You never get a second chance to make a first impression. If this holds true, then football fans in Toronto, Ontario won't soon grumble over offensive ticket prices. After Thursday night, they must feel like watching Buffalo Bills football is a bargain.
Coming into the Bills second preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only thing more offensive than the cost of a seat was the Bills offense itself. But the first-team offense, led by Trent Edwards, completely shredded the Steelers and their vaunted top-ranked defense of a year ago over the game's opening two series. They racked up 157 yards over 21 plays and controlled the clock for 11:38. Most importantly, the Bills scored touchdowns both times en route to defeating the Steelers, 24-21 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
The Bills will play the Miami Dolphins in a regular season game in Toronto on December 7.
Edwards completed 9 of the 11 passes he threw for 104 yards, including touchdowns of 13 and 7 yards to tight end Robert Royal. Considering the Bills publicized offensive woes coupled against a stingy Pittsburgh defense, this certainly wasn't expected. In fact, after the preseason debacle last week, some people wondered if Buffalo's offense would ever look good again. But against the Steelers, fans were treated to a first-team offense ran with such precision Joe Montana would cringe with envy.
OK, so it's a meaningless preseason game and perhaps as inconsequential as the Bills looking awful last week. But for an offense most think will struggle to score points, you take your victories whether it's August or January.
It wasn't just the offense that turned it up a notch. The defense played well in holding the Steelers scoreless during the two series the majority of the starters played, including an interception by Donte Whitner.
But as it can often be with Buffalo, the biggest play came on special teams when first round draft pick Leodis McKelvin took a kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown immediately following a Steelers score to restore Buffalo's 10-point lead in the third quarter.
Here's a look at how the Bills are shaping up by position following Thursday night's game:
Edwards didn't look good. Edwards looked phenomenal. His passes were crisp and well timed. He read the defense beautifully. He got through his progressions accurately and comfortably. But perhaps more impressive his best play came with his legs. On 3rd and 17 from his own five, Edwards failed to find an open receiver and felt the pocket collapse. He took off to the left and pulled his best Steve Young impersonation, scampering 22 yards for a first down on a drive that culminated with his second touchdown pass to Royal. This was definitely the Edwards offensive coordinator Turk Schonert will be looking for when the games count. Conversely, JP Losman showed why he's now the full-time backup. A week after looking great with the second team, Losman looked lost against Pittsburgh, including two sacks resulting from holding on to the ball too long. Matt Baker was third in the rotation but only threw two passes while Gibran Hamden mopped up and didn't throw any. The third spot remains unresolved.
There's only one person that may stop Dwayne Wright from holding the third spot on the depth chart – Dwayne Wright. He ran for 31 impressive yards on seven carries but lost a costly fumble for the second straight week, a stat maddening to head coach Dick Jauron. Fourth-round rookie Xavier Omon pounced on an opportunity in the final quarter, and carried the ball on 9 of the Bills last 11 plays. He finished with a team-high 44-yards on 11 carries. Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson both looked good in their customary roles.
Lee Evans had three big catches in the first quarter (55 yards) while Roscoe Parrish grabbed a pair (19 yards.) Something worth keeping an eye on could be Felton Huggins getting in the game before Steve Johnson and getting a lot more snaps. If the club keeps six receivers and Justin Jenkins is the fifth, the current depth chart could see Johnson suiting up for the practice squad in 2008. A bad special teams mistake and a holding penalty won't help his cause either.
Too bad Chris Berman didn't call this game, because we'd be hearing that all Robert Royal does is catch touchdowns. Maybe James Hardy isn't the only red zone threat for the Bills this season. Derek Schouman hurt his knee late in the first half and didn't return. Neither Derek Fine nor Courtney Anderson were thrown a pass. Anderson looks like the odd man out.
Until he eventually reports to the Bills, Jason Peters will continue to be the leading topic of discussion. But give credit where it's due, the Bills offensive line did a very good against a tough Pittsburgh defense. Holes were open in the running game throughout and the pass blocking was sufficient, especially when the starters were in. The lone first team mistake came when Steelers linebacker James Harrison blew past Langston Walker for a sack. Kirk Chambers held his own at right tackle. Duke Preston relieved Melvin Fowler at center after only one series, and played the entire second half at right tackle as the club tries to avoid having to sign another tackle.
The front four was far more active against Pittsburgh than last week at Washington. Chris Kelsay and Aaron Schobel didn't produce a sack but bothered Ben Rothliesberger the majority of time he was in the pocket. Marcus Stroud played two series and looked very strong. Chris Ellis had perhaps the defensive play of the game near the end of the first half. He used a perfect swim technique move around the left tackle to sack Byron Leftwich and force a fumble. He also made a rookie mistake on a 4th and 1 play by not containing the outside and allowing Dennis Dixon to go 46 yards for a touchdown.
If Ashton Youboty played his way into a roster spot against Washington, he was verging on playing himself out of one against Pittsburgh. He was burned by Santonio Holmes on a 40-yard touchdown and had trouble in man coverage the entire game. The fact he was on the field at the end of the game shows his spot could be in jeopardy, even though his final minute sack on Dixon was a huge play. Leodis McKelvin looked a lot better in coverage than he did last week and is starting to take better angles. Will James opened the game as the nickel corner. Reggie Corner was decent in coverage but is giving far too much a cushion off the line, a problem that seems to plague the entire secondary. Dustin Fox had good coverage on a play the Steelers attempted to go long on during his limited action.
Donte Whitner saw his first action of the preseason and had the game's only interception on the Steelers opening possession. He also had a nice hit in his only series of action. Ko Simpson looked very physical, while George Wilson, partially responsible on the touchdown play to Holmes, looked lost in coverage. Bryan Scott led the team with four solo tackles. John Wendling's play on special teams and his ability to make hits leaves the team likely to carry five safeties. Jon Corto stated his case with a couple of notable tackles on running plays.
If there was any doubt McKelvin is an explosive returner it was erased after the 95-yard touchdown return. This kid should carry a Louisville Slugger with him because he's all about the home run ball. While Wilson looked bad in the secondary he was a huge asset in coverage. Darian Barnes and Spencer Johnson played on the kick return unit. The only blemish was committed by Johnson, who inexplicably let a loose ball touch him inside the 20-yard line, setting up Pittsburgh's second touchdown.
A great game for Jauron to build off and it's sure to give confidence to a team that could use it offensively. Seeing Edwards play so good allows Schonert to expand on his playbook.
The negative was the play of the secondary. Perry Fewell has them playing too soft in coverage and they're getting beat too often in man coverage. Rothliesberger also completed 9-of-11 passes for 142 yards and had he played the whole game would have likely thrown for over 300 easily. The Bills must get better in their pass coverage and no one has stepped up in the battle for the third cornerback spot.