COMMENTARY | Usually, the fourth game on the NFL preseason schedule is a formality.
Most starting-caliber players see only a small amount of time on the field, if any, out of the fear that they would otherwise get injured with so little time to recover before the regular season begins.
Unfortunately, for the Buffalo Bills, Thursday night's fourth game against the Detroit Lions has taken on an added level of importance. Due to the recent injuries to Kevin Kolb, E.J. Manuel and Stephon Gilmore, the Bills need to use this game to give a crash course to their potential replacements in order to prepare them for big roles against the New England Patriots in Week 1.
With that in mind, here are the three most important players to watch for the Bills in their game against the Lions:
The first one is easy. Kolb is out indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms, with a fear that his career is threatened. Manuel is rushing to beat the clock to return from a minor knee surgery and may not be ready for Week 1. If neither is healthy enough to play against New England, it is assumed that undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel will have to shoulder the weight of the starting position on his shoulders.
Because of Tuel's inexperience, and the daunting task of having to start the home opener against the Patriots, it makes sense to give him more time in the fourth preseason game than a team would normally give its Week 1 starting quarterback. If nothing else, giving Tuel increased repetitions in the final preseason game could give him an important boost of confidence. With this looming pressure, it will be interesting to see how Tuel is grasping the Bills' offense, even if it is a "vanilla" preseason version against the Lions' backup defense.
With Stephon Gilmore getting injured in the Bills' third preseason game against the Washington Redskins, Buffalo will be left without its best cornerback for as many as eight weeks. Although there is never a good time for news like that, it is especially troublesome considering Tom Brady will be lining up on the other side of the field in Week 1.
Since Gilmore's injury, it has been reported that Leodis McKelvin and Crezdon Butler have been getting the first-team reps for the Bills at cornerback in practice. For better or worse, McKelvin has logged significant time on the field for the Bills in the past few seasons and, at this point, is a known commodity.
Butler, on the other hand, is more of an unknown. Signed off of the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad last November, he has intercepted a pass this preseason and has generally impressed in his time on the field. Assuming he plays significant time against the Lions, it will be important for Bills fans to see how he looks in advance of being heavily relied on to slow down the Patriots' receiving corps.
If someone would have said last week that Matt Leinart would be a player to watch for the Bills in their game against the Lions, that person probably would have been committed. Yet, here we are. After the injury to Kolb, the Bills were forced to scramble to the waiver wire for insurance in the event that Manuel will not be ready for Week 1, as Tuel was the only other quarterback on the roster. Leinart appears to have been the best that the Bills could find, as he was signed shortly after the third game.
Leinart has done little of note since being drafted with the 10th pick of the 2006 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. The Bills will be Leinart's fourth team, and, in his six seasons, he has been almost exclusively a backup, tallying 21 interceptions to just 15 touchdowns.
It would be quite the stretch to suggest that the Bills should expect Leinart, who did not participate in training camp for any team, to perform so well against the Lions that he is thrust into a starting role in Week 1. However, if he can show a grasp of the offense and an ability to limit mistakes, it may make sense for the Bills to keep him on the roster going into the regular season, with the potential to leapfrog Tuel as Manuel's main backup (assuming Kolb remains out).
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Del Pearson is a lifelong Upstate New York resident and follower of the Buffalo Bills. He has been attending games since childhood and more recently writing about the team as a Yahoo Contributor.
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