Bills vs. Panthers: What to watch for

Here are six things to watch for when the Buffalo Bills take the field tonight against the Carolina Panthers.

We’re hours away from seeing the Buffalo Bills take the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium in their first preseason game of the year against the Carolina Panthers. In the first week of the preseason, you generally won’t see the starters for more than one quarter, but there is still plenty to watch this week. Here are a few things to look for on both sides of the ball.

OFFENSE

Quarterback play

This is what Bills fans will really be focused on tonight. Matt Cassel will play with the first team offense, Tyrod Taylor will take the field with the second team offense and E.J. Manuel will be with the third team offense.

Cassel gets the first opportunity to prove that he can move the ball effectively with Buffalo’s first team offense. There are many people who believe that Buffalo’s coaching staff wants Cassel to win the job, but the job will come down to his play on the field. Cassel is certainly the game manager among the three quarterbacks and probably the best at reading defenses. Tonight is his first shot of showing that he can manage the ship.

Taylor has a lot of hype surrounding him and tonight Bills fans get a glimpse of him in action. Buffalo can open its playbook a bit with Taylor in the lineup. Look for the team to run the read-option when Taylor is in the game. While Taylor will probably have a few called runs and scrambles tonight, the focus should be on Taylor’s passing. Taylor has been Buffalo’s most consistent performer at training camp to this point, so it will be interesting to see how he fares this evening.

EJ Manuel is falling behind a bit in the competition, but he’ll have a chance to boost his confidence tonight. While Manuel will be out on the field with a lot of Bills players who won’t make the final roster, he’ll also be playing against a third string defense. There’s no excuse for Manuel to struggle tonight.

Offensive line play

Buffalo’s offensive line stunk last year. There’s no other way to say it. This year, they’ll need to be much improved to help get the run game going and give the quarterback time in the pocket. The main focus should be on the starting unit tonight. If they can open running lanes for LeSean McCoy and keep Cassel upright, it’ll be a step in the right direction.

While the focus should be on the first team, tonight is also an opportunity for other players to establish themselves as backups. Players such as Cyril Richardson, Tyson Chandler, William Campbell and others will be auditioning for key reserve jobs.

Use of tight ends

All we’ve heard all offseason is how Greg Roman loves to utilize the tight end position. Tonight, Bills fans get their first glimpse of the tight ends in action. Charles Clay is the biggest addition to the team, but there’s no telling how long he’ll see the field. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how involved Clay, MarQueis Gray, Nick O’Leary, Chris Gragg and Matthew Mulligan are in the offense. Buffalo has quite a few tight ends who can catch the ball, but I’ll be watching to see how all of them perform as blockers. The depth chart behind Clay should start to take shape tonight.

DEFENSE

Corbin Bryant vs. Stefan Charles vs. Alex Carrington

Bryant is expected to start tonight in place of Kyle Williams. Currently, he also has the edge to start in place of Marcell Dareus in Week 1. That said, Bryant has to show he’s the best man for the job and he’ll have to outperform players such as Charles and Carrington. All three players are very capable of handling themselves in spot starts, but whoever makes the most plays among the trio deserves to get the starting nod in Week 1.

Linebacker depth

Nigel Bradham, Preston Brown and Manny Lawson should see plenty of playing time this season, but what about the depth behind them? Ty Powell has been given plenty of praise this offseason, so he’s certainly a player to keep an eye on tonight. In addition to Powell, watch for players such as second year linebacker Randell Johnson, 2015 draft pick Tony Steward, UDFA A.J. Tarpley and Jimmy Gaines. The latter three names may be fighting for one roster spot.

Cornerback depth

Leodis McKelvin and Ross Cockrell are two cornerbacks you won’t hear from on Friday night due to injuries. Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby are expected to get the starting nod tonight on the outside and Darby may be the defensive player I look forward to watching the most. With Gilmore on the other side of the field, it’s likely that quarterbacks will pick on Darby. This will be good for Darby long-term and tonight is the first glimpse Bills fans will get of their top 2015 draft pick. It’s looking likely that he’ll start Week 1 against Andrew Luck and the Colts, so he’ll need all the reps he can get.

Behind the starters, some quality backups need to emerge. Mario Butler and Ron Brooks will probably be the second cornerback duo on the field. Butler has had a great camp to date, but his spot on the roster is far from a lock. Tonight is a huge opportunity for the cornerback and he could see plenty of playing time. Brooks is also on the bubble, a place he seems to be every year, but the early injuries at cornerback gives him a good chance of winning a roster spot. Behind the second string unit, keep an eye on Merrill Noel, Lavelle Westbrooks and Rod Sweeting late in the game. Sweeting has had a rough camp, so he really needs a decent performance tonight.


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