Bills rally in fourth quarter to beat Colts 27-24 in preseason opener

ORCHARD PARK - His first impression certainly wasn’t a good one, but let’s put Case Keenum’s Buffalo Bills debut in perspective.

Yes, he was terrible Saturday night at sunny Highmark Stadium during Buffalo’s come-from-behind 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, but let’s remember who he was playing with.

It wasn’t Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie and Dawson Knox, it wasn’t Devin Singletary, and it wasn’t any member of the starting offensive line.

So let’s slow the roll on how bad the 34-year-old backup to Josh Allen was because he wasn’t exactly set up to succeed.

“It is preseason so you need to take it with a grain of salt knowing that it’s not quite as game planned of a call sheet that we normally have,” Keenum said. “I thought we did some good things and there’s a lot of stuff to work on and get better at as well.”

Keenum played the first half and completed 11 of 18 passes for 86 yards, was sacked twice, lost a fumble on one of those, and threw two interceptions. The first pick was half his fault - the pass was a little high, but it went off Jamison Crowder’s hands and right into the waiting arms Rodney McLeod, a ball he should have caught.

The second one was all on Keenum, just a terrible pass to the left side as he tried to hit Isaiah Hodgins in the red zone and threw it right to Colts cornerback Isaiah Rodgers. And on the sack/fumble, I actually thought his arm was moving forward and it should have been an incomplete pass, but the officials disagreed.

“That’s the number one job as a quarterback and I pride myself in being very stingy with the ball, so to go out and do that, that was uncharacteristic of me,” Keenum said. “I take full responsibility for all those.”

Obviously, if Allen were to get hurt for an extended period of time - let’s hope and pray that doesn’t happen - the Bills would have problems because Keenum isn’t even in the same universe as the quarter-billion-dollar man.

But the same thing can be said about every team in the NFL if it were to lose their starting quarterback. There are barely enough good quarterbacks to start in the NFL, and there are very few backups that anyone would want to rely on.

With an actual game plan, studying the opponent, and given the use of all the Bills’ first-line assets, Keenum would be a different quarterback than the one we saw Saturday. Not great, certainly not Allen, but not that bad.

“Case is a good football player, I'll start there,” coach Sean McDermott said. “I know he wants some plays back, I do too. I think that's true for our entire football team, right? This is one game, and it's a preseason game. There is a lot for us to learn from it. I know the result was the result and we win. That's great, but the things we can learn from this game, Case included, myself included, will benefit us as we move forward.”

Here are some other observations I had:

Matt Barkley enjoyed quite a night

There is almost zero chance (hopefully) that Barkley will play in the regular season because he’ll be the practice squad QB. So the preseason is his only time to shine, and he had a fourth quarter to remember, putting up 17 points to win the game after the Bills fell behind 24-10 early in the fourth thanks in part to an interception he threw deep in his own territory that set up a Colts TD.

Barkley made several high level throws including a pair of beauties down the right sideline, one to Isaiah Hodgins and one to Quintin Morris, both of which set up short touchdown runs by Raheem Blackshear.

He then took possession with 3:25 left and drove the Bills to Tyler Bass’ game-winning 46-yard field goal on the final play of the game. Barkley finished 18 of 24 for 224 yards.

“We had time and even under two minutes we still felt comfortable,” Barkley said of the winning drive. “We just needed to get in field goal range knowing that T-Bass would dink it in. So I think it was a good tempo, guys weren’t panicked, there was no look of rushing or anything in guy’s eyes.

“We practice those situations. We’ve worked on two-minute, our no huddle is often a part of our offense anyway, and so I think a lot of guys feel comfortable and we executed.”

Bills linebacker Terrel Bernard recovered a fumble and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.
Bills linebacker Terrel Bernard recovered a fumble and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.

It was a win, but it was sloppy

I know it’s the first preseason game, and every player who took the field was either a backup, someone who will be on the practice squad, or someone who will be cut. Still, the Bills were exceedingly sloppy in every area.

They had five turnovers, four of them in the first half - the two Keenum interceptions, his fumble, and a Jake Kumerow fumble in the open field as he lost possession after making a catch. In the fourth quarter, Barkley threw a bad short pass that went off Blackshear’s hands and was picked off by Sterling Weatherford at the Buffalo 17.

Offensive tackle Tommy Doyle had a 15-yard facemask penalty and a false start; Tanner Gentry wiped out a nice kickoff return by Duke Johnson with a holding penalty; and defensive tackle Daniel Joseph cost rookie Baylon Spector a 17-yard sack because he managed to throw a low block while playing defense, a 15-yard penalty; and Neil Pau’u wiped out another nice kickoff return, this one by Raheem Blackshear, with a holding penalty. In all, there were 11 penalties for 90 yards.

“Good win, good to see us come together a little bit as a team, play better complimentary football in the second half,” McDermott said. “Obviously, the turnovers and the penalties can't happen.”

Rookie cornerbacks got the start on defense

Christian Benford, the rookie cornerback who has had a solid training camp, started Saturday night against the Colts.
Christian Benford, the rookie cornerback who has had a solid training camp, started Saturday night against the Colts.

First-round draft pick Kaiir Elam and sixth-round pick Christian Benford were the starting outside corners with Cam Lewis in the nickel position when the Colts began their first possession.

Elam was a no doubter, and I suspect Benford started ahead of Dane Jackson because Jackson is in his third season, knows the defense, and he may be the frontrunner to start ahead of Elam if Tre’Davious White is back for the season opener.

But Benford earned this chance. He’s had an impressive training camp to date as he has held up pretty well in one-on-ones and then has made plays on the ball in the team portions of practice.

Late in the first quarter, the Colts went for it on fourth down from midfield and Benford was in man coverage against veteran Michael Pittman. Not surprisingly, Matt Ryan honed in on Pittman, but Benford broke up the pass to force the turnover on downs.

Earlier on that same series, Pittman went deep and Ryan was looking that way but Benford had him covered so he throw underneath.

Elam’s day was a little inconsistent, and even worse, it ended with him getting evaluated for a concussion late in the second quarter. Before that, he broke up the first pass thrown his way, was flagged for a pass interference penalty, and was in on two tackles.

Several rookies had nice performances

Besides Elam and Benford, a few other draft picks showed out.

Third-round linebacker Terrel Bernard had the Bills’ play of the game when he scooped up a Nick Foles fumble caused by a Boogie Basham sack and raced 69 yards for a touchdown. Later in the second quarter, though, Bernard was beaten badly off the line on a fourth-and-8 quick slant from the Bills 38 and Colts tight end Kylen Granson turned it into a 23-yard gain which set up Indy’s first touchdown.

Spector, a seventh-round linebacker who will be firmly on the bubble, gave the coaches plenty to think about. He was active in the middle of the defense with eight tackles, showed pretty good instincts for the ball, batted down a pass and had the sack wiped out.

Khalil Shakir, the fifth-round receiver, was productive all night and showed that he can operate from the slot as well as on the outside. He was targeted five times and caught all five for 92 yards. He was also deep on two punts, though he managed only four yards.

James Cook, the second-round running back, returned the opening kickoff 20 yards, but he had only five yards on three carries, and caught one swing pass for five yards in a pretty quiet debut.

And then there was punter Matt Araiza who uncorked an 82-yard punt on his first attempt. It bounded into the end zone, but still, it was a 62-yard net and flipped the field.

“Ideally, yeah, if that had stopped rolling that would have been nice,” Araiza said. “But we still had a good net out of it so I’m happy with it. It was exciting. It was definitely a new feeling being out there. This stadium is a lot bigger than the one I used to play in (at San Diego State). Just grateful things went well and what an awesome way to end the first game.”

Crowder played, Isaiah McKenzie didn’t

That would be an indication of where the battle for starting slot receiver stands because all of the Bills presumptive starters were on the sidelines for this game.

Crowder missed the first week of training camp and he needs time on the field, so that was also part of the rationale for playing him. But also, McKenzie has been terrific in practice and deserves to be the starter until Crowder can unseat him.

This is going to be a fight to the very end, though in reality, both players are going to get ample time in this offense.

Extra points

Bills safety Jaquan Johnson picked off a Nick Foles pass in the second quarter.
Bills safety Jaquan Johnson picked off a Nick Foles pass in the second quarter.

Jaquan Johnson picked off a Foles pass in the second quarter and returned it 32 yards to the Colts 15. Unfortunately, Keenum threw his second pick on the next play.

Zack Moss made a nice 27-yard run on the first offensive series as he was stopped on the right side, bounced it the other way and found open space.

Duke Johnson had two nice kickoff returns including a 43-yarder. His roster spot is tenuous, but if he can show something on returns, that would give him an easier path.

Hodgins has had two frustrating seasons of not getting on the field, and he’s still a longshot to make the 53-man roster, but he made a beautiful catch down the right sideline in the fourth quarter for a 27-yard gain that set up the Bills’ second TD, a short plunge by Blackshear. He finished with nine catches for 77 yards.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.To subscribe to Sal's new twice-a-week newsletter, Bills Blast, please follow this link:

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Buffalo Bills defeat Indianapolis Colts 27-24 in preseason opener