What should you be looking for when the Bills face the Ravens in preseason game No. 3 tonight in Baltimore?
The reality is, this is your last time to see the first-teamers until the season opener Sept. 10 against the Jets at New Era Field. Next Thursday’s exhibition finale against the Lions in Orchard Park is merely the final opportunity for backups to earn a spot on the 53-man roster or on the 10-player practice squad.
Thus, coach Sean McDermott has announced that his starters will play a series or two into the third period before giving way to the reserves today.
The most urgent concern is at quarterback where Tyrod Taylor has been underwhelming in his first two starts, struggling with accuracy and timing. To date, Buffalo’s offensive starters have not scored a preseason touchdown … settling for a field goal in each game.
Of Taylor’s play, McDermott said, “One thing I noticed (early) was his leadership, and it hasn’t changed. He’s just about the first one in the building and one of the last to leave. From a head coach’s standpoint, I appreciate that, I know his teammates appreciate that. I feel like he’s more decisive, and playing more free within the offense. He’s developing some continuity and chemistry with his receivers.”
And, in fairness, Taylor’s struggles haven’t been helped by disruptions in the pass-catching corps.
No. 1 wideout Sammy Watkins was traded to the Rams, free agent signee Anquan Boldin opted to retire and trade acquisition Jordan Matthews has been hampered by a chipped breast bone suffered on his first play as a Bill.
When healthy, Matthews (who won’t play tonight) will start, rookie second-round draft choice Zay Jones has earned a first-team spot and veteran Andre Holmes (Cowboys, Raiders) has come on after a slow start.
But after them are journeymen kick-return specialist Brandon Tate, Philly Brown (Panthers), Dez Lewis, Rashad Ross (Titans, Chiefs, Bears, Redskins, Lions) and undrafted free agents Daikiel Shorts and Brandon Reilly. Former Alfred State star Rod Streater (Raiders, 49ers) is week-to-week with a toe injury, Jeremy Butler (Ravens, Buccaneers, Jets, Chargers) is in the concussion protocol and Walter Powell is suspended the first four games for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Tate, Lewis and Powell were with the Bills last season.
Of the situation at wide receiver, McDermott noted, “Just like every position, we’re evaluating our personnel … the best 53 for us to move forward into the season. We know what Jordan (Matthews) can do … he’s made a tremendous amount of progress over the last week. When you look at Jordan and Zay (Jones) and Andre (Holmes), they’re developing a nice chemistry.
“Who else is going to step up and show consistency? A couple other guys have done some good things as well so there’s some good competition at that position.”
LEFT TACKLE Cordy Glenn (foot) has made the trip, but likely won’t play against the Ravens with Dion Dawkins, Buffalo’s other second-round pick who’s been battling Jordan Mills for the right-side job, starting on the other.
And, the right guard competition between incumbent John Miller and veteran Vladimir Ducasse has yet to be settled.
The first-team defense has been solid, shutting down the Vikings’ and Eagles’ running games and permitting only a pair of field goals. The entire starting secondary is new, but has played well. Thus, the only real question on that side of the ball is whether Reggie Ragland, last year’s second-round draft choice who missed the season with a knee injury, will make the team. An inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, he doesn’t particularly fit in McDermott’s newly-installed 4-3 scheme and is rumored to be a trade candidate.
Of course, the most obvious problem for the Bills through two preseason games is penalties. There were 10 flags for 106 yards in the opener and a numbing 15 for 131 at Philadelphia. In all the Bills have drawn 34 penalties (22 against the Eagles) though seven were declined and two others were off-setting.
The volume of flags caused McDermott to bring in officials to work Buffalo’s practices.
“For us, it’s being mindful of our technique, mindful of playing in the rules, and obviously just managing what goes on during practice,” he said. “There’s flags on the ground so (it’s) visual, I’m hoping (with officials) being around on a day-to-day basis, (it) moves us in the right direction with respect to penalties.”
So what does McDermott expect from tonight?
“Overall, you want the roster to take shape, and the team to take shape, and we’re getting there,” he said. “What happens a lot of times, in this first year, there’s a little bit more loose ends at this point, where you’re trying to shape it, because there’s a lot of open positions that are being battled for. That’s healthy, and we want that every year.
“We’ll see a little bit more take shape (to)night, and you want to stay healthy to continue to shape it. That’s what we’re focused on right now … what we can control and how we play (to)night.”
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)