If you can take anything good away from the Bills’ preseason, it’s the scoring drives the starters have had.
Discounting the penalty that nullified the near-touchdown in the first game, Buffalo has put together a really nice looking drive by their first stringers in each of their four preseason contests.
These are well-orchestrated, largely no-huddle drives, and stand to show how Buffalo does have the ability to march right up the field with the weapons they have, be it against Pittsburgh or Detroit.
To quell the queasy stomachs of Bills fans who believe they might not have the team they thought they did heading towards the opener at New York, here’s a quick summary of each of those offensive TD drives.
Washington at Buffalo – 2nd drive of the game, 1st quarter
This was during the run-less stretch of 16 plays the Bills ran to start the first game. Buffalo recovered rookie phenom Robert Griffin III's fumble, resulting in a short field start at the Washington 21 yard line.
Though the first pass was incomplete, the second was a nice six yard pickup on a hook pattern short across the middle to Donald Jones (his first catch since week 10 of 2011 and the first of five preseason catches for a total of 66 yards).
This was followed by a false start penalty on Scott Chandler, but no big deal, as they’re on the 20 and still in scoring position, right?
Then, Fitzpatrick took a shotgun snap and delivered a quick strike to Steve Johnson on the left, watching number 13 take it 20 yards for the score, and the place went crazy.
Buffalo’s going to win the Super Bowl! The Bills scored on the second possession (albeit from just 20 out, off of a turnover)!! Everything’s going to be okay, Queen City faithful; curse lifted!
Unfortunately, CJ Spiller committed a ticky-tacky penalty, really just misplacing a foot, but the result was an illegal formation penalty that put the Bills at 3rd and 14, resulting in a bad throw behind Spiller on said third down, resulting in a field goal for three instead of getting seven points.
It was a theme for Buffalo that night, with momentum being just destroyed by penalty time after time, by both the first and second string, but it was still encouraging (and awfully exciting) to see Johnson get into the end zone, even if it didn’t stand.
Not a lot to take away from this one in the end, but that whole no-run first quarter was really more like watching a streetball game rather than an NFL one, with Fitz just calling the plays at the line and throwing willy-nilly. There was no organization, no planning, so… it was fun for a second, but we're moving on. 4 plays (no runs), 1:16, -4 yards, but almost something.
Buffalo at Minnesota -3rd drive of the game, 2nd quarter
A 49 yard field goal attempt by the Vikings failed and the Bills took over on their own 39, about to string together their first impressive series of 2012.
It began with CJ Spiller’s only positive run of the game, a five yard scramble off left guard (it was a pretty rough night otherwise, as Spiller ended with 2 runs for -3 yards, a reception for -5). It was followed by a nice short pass to David Nelson on the right, who took it for eight and the first down. Alright, now we’re moving…
This was followed by a penalty on rookie Cordy Glenn, a false start, another mistake on yet another promising start, a trend to this point still.
Next, a moment of near ecstasy almost went horribly wrong, as Fitzpatrick hooked up on a short pass to, of course, Steve Johnson across the middle, one Stevie deked and dipped with beautifully through the defenders for 17 yards, until he had it torn away by Chris Cook of Minnesota.
Enter, thankfully, Donald Jones, the receiver who was touting himself as the number two receiver before training camp even started and who has been working to prove his worth (and health) all off-season since. Jones was quick in both on his feet and in his reactions, scampering to the ball and diving on it before Robison or any of the other Vikings could get their purple paws on it. He wasn’t done.
After a confident, strong run by Fred Jackson for 20 yards, for the first time in 2012 something more in line with what Buffalo saw from him last year, we got one of the more inexplicably bad decisions by Fitzpatrick we’ve seen in his whole preseason, as he took a delay of game, seeming to not notice the play clock.
He made up for it, though, as he then found, oh yes, Donald Jones on a quick slant across the middle. Jones had sped past his coverage, brought the ball in securely in stride, and then stiff armed a diving defender to the ground on his way to laying out for a score, hitting the pylon as he flew out of bounds. It was 31 yards by a dominant looking number two receiver who is playing with a glorious chip on his shoulder after not being immediately acknowledged as the automatic second to Johnson coming in (they were even hyping rookie TJ Graham over Jones at one point).
It was electric, the kind of play you jump up and celebrate, and the perfect end to a great drive. Fitzpatrick distributed the ball around to three different receivers (3-3), both starting runners combined to go 25 on a carry each, and the mistakes of two penalties and a fumble didn’t rattle their march to the end zone. Good stuff, the first TD of the season, and the first time fans felt a pang of relief amidst the concern. 5 plays (all out of the shotgun), 3:13, 61 yards.
Pittsburgh at Buffalo – 2nd drive of the game, 1st quarter
The Steelers had gone three and out twice already (as well as losing rookie 1st rounder David DeCastro), the Bills had done the same once, but it was largely what fans expected from the Bills facing one of the top 5 defenses in the NFL (even without James Harrison in the lineup).
What they didn’t expect was another five play scoring drive, this one even quicker than the one the game before and featuring a heavy dose of Mr. Jackson.
Leodis McKelvin’s nifty punt return for 10 set Buffalo up on the Pittsburgh 49 and a quick run off the right end by Fred put them 15 yards closer just like that. It was followed by another run by number 22, this time to the left for eight. Jackson’s leg looked healed, his cut looked sick, and the broken leg of 2011 didn’t seemed to have any lasting effect on either his speed or his power for 2012.
After so much Jackson, it just made sense that Fitzpatrick’s next play was a neat play action pass to David Nelson, who just missed the end zone when he was pushed out by Troy Polamalu at the one following a Jones-esque dive for the left pylon (Nelson really is just as good as Jones). A quick pass to Chandler in the corner was incomplete, but it didn’t matter, because Fred Jackson himself took it in on the very next play, a one yard bull rush.
They looked like the 5-2 Bills, the ones who took down the Patriots, though it was, like the other games, pretty much the only good drive the offense had all night. Jackson had 24 yds and a TD on three strong runs, Fitzpatrick ran the play action to great success, completing a great ball to Nelson when the defense bit, and then Jackson powered it home for his first TD of the year, and all this against the Steelers starting defense (almost all of it).
The rest of the game was largely out of rhythm without much to shout about out of the first string starters, but this scoring drive was dominant, taking full advantage of good field position to just ram it right down the throat of the defense, with a good showing by the offensive line that saw big holes and great protection. It was fast, too. 5 play, 1:27, 49 yards.
Buffalo at Detroit – 1st drive of the game, 1st quarter
Coach Gailey had promised you’d only see the first team offense for about 10 plays, so it was awfully convenient to see them punch it in on the 11th one of a very impressively executed drive. It was also nice to see Spiller finally moving in the right direction after an underwhelming performance his first three games (6 runs, 7 yds; 2 rec, -3 yds).
Starting 1st and 10 on their own 17, Fitzpatrick made a quick hit to Jones on the right for five, followed by the first sighting in 2012 of the CJ Spiller drafted in the first round of 2010. He started with a run to the right for 11 that was followed by a scamper up the middle for nine, followed by a second first down run to the right for five more. His first three runs in this one, CJ had more yards than in the last three games combined (25 vs 7).
Another short hit to Jones on the right went for four and then Fitzpatrick found tight end Chandler for the first time since the Washington game (when Scott had the best catch of the preseason), gaining another 13 yards up the right sideline. This got moved forward another 15 yards due to Lions’ safety John Wendling, who deemed it necessary to hit Chandler out of bounds, pushing the drive to the 21.
Spiller up the middle for three. Fitzpatrick to Johnson for a fast 13 yards and a 1st and goal. Spiller again, this time for just two as the Lions’ goal line defense converged on him. It was followed by another Spiller run for the end zone, but the Lions defense (most notable Sou) was having no more of CJ, stopping him for -1.
No problem, Fitzpatrick just hit Steve Johnson wide open in the left corner, after Stevie put a sick little inside juke move on Jonte Green that nearly knocked him out of his cleats, allowing Buffalo scored an easy six to the outside.
It was a well-planned drive executed to near perfection with Fitzpatrick going 5-5 for 39 yards and scoring his second TD of the preseason. Two more encouraging signs were both the lack of penalties and the relieving re-emergence of CJ Spiller, making the Buffalo run game look all the more dominant combined with Jackson (who didn’t even touch the ball in this one).
Lots of Johnson and Jones, and a little Chandler, too, on another great drive against a top NFL defense, this one a time-eater. 11 plays, 6:38, 83 yards.
Looking at these drives, even the short, ultimately defeated first one, Bills fans have to be both thrilled and annoyed at the potential on display. If Buffalo can play like this, why such a beleaguered look to them so often the rest of these games? Are they holding back after these drives, or are teams figuring them out that quickly?
Sure, the preseason doesn’t matter and so you can’t read too much into an 0-4 scrimmage record (New England is, after all, 1-3 this year), but if Buffalo can continue to play like they have on the above drives and eliminate the penalties and turnovers that have so often killed them otherwise (simple, I know), they could have something here…
…especially if they can get some consistency on both sides of the ball (that defense just loves giving up soft yards in these games and the offense gets sputtery in response).
I know, big ifs, but at least the Bills’ backups began to show some life late in the Detroit game (especially near-cut QB Tyler Thigpen, touchback kicking specialist John Potter, and WR Marcus Easley, who had a 100 yard kick return and a two point conversion late, trying to making an argument to keep a roster spot tomorrow, even on the practice squad).
Now we’ll see who’s on the 53-man list Friday.