Here we are, Buffalo, on the cusp of the last preseason game of 2012 and the confidence level of the fans isn’t quite where they thought it would be.
Heading into the Detroit game Thursday night, the Bills are answering hopeful questions far too slowly for most.
Maybe the sports world is suffering from over-expectation as per Buffalo, but the facts are that some of these players need to step up in this last preseason game and show their fans something concrete to anchor those quickly escaping hopes to.
The only good news so far has been Fred Jackson (who seems to be getting stronger each game) and the starting defensive line (Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus are Pro Bowlers at tackle, with Mario Williams also finally getting his first two sacks last week).
But as for the rest of the team, it’s a little,well, rockier.
Here, then, is a list of four returning Bills players who need to raise their game in this last preseason opportunity.
Although starters don’t traditionally play too deeply into this last one, this quartet of players still need to be on the field long enough to ensure fans that all that money and offseason excitement wasn’t for nothing.
WR Marcus Easley
Though technically a “returning” player, now in his third year with Buffalo, Easley has yet to amass any regular season stats.
A fourth-round pick in 2010, the 6’2”, 220-pound, receiver caught a bad break with a knee injury during training camp his rookie year.
When healed the following season, he started off looking strong (seven receptions, 96 yards in two preseason games), only to discover he had a heart ailment and there went 2011.
This was supposed to be Easley’s season to step into the starting corps, to take that big body, good hands, and great speed (4.46 40 at the Combine) and become a solid bonus option for Fitz, but, unfortunately, Marcus hasn’t been showing fans the goods in his preseason work.
Coming into Thursday’s preseason finale, Easley has spent most of his time returning kicks, with five for 100 yards, but Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers (if he’s healthy) already seem to have that spot taken care of.
Otherwise, he has just two catches for 15 yards and seems to have been largely squeezed out of the starting receiver rotation. With T.J. Graham, Derek Hagan, and, of course, No. 2 Donald Jones looking so impressive to this point, Easley needs to have a career game against Detroit, no matter who is throwing him the ball (or how long they’ve been in Buffalo).
Otherwise, unlike the other names on this list, he could be cut by Friday morning.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
He isn’t the problem so much as it’s his apparent lack of rhythm with his receivers as a whole after three preseason games, especially his “main man” Steve Johnson.
Sure, Fitzpatrick hasn’t been setting the field aflame, but he’s made some good passes (a couple lasers, actually) in the preseason, put together a couple encouraging scoring drives, and hasn’t turned the ball over once (not that there haven’t been opportunities).
He was actually pretty good in his work at Minnesota, 8-11, 58 yards, and a TD, including the scoring drive, when he passed to three different targets and mixed in the run beautifully. The same with the TD drive on the Steelers.
Fitzpatrick is largely looking pretty comfortable behind the line, with good vision on the field and the smarts to throw the ball away, rather than take a sack (most of the time).
That being said, he’s still only managing 48.8 percent passing, going 21-43 for 188 and a TD, along with taking a so-so two sacks (the first on their initial offensive possession of 2012).
What’s more, many of his passes have looked good, they’ve just ended up going to no one as receivers are either running the wrong routes, or aren’t looking up when the ball is thrown their way.
In Chan Gailey’s quick release, rhythm offensive attack, this kind of miscommunication between quarterback and receiver just kind of kills the whole thing before it gets started.
This was the one thing that didn’t look to be a problem in 2012, as Fitzpatrick had seemed to find a closeness with his receivers in 2011, most especially Johnson, but other than some nice grabs here and there (both Nelson and Jones have some phenomenal catches thus far) that connection just seems to be tenuous at best.
In the end, it comes down to Fitzpatrick’s ability to command on the field, as he’s the one in the game who needs to focus his weapons, so the blame and need for improvement is in his lap.
Seeing as how he’s set to make the second most on the team behind Mario Williams in 2012 (and has already gotten $15 million in bonuses since signing his extension), his stats as a whole need to improve in a hurry, lest fans start to get more impatient with him than they already are.
CB Aaron Williams
Williams has just been getting abused in the preseason, from a slip and fall in the first game that changed a loss into a 12-yard gain, to Jerome Simpson of Minnesota just working him over the whole game for 43 yards on three big catches.
Thanks to the monetary stalemate between players and owners in 2011, Williams was robbed of an offseason his rookie year, but the Texas alum showed enough life in limited work (32 tackles, five deflections, an INT) to earn him the starting spot alongside rookie Stephon Gilmore coming into this season, especially in light of Terrence McGee’s continuing collapse and the release of Drayton Florence.
In the preseason to this point, though, Williams is just getting abused, as opposing quarterbacks continue to test his side of the field rather than Gilmore’s and to great success.
Williams has just five tackles in three preseason games, with no deflections or even a sniff of an INT. While rookies Ron Brooks and Delano Howell have been getting their hands on passes left and right, Williams is letting up big gains on soft coverage and mis-tackling all too often.
A second round pick, Williams has a lot of talent and had a huge game against Denver at the end of 2011 (five tackles, two deflections, and his INT), but if he’s to continue in his starting spot, his coverage skills need to improve.
Whether or not Gilmore’s out there with him, Aaron needs some major time on the field this last game, or else rookie footsteps might get too loud for coaches to ignore.
RB C.J. Spiller
What happened to the Spiller fans saw to end 2011?
You remember, the one who stepped in for the injured Fred Jackson in Week 12 of 2011 and ran for 446 yards and three TDs, including the first 100+ yard game of his career (111 yds and a TD against Denver, with 2 receptions for 27).
This was supposed to be the year C.J. stopped looking lost and became the lightening to Jackson’s thunder in the Buffalo backfield.
But, while Freddy has 61 yards and a TD on 12 carries, with another 18 yards on four receptions, Spiller has a whole lot of nothing.
The former first-rounder has begun to look adrift in the Buffalo offense once again, with Spiller rushing six times for just 7 yards… Total…
In the Minnesota game alone, it was obvious C.J. was moving in the wrong direction overall, with two carries for -3 yards and a catch for -5. In addition, his worth to the return game is quickly drying up as well with so many other options now available.
This season was supposed to be the one when fans could envision two 1,000-yard backs on their team, a year when it would look intimidating to see Fitzpatrick in the shotgun flanked by Jackson and Spiller, but if C.J. doesn’t start finding the player he was the last seven games of 2011, might the Bills be rookie running back hunting again come 2013?
Of all the names on this list, Spiller is the one who stands out most as a great player who needs stop being called a potential star in the league and start actually being one.
If these players start playing the way fans have been hoping for, the pressure crushing the Bills right now may begin to lessen and there might be some of that swaggering confidence by Week 1.
However, the one who should feel the pressure the most is Easley, as the others are likely still going to be in Buffalo even if they perform subpar in the preseason finale.
Here comes the season, boys, time to start bringing out the old “A” game, even if the starters don’t get as much time on the field come this one.