On Sunday night, Buffalo showed how its new offensive weapons and 4-3 defense look in front of fans for the first time at St. John Fisher College.
There were some absences, as defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Alan Branch were on the non-football illness/injury list, along with rookie linebacker Randell Johnson and Kiko Alonso, and left tackle Cordy Glenn is currently not practicing due to a medical condition. Head coach Doug Marrone told the media before practice that Dareus would be “in shape” and “ready to play”, and believes any of the injured players can make up for lost time because of a longer training camp.
Despite those players not making an appearance, excitement and expectations couldn’t have been higher, as Marrone said the team’s goal is obviously to make the postseason. Marrone loves the annual beginning anew and fresh feeling that comes with training camp.
“That’s whats great about this game,” said Marrone. “Everyone’s heading into camp, everyone’s excited, everybody’s fresh. We’ve done some things so far as a team, with meetings and what not, we had a walk through this morning, it was great and we have to keep that same type of enthusiasm going.”
Marrone also stated that he is looking for more of the same from quarterback E.J. Manuel in terms of expectations, but wanted to see specific things as well.
“I have high expectations all the time, so I don’t know if I would call them different,” said Marrone. “I’m excited, (E.J.) looks good and confident, obviously it’s a better situation, last year we were explaining what the offense is and not really the ins and outs of things, this year we’re able to get more into the ins and outs of things, not just with EJ but with a lot of guys on the team with the system already being in place.”
Manuel showed his knowledge of some of the ins and outs of the offense, audibiling on many reps and throwing quick passes to wide receivers without a dropback when there was a cushion. He also found his newest weapon, Sammy Watkins a few times, including one on a perfect corner route by the rookie receiver and a quick slant connection.
“It felt good,” Manuel said of throwing to Watkins. “You really just want to get it in a spot for him to catch it and get some yards after the catch. That’s the biggest thing about a receiver like Sammy.”
Watkins said the pair connected “when we needed to”, and were “clicking today” because Manuel knew what the former Clemson Tiger was doing, and Watkins knew what Manuel was thinking due to the reps they’ve had. Watkins heard his name plenty from the fans, with chants of “Sammy, Sammy” being a constant.
“It means a lot,” said Watkins. “I came from a big Division I school in Clemson so we need our fans. That’s what moved me and it’s great to hear the fans calling my name out and being active while we’re practicing.”
Manuel was also able to use screen and swing passes to offseason additions Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon to a great degree of success. The signal-caller enjoys having more options at an already great running back core for the Bills.
“To add two backs like that, at running back, along with C.J. [Spiller] and Fred [Jackson], it doesn’t any better,” said Manuel. “I really think we’re loaded offensively at the skill positions. Each day we’ve got to just continue to mesh and get better.”
Manuel knows he needs to take a step forward this season, and show a progression from year one to year two in terms of both his skills and leadership of the offense.
“You don’t want to be the same guy you were as a rookie and I think my teammates can all account for that, just as far as how I talk to this,” said Manuel. “Obviously, that’s not me trying to necessarily be a dictator or anything like that, but I think it’s maturing in the offense and maturing as a man in the NFL. Going into my second year, I feel a lot more confident just communicating and making plays.”
The fan attention at camp was new for middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, as the practices he had the past four seasons with the New England Patriots were closed. Spikes said it was “good” to see fans to come out, and there is a great fan base in Buffalo.
Like Manuel, Spikes was directing his unit to be in the right spots, despite it being only his first year in Buffalo. However, Spikes believes the defense has a “long way to go” to perform at the level it is capable of.
“Like I said, it’s the first day,” said Spikes. “It’s small steps and we have to pay attention to detail. Our whole goal is to get better each and every day, to take advantage of these two weeks before we play our first game. We want to come out and play well and play at a high level.”
In two weeks, the Bills play against the New York Giants in the Hall-of-Fame game. Today was the first step toward preparing for game action, with plenty to be excited about, but also questions still needing to be answered.
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