
--WR Kevin Elliott was waived by the Bills Tuesday (Aug. 19).
--T Edawn Coughman was waived by the Bills Tuesday (Aug. 19).
--WR Sammy Watkins suffered what was being called a rib contusion against Pittsburgh, and the first-round pick had to leave the game on the Bills' first offensive series. There was no update available Sunday on his condition.
--OL Doug Legursky was given the start at left guard in place of injured Chris Williams. Legursky shared that job last year and did not perform well, which is why the Bills went out and signed Williams in free agency. Williams sat out the game with a back injury.
--WR Marquise Goodwin continues to struggle with a hamstring injury and he was inactive against the Steelers. Goodwin is sliding further down the depth chart because he can't stay healthy.
--TE Tony Moeaki was again inactive due to a hamstring injury. If he can't get healthy, he may lose his roster spot to Chris Gragg, or possibly Dominique Jones.
--FS Jonathan Meeks is missing valuable time due to a neck injury. He's trying to make the team as a backup, but was inactive against Pittsburgh.
--CB Leodis McKelvin's summer of inactivity continued. He participated a bit in the combined practices with the Steelers, but he has yet to dress for a game as he recovers from offseason hip surgery. Coach Doug Marrone keeps saying the Bills have a plan for McKelvin, and he expects him to be ready for the season opener.
--LT Cordy Glenn is slowly getting back into action, but he's not ready to go full-bore in team drills and was inactive against the Steelers. The Bills still believe he'll be ready by opening day.
--RB C.J. Spiller, for some reason, was on the field deep for the opening kickoff, and he returned it 42 yards, but it was certainly a surprise that the team's No. 1 running back was in that situation.
--RB Fred Jackson had 13 touches in the game, six rushes for 27 yards and seven receptions for 28 yards.
--CB Nickell Robey made a beautiful interception against the Steelers as he read the play perfectly and cut in front of the receiver to make the play.
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