COMMENTARY | It is often said the third preseason game on the NFL schedule is the most important of all of the non-counting games.
Because many starters do not play much, if at all, in the preseason finale, the third game is generally considered the "dress rehearsal" that gives the starters one last chance to get ready for games that matter.
On Saturday afternoon, the Buffalo Bills visit the Washington Redskins for their third game of the preseason. There is added importance for the Bills in this game, as it will be the last real chance for the starters to get comfortable with new head coach Doug Marrone's system in a game setting before the regular season.
Here are the three questions that will be answered:
Can Kevin Kolb Impress?
The biggest storyline heading into the preseason for the Bills was the competition for the starting quarterback position between veteran Kevin Kolb and first-round draft pick E.J. Manuel. Through two preseason games, it appeared as though Manuel had sewn up the starting job with two impressive performances.
Things changed after the Bills' second game when the team announced that Manuel required a "minor knee procedure" and would miss the remainder of the preseason. Kolb is now in the prime position of being able to play his way into the starting job, regardless of Manuel's health. This has left many Bills fans less than inspired, considering Kolb's checkered history as a starting quarterback and his struggles in the previous game against the Indianapolis Colts.
How Kolb fares against the Redskins will go a long way toward both the direction of the quarterback position in the regular season and the general attitude of Bills fans. If Kolb looks good and grasps the offense, Marrone can afford to ensure that Manuel is healthy before he is considered for game action, and the fan base will gain a sense of relief. If, on the other hand, Kolb continues to struggle, the team may be more likely to rush Manuel back and, if not, the sense of optimism currently abound in Western New York may quickly fade away.
Can Stevie Johnson Jell With Kolb and the New Offensive Scheme?
No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson has announced that he will be making his preseason debut against the Redskins on Saturday. Johnson had been sidelined for the first two preseason games, and much of training camp, with an injured hamstring. Although one would usually assume that a starter should not be risking further injury in a preseason game, the Bills having a new quarterback and new offensive scheme makes it imperative that Johnson be on the field as much as possible.
Only time will tell whether Kolb and Johnson can develop chemistry, and the game on Saturday will be the first real test. If nothing else, superior route-runner Johnson seems like the perfect fit for Doug Marrone's quick-strike passing game, and it should be fun to watch him run wild in it.
A related question going forward is whether Johnson can get and consistently stay healthy during the regular season. It has seemed like he has been a permanent fixture in "questionable" status since emerging as the Bills' best receiver. Perhaps a strong performance against the Redskins would go a long way in catapulting Johnson into the regular season with momentum for Week 1 against the New England Patriots.
What Kind of Test Will the Bills' Defense Get?
The Bills' defense is also working to get comfortable in a new system, as new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has installed a pressure-heavy scheme. In limited action, the first-team defense has impressed, handcuffing both the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings. The defensive starters getting a final tuneup against a first-team offense is important, however, in no small part because Tom Brady and the Patriots are on tap to start the regular season.
Unfortunately, the Bills' defense may not get much of a chance to face an imposing first-team offense. Not only is Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III out for the preseason rehabbing his knee injury, more-than-capable backup Kirk Cousins is also banged up after coming down with a foot injury in the Redskins' second preseason game. In the likely event Cousins doesn't play, the Redskins will be left woefully thin at quarterback, with the bulk of the playing time likely going to Rex Grossman and Pat White.No offense to Grossman or White, but it is hard to say with a straight face that either will give the Bills' defense any real sense of comfort facing Tom Brady in Week 1 of the regular season. Hopefully, the Redskins at least give running back Alfred Morris some meaningful time so that the Bills can get experience against one of the top rushers in the league. Because without RGIII or Cousins, Morris is essentially the only thing about the third game that would prepare the Bills' defense for when things count.
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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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