While they certainly aren’t at the level that they want to be right now, the Buffalo Bills are making strides through their second preseason game, a 20-18 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, NC. This game showcased many of the reasons why some people around the NFL think the Bills could be a sleeper team in 2014. Unfortunately, it also showcased several factors that have led to their being a perennial doormat.
As might be expected, the Bills’ main strength last night was the play of their defense, which, even with the losses of Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso, was expected to be one of the better units in the league this season. Even though Panthers’ QB Cam Newton didn’t play a snap, Buffalo’s first-team defense outplayed Carolina’s starters. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Buffalo’s defensive performance was their stoutness against the run, an area where they have struggled mightily in the past. With Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Brandon Spikes, the Bills are as good up the middle on defense as any team in the league, and they sure looked the part in last night’s game. The Bills also displayed their ability to come up with big plays on defense by forcing three Panthers turnovers. However, Buffalo’s defense also gave up a big play of their own when Stephon Gilmore was beaten deep on a nice touchdown grab by Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Speaking of rookie wide receivers, the Bills have a good one of their own in Sammy Watkins, who finally got on the stat sheet with three catches. While the stats are not overly impressive, it is the way in which Watkins gets his catches that has the Bills so excited about his future. Like all great receivers, Watkins makes nearly every catch look effortless and the Bills will surely look to get him more preseason touches in the coming weeks. Quarterback E.J. Manuel also looked much better than he did in the Hall of Fame Game, making good decisions and throwing a couple of really nice balls to Chris Hogan and Mike Williams.
Much like Buffalo’s defense showed why they could be very good, the Bills’ offense showed why they could struggle this year. The Bills were once again terrible in the red zone, a concerning continuation of a trend that has been going on for a while now. While the Bills’ backups scored a couple of short touchdowns, their first team looked utterly lost close to Carolina’s goal line. It goes without saying, but you need to be able to get the easy points when they’re available if your offense is to be successful in the NFL. Thankfully, these red zone possessions are basically trial runs for the Buffalo offense. But if the Bills are serious about contending for the playoffs in 2014, they need to show that they can score when they absolutely must.