The Buffalo Bills earned a victory last week over the Carolina Panthers in the first “official” preseason game, and this week the team will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for their third contest. Although the Bills were able to come away with a victory, the win doesn’t matter as much as what the players put on tape for the coaching staff.
The Bills still have a few starting jobs that appear to be open for the taking, while a handful of backup roles are also up for grabs. The Bills and Steelers are practicing together this week, which should bring out the best from both teams.
Here at BillsMafia.com, I decided to highlight some key position battles, players and storylines to follow against Pittsburgh.
Starting Right Guard: Kraig Urbik vs. Cyril Richardson
Kraig Urbik and Cyril Richardson are in serious competition for the starting right guard position. Urbik has started the first two preseason games, but Richardson has shown that he’s capable of going up against first-team defenses.
Urbik’s play (60 snaps) hasn’t been terrible, but he’s left a lot to be desired in the run game, which is where the Bills’ concern likely stems from. Richardson (52 snaps) has shown that he has the power and aggressiveness to consistently get a push in the run game, but his issues have come in pass protection, where he can be a bit of a waist-bender, which causes him to lose balance and fail to anchor against rushing defenders.
Keep an eye on the right side of Buffalo’s offensive line Saturday night, as we could see either Urbik or Richardson begin to run away with the job.
Backup Defensive Tackle: Stefan Charles vs. Landon Cohen vs. Corbin Bryant vs. Alan Branch
Last week, I wrote that Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Alan Branch are essentially locked into the top of the defensive tackle rotation. However, Branch was the sixth defensive tackle to get on the field last week against the Panthers.
Stefan Charles, Landon Cohen and Corbin Bryant have been playing their tails off, with each showing they are worthy of being considered for a job on the 53-man roster.
Landon Cohen has been exciting to watch, as the violent and aggressive defensive tackle has been dominating on most of his 54 snaps. Stefan Charles has gotten the longest look of the defensive tackles, making five tackles (4 stops) and generating three quarterback pressures in 67 total snaps.
This week will be crucial for the second and third-team defensive linemen to make a statement, as rosters get cut down to 75 players in two weeks.
Starting Strong Safety: Da’Norris Searcy vs. Duke Williams
Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams are battling for the starting strong safety position, and there’s no clear-cut leader in this race…yet. Duke Williams, the team’s 2013 fourth-round pick, has played 48 defensive snaps through two games, but his four tackles in 27 run snaps is second best among safeties, according to Pro Football Focus.
Searcy is more of a hybrid “in-the-box” safety, as he lacks great range. He makes up for his lack of range with great instincts, power and closing speed that allow him to make plays.
Both will make the 53-man roster, but it will be interesting to see which comes away with the starting job.
Pittsburgh Steelers Players To Watch
NT Cam Thomas/ DE Stephon Tuitt
The Steelers brought in Cam Thomas, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, to serve as the nose tackle in Dick Lebeau’s 3-4 defense. Thomas has been impressive by all accounts throughout training camp and the first week of preseason and should present a good challenge for interior linemen like Cyril Richardson, Chris Williams, and Doug Legursky.
Defensive tackle/end Stephon Tuitt was the team’s second-round pick out of Notre Dame. He’s a talented five-technique (3-4 DE) that should see most of his time against fellow second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio. Tuitt vs. Kouandjio will be the battle I’m watching most closely.
Note: I can’t wait to see Jarvis Jones vs. Buffalo’s first team offense so Ryan Talbot and I can get after each other again.
WR Martavis Bryant
Last week, the Bills defensive backs struggled with Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers’ 6’5” pass-catcher. This week, they’ll see Martavis Bryant, another 6’5” wideout that’s a lankier, more athletic version of Benjamin.
Bryant, a fourth-round pick, should see significant snaps this week, so it’ll be good to see how the Bills’ defensive backs can battle with a big wideout, something they’ve struggled with for the past few years.
What I’ll Be Watching From Buffalo’s Offense
EJ Manuel was very efficient against the Panthers, completing 9-of-13 passes for 96 yards. While he looked much better than he did in the Hall of Fame Game, I want to see him stay patient in the pocket and work through his progressions on post-snap read plays. Only seven of EJ’s 20 pass attempts this preseason have traveled over 10 yards, so I want to see him get comfortable with the intermediate passing game.
What I’ll Be Watching From Buffalo’s Defense
The front seven has been getting a ton of love over the offseason, but the secondary has a lot of question marks, particularly at cornerback. With Leodis McKelvin missing both games, Ron Brooks has stepped up and played well. I’ll be keeping an eye on Ross Cockrell, who hasn’t been able to make an impact from the nickel cornerback spot, as well.
In addition to the cornerback position, I’ll be watching rookie linebacker, Randell Johnson, closely again. Johnson has the requisite size and athleticism for the “SAM” spot and has shown flashes of potential. He’s played 51 defensive snaps, but his seven total tackles in 25 snaps against the run (2 stops) ranks him as the 5th-best run stopping 4-3 outside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus.
What will you be watching for in the Bills/Steelers preseason game? Let us know in the comment section.