While this Saturday evening's game will be the last real test for the Bills, the Indy defense certainly should not be the end-all-to-be-all guide towards the progress of the new-look Bills' offense. While the Indy defense finished 11th in yardage defense last season, they finished a below average 20th in scoring defense and have remained about the same from a talent perspective. This is a team that the Bills without question need to show some first team offense against given that 12 of the 16 games on the Bills' schedule feature scoring defenses that were ranked ahead of the Colts last season.
While preseason games are less important in terms of wins or losses, where they do factor into the mix in relevance is in how well the first teams play. The play of second and third teams is far less meaningful given that many of the players on the field will not even have jobs in the NFL in a week or two. It stands to reason then that how well the teams play with primarily those players is essentially meaningless and the points scored during those phases of the game also far less meaningful. The play of the first units however is an altogether different thing.
It is one thing if a team such as the Chiefs, who finished 2nd in yardage offense and 1st in scoring offense, struggle a little bit in the preseason. It is entirely a different matter when a team such as the Bills, whose last 14 game offensive scoring average was 11.0 points-per-game cannot manage to prove to themselves let alone the fans and media that they have improved at all in that woefully deficient area and one which will prevent them from improving at all if not even disallowing them to repeat a 6-10 season. Had the Bills played the way they did over the first two games of the season as they had over the last 14 the result would have been a 4-12 season.
Those arguing the contrary will quickly throw up the fact that teams generally play a more vanilla type of offense. There are three counters to that. First, "vanillaness" should have nothing to do with mano-a-mano performance of the individual players where the Bills have struggled in some of the more perennially problematic spots. This is especially true for players auditioning for first team duties such as those vying for the left guard and left defensive end spots. The second says that the "new look offense" designed to give Drew a push in the proper direction already figures to not have too many bells and whistles associated with it thereby rendering it somewhat "vanilla" to begin with.
The entire approach to this season was to simplify things for the 12 year veteran signal caller. It stands to reason that this will "simplify" the team's options as well as the approach that opposing defenses need to use. The third says that even if true, then the same can be said for opposing defenses who have even less reason to show anything beyond "vanilla" than offenses do.
Sure, the offensive coaching staff hasn't pulled out all the stops, but then again, this is a squad with which the first team offense has produced only six points on six drives, averaging fewer than 9 yards per drive in five of those six drives. Six drives are half a game. Six plus six, assuming a similar performance in six more quarters is 12, a full single point above last season's per game offensive scoring performance over the last 14 games of the season.
It is absolutely imperative that the Bills try to establish some momentum in this game vs. the Colts. If they do not, then serious questions need to be raised as to exactly how much this team has progressed through all of the coaching changes. For as it now stands, there have been absolutely no net changes to this offense from a player standpoint. The rookie Lee Evans, for reasons unbeknownst to fans and media, has not "stretched the field" as those leading the organization have stated that he would.
Is this to suggest that Evans will not have an impact on this upcoming season? No, not at all. But it does suggest that if he is not on the field, then his impact will be insignificant. Since he is the only change to this offense in a net sense with Chris Villarrial only having replaced Ruben Brown on opposite sides of the line simply switching offensive line issues from one side of the line to the other, it is a safe assumption that the only other place to look is coaching.
Why Evans has not been on the field is another issue altogether. I would suspect that it is because the rookie WR has figured out what 90-some percent of all other rookie WRs figure out in their rookie seasons, that the leap to the NFL does not bring with it the same jump in performance which is more common for top RBs or many defenders. Route running, a far more physical nature, and a simple speed differential are very often enormous eye openers for rookie WRs in their debuts. Either that or Evans is just so blazing fast that he is being reserved as a secret weapon with designs on tearing up the NFL this season.
I'll leave it to readers to decipher which of the two scenarios is more likely. Nevertheless, contrary to any notions that preseason games are meaningless, or that the players are not trying, or that the coaches do not care, I would suggest that if any of those things are true, and I don't believe that any of them are, then that stance be seriously altered for this game vs. the Colts.
The Bills absolutely need to show several things on Saturday. First, they need to show not only the fans, media, and rest of the league that they can actually put the ball into the endzone for the first time this preseason, but they need to show themselves this as well. If the first team offense is not capable of moving the ball vs. a very mediocre Indianapolis team, then they need to understand it when a cascade of fan and media criticism begins to befall them prior to the home opener sporting a defense far tougher than the Colts' sub par D.
Secondly, in addition to scoring, they need to move the ball for more than a single drive. Again, 42 yards of offense in five of six drives this season has not exactly put the nails into the coffin of last season's absolutely reprehensible offense. Getting set up at the Indy 8 yard line and punching it in on three straight runs against last season's unimproved 20th ranked rushing defense as the only scoring in the game is not going to get anyone whooped up.
Thirdly, one thing that went entirely unnoticed by Bills fans and media covering the team last season was that there was only one team with a balanced offense on the Bills' schedule last season and that team was Kansas City. The result, a 38-5 drubbing. Not one single team in the NFC East last season had offensive balance. Nor did a single team in the AFC South.
Houston struggled offensively all season long finishing 28th in scoring offense, 23rd in rushing offense, and 29th in passing offense. The Colts and Titans had excellent passing games but had the 19th and 26th ranked rushing games respectively with both of their primary ball carriers playing issue laden ball. Yet, with passing as their primary strength they shredded the strength of the Bills' D for 45 points, an average of 262 yards on 63% completions and two passing TDs by Billy Volek in his first start. It also happened to be James' fifth best game of the season after three of four better games vs. the Jets, Falcons, and Texans. The Jags finished 8th in rushing offense but struggled both with Brunnell as well as with a first time starting rookie up-and-comer at QB over the last 13 games of the season.
The two independent teams on the schedule were Kansas City and Cincinnati. KC was discussed above and Cincy was also a team under new leadership and undergoing a transformation between two rushers and had Jon Kitna finally putting his first solid season together. Even so, the Bengals finished a slightly above average in both offensive categories, finishing 12th in passing O and 13th in rushing O but not superlative in either. They finished 13th in both scoring and yardage offense. The Bengals have an early look as if they have improved however.
The AFC East also did not feature a single balanced offense last season. New England, the Jets, and Miami all finished a below average 27th, 25th, and 17th in rushing offense and Miami's passing offense finished 26th. None of the three finished among the top 10 scoring offenses and all finished below average in yardage offense.
This season, the Bills face a slate of far more balanced offenses. St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Cincinnati improved, New England via the addition of Dillon, and the Jets via the addition of McCareins and the return of a healthy Pennington, as well as even Cleveland's first team offense looking viable will bring better offensive opponents to the table this season. Just about all of those teams also feature very solid defenses to say the least.
As well, some of the teams not in that grouping feature top components to their offenses otherwise and/or superlative defenses. Baltimore has solid rushing and phenomenal defense, a championship tandem. Miami's defense still poses problems given the Bills' seeming continued inability to put the ball into the endzone coupled with their 0 and 3 point offensive performances vs. the Dolphins last season. With similar performances the Dolphins won't need a running back at all let alone having to worry about whether or not Travis Minor and Sammy Morris are capable. Oakland's defense is more than solid as well and if they can generate any offense whatsoever, the same stands for the Oakland game as for the Miami game.
Regardless, given this slate of better offenses, not so marvelous defensive performances against the lone three top-ten offenses that the Bills faced last season allowing an average of 27.7 points vs. them, notwithstanding the fact that only one of those three teams had a balanced offense, and the fact that the first team defense has been unable to stop Quentin Griffin and Chris Brown, Griffin who played on a very one dimensional team that evening to boot, from lighting up the Bills' rushing defense to the tune of what would have produced near 200 yards per game on an average of between 5 and 6 yards-per-carry, I would strongly suggest that perhaps the other thing to look for is whether or not the Bills can stop a very average Edgerin James from tearing up the turf at the RCA Dome.
James has averaged fewer than four yards-per-carry over the past three seasons and has never rebounded from injury three seasons ago. He has not had a single superlative season during the past three and has been reduced to being only an average running back as a result barring a leap in production this season upcoming. Regardless, the Bills first team defense should focus on stopping the running game as well lest this become a pattern set at the onset of a season during which the Bills likely face numerous of the top ten or twelve rushing teams this season, many possessive of outstanding defenses as well.
As well, the Bills only faced two of last season's top ten rushing teams. They were Jacksonville and the Eagles. The Eagles lit up the Bills D for 177 rushing yards with no premier RB on the roster. Fred Taylor for the Jags rushed for 57 yards on a 6.3 yards-per-carry in the first half alone but only had five carries in the second half due to a Jag scoring deficit dictating that they throw the ball. The Jags as a team had 83 yards on 5.2 YPC in the first half and a TD. Identical numbers in the 2nd half would have come close to equaling the 177 that the Eagles got. Those two teams were ranked 8th and 9th respectively with the Bills not having played a single team whose team rushing performance was ranked higher. In fact, the only other teams on the Bills schedule last season that finished among the top half of teams in rushing offense were Dallas, Cincy, and K.C.
My opinions that Drew Bledsoe and the unaddressed issues of the offensive line last season now having carried over into this season and on the fringe of worsening next season as a result of the imminent departure of Jonas Jennings are the root causes of this poor offense aside, the Bills' first team offense needs to demonstrate on Saturday evening that they are capable of moving the ball and scoring vs. an extremely mediocre Indy defense. That and their ability to stop the run vs. a team that is well below the rushing capabilities of the types of rushing teams that the Bills will be facing on their schedule this season will be the keys to this last meaningful preseason game.
Fans and media both are looking for the proverbial development upon which they can hang their hats on for hopes of this season being significantly better than last season. Does a lack of anteing up in these two areas necessarily mean that the Bills are destined to repeat last season's performance? No, absolutely not. But just as Missouri is informally called the "Show Me State." That name comes from Representative Willard Van Diver, who is attributed with inspiring this nickname and selected it due to its connotation of a very simplistic approach to telling-it-like-it-is and of a common sense first approach.
So as they say in Missouri, "Show me!" Otherwise, to borrow another maxim, "if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then..."