Bills vs. Steelers: 5 Things to Watch

Buffalo plays on Heinz Field tonight at 8 p.m. against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that dominated them last year, and has been perennial contenders in the AFC, a status the Bills would like to reach.

Here are five things to watch for when the Bills take the field:

1. Manuel taking great practice into the game

Wide receiver Mike Williams had great praise for Manuel’s performance at the combined practice session on Thursday.

ESPN’s Mike Roadk revealed what Williams told the media after practice (via Pro Football Talk’s Mike Wilkening:

In Thursday’s practice vs. the Steelers, the Bills’ 2013 first-round pick completed 17-of-22 passes in full-team drills, according to ESPN’s Mike Rodak. Perhaps more importantly, Manuel got a major compliment from veteran wideout Mike Williams.

“I told EJ, to be honest, my exact words were this is the best I’ve ever seen him,” Williams told reporters after practice, according to an interview transcript from the club. “I don’t think he threw an incomplete pass today. Everything was on time, we got everything we wanted. It was perfect. Coming out of our breaks and the ball is right there. It’s just the best I’ve seen him.

“If he keeps going like this, we’re going to be something to play with.”

Manuel, for his part, said he was pleased with his play, but he’s aiming to set a high standard at all times, not just on occasion.

“I thought I was consistent. That is something I want to continue to build on. Don’t let it be a one, a two, a three-day streak,” Manuel said. “Make it an everyday thing. It is a process. I am still going to continue to buy into the process.”


The performance of Manuel, along with the offense, was much better on Thursday than it was Saturday, according to Rodak:

Manuel’s performance in Wednesday’s practice was a hot topic before practice, when coach Doug Marrone called that day’s 11-on-11 reps the best he’s seen from Manuel in training camp. Marrone cited a 60 percent completion rate from Manuel in that session. 

On Thursday, Manuel topped the charts at 77 percent, so it’s safe to say it was by far his sharpest practice since training camp began over three weeks ago. Manuel was more accurate than he was Wednesday, while receivers had fewer drops than they did the day prior. 

The toughest test for Manuel this preseason is tonight against Pittsburgh, followed by the team’s return to Ralph Wilson Stadium next Saturday in the dress rehearsal game against the Buccaneers. His gain in confidence in practice to this high a level must extend into games in order to see how the offense could look when operated at its best in the regular season.

Bills 350 Cordy Glenn DZ

2. Young offensive line performance

Seantrel Henderson appeared to be the rawest product among the three offensive lineman drafted after being drafted in the seventh round, and Cyrus Kouanjio and Cyril Richardson were taken in the second and fifth round, respectively.

Henderson has filled in admirably for Cordy Glenn at the left tackle spot in both practice and games during Glenn’s absence due to a placement on the non-injury/illness list since camp began, and is still not fully back.

The Steelers have been known to rush the passer extremely effectively, especially from the outside linebacker spot in their 3-4 defense. However, they only registered 34 sacks last season, which was tied for 25th in the league.

Former second-round pick Jason Worilds and 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones are very good young talents who are capable of breaking out this season, and the Bills front five facing a 3-4 scheme will allow them to prepare for what they will face against divisional foes New England and New York.

Whenever guard Chris Williams has been hurt, Richardson has gotten 1st-team reps at one of the guard spots. Richardson could get some opportunity to prove himself as a potential starting guard for the team with good game performances in the next couple weeks.

Kouandjio has had struggles in both games and practice, and it reached a boiling point on Wednesday (via’s Marc Sessler):

Coming out of the Hall of Fame Game, Cyrus Kouandjio was the center of attention for all the wrong reasons.

The Bills second-round offensive tackle was a revolving door against Giants pass rusher Damontre Moore and roundly outplayed by seventh-rounder Seantrel Henderson.

We’re rooting for Kouandjio to turn it around, but his struggles continued Wednesday in Buffalo’s joint practice with the Steelers.

Tim Graham of The Buffalo News reported that the former Alabama star was “dominated” in line drills against Pittsburgh’s defensive front, leaving Bills position coach Pat Morris to drop the boom:

“You might as well be Venus de Milo,” Morris told Kouandjio, per Graham.

The rookie’s massive 6-foot-7, 322-pound frame gives him ideal size to hold down the fort, but Kouandjio has looked sluggish and methodical coming off knee surgery.

Kouandjio’s performance on Thursday helped to alleviate some concern and maybe give Kouandjio some confidence.

Henderson, Kouandjio, and Richardson have a chance to secure opportunities to play big snaps on the offensive line. How they perform against a Pittsburgh front seven that is hoping to bring back its dominant identity could decide their fate for their rookie season responsibilities.

3. Backup quarterback battle

Doug Marrone has said throughout camp that the backup quarterback spot is open.

Jeff Tuel has two touchdowns and two interceptions in the preseason, while Lewis has 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. Lewis has experience on his side, with five starts last season, including a pair of wins against the Dolphins and a near comeback win against the Bengals.

But Tuel has gotten stronger and quicker this off-season, and youth doesn’t appear to be something that will inhibit him from competing for the position. Thus, Tuel’s great accuracy (16 of 22)  compared to Lewis’ pedestrian marks (16 of 27) give the second-year signal-caller an edge right now, but Lewis can make his push tonight and next week to make a mark.

Either way, it appears that the team likes both players too much for the loser in the battle to be on the roster battle.

4. Third-down defense

Last season, the Steelers converted 8 of 17 third downs in defeating the Bills 23-10. While the defense sacked Ben Roethlisberger four times, he still found ways to escape pressure and found open receivers on important third-downs.

So far in the preseason, Buffalo’s defense has had some third-down issues. The New York Giants converted six of thirteen third downs (46%) in the Hall of Fame game, while the Carolina Panthers converted 10 of 17 third downs (58%), including four on quarterback runs in a game that Cam Newton didn’t play.

Kiko Alonso’s absence hurts in terms of covering running backs and keeping contain on quarterbacks, but there is definitely more to the issue. When the defensive line doesn’t get pressure or finish a potential sack situation, pinpoint passes by quarterbacks and open running lanes for signal-callers is enough to keep the defense on the field.

Some of it could also be some shifting in the secondary, as Leodis McKelvin has missed a lot of time in camp, and finding opportunities for four talented corners (McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore, Corey Graham, and Nickell Robey), along with trying to give young players like Ross Cockrell, Kenny Ladler, and Jajuan Harley reps could be giving some communication issues.

That being said, seeing some progress in ending possessions for the other team would be encouraging to see.

5. Young receivers vs. older secondary

While the Steelers secondary has gotten younger in the past couple of years with the additions of 27 year-old safety Mike Mitchell to replace 35 year-old Ryan Clark this offseason and 25 year old Cortez Allen opposite 34 year-old Ike Taylor, the Bills’ youthful talent at receiver could have a few chances to make some big plays.

Among the team’s top five receivers, Mike Williams is the oldest at 27, with the average age being 23.6 years. Sammy Watkins already showed his speed and agility in tremendous fashion against Pittsburgh’s defensive backs.

Even with issues forcing turnovers and sacks the past couple of seasons, Pittsburgh’s defense ranked 9th in pass defense last year and 1st in 2012. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has always protected his corners while having an aggressive scheme, so the Bills offense must take full advantage of any downfield passing plays, as they could be few and far between.

Besides a 32 yard pass from Manuel to Chris Hogan against the Panthers and one from Manuel to Williams from 28 yards, there haven’t been any other big passing plays from the first-team offense. Getting big plays through the air against a stout defense could be what starts to set a tone that defenses will need to fear Buffalo’s passing game.

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