Written by John Sparaco
Although they were in uniform, Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and Von Miller did not take the field at Highmark Stadium on Saturday. Neither did most of the starters.
You might not have registered it at first considering the 79-degree temperature increase since the Buffalo Bills last hosted an opponent for a game, but on a fourth and goal from the one-yard line, the home fans rose to the occasion and made enough noise to cause the Colts to commit a false start penalty.
From then on, it was abundantly clear – football is back.
After trailing by two touchdowns with a little over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Matt Barkley and the Bills rallied to comeback and win by a score of 27-24, sealing the victory on a 46-yard field goal by Tyler Bass as time expired. The final outcome does not matter much when it comes to preseason games, however, it is interesting to note that the Bills have now won nine of them in a row dating back to 2018. That is the second-longest active streak in the NFL, behind only the Baltimore Ravens, who have won an astonishing 21 consecutive preseason games since 2015.
In what is very much a team sport, the preseason mostly serves as an opportunity to focus on specific individuals who are competing for limited roster spots and playing time. Leading into next week’s game, there are quite a few storylines to follow after what was learned in Week 1.
The 2022 Draft class is shining early on
Of the Bills’ eight draft picks from this year’s class, six of them made splash plays in their first taste of NFL action. Both rookie corners, Kaiir Elam (first-round) and Christian Benford (sixth-round), received the start on the outside, playing physical man-to-man coverage for the first two quarters.
“I’ll remember this game when I’m 90 years old,” Elam told reporters after his debut.
Each corner recorded two tackles and a pass breakup in their debuts. Benford, who has emerged as one of the stars of training camp, even caught the attention of executives from other franchises with his performance on Saturday. Cynthia Frelund, who was reporting from the Bills’ sidelines, tweeted that one GM and two additional high-ranking executives texted her during the game to ask if she thinks Benford will make the Bills’ roster.
Linebacker Terrel Bernard, who was drafted in the third round, recovered a fumble after a strip sack by Boogie Basham forced the ball out of hands of former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. He ran it back 69 yards, scoring the game’s first touchdown. Seventh-round linebacker Baylon Spector also excelled, finishing as the team’s leading tackler while also deflecting one pass.
Fifth-round wide receiver Khalil Shakir displayed his versatility, lining up in more than just the slot position. Shakir wound up catching five passes for 92 yards on five targets, finishing as one of the top statistical performers offensively.
Sixth-rounder Matt Araiza, who is competing with Matt Haack for the starting punting job, booted an 82-yard punt into the back of the end zone for a touchback in his lone attempt. That would have tied the longest punt recorded in the NFL last year, which ironically was kicked by former Bills punter Corey Bojorquez. Araiza, who earned the nickname “Punt God” in college for his powerful leg, didn’t waste any time to add to his highlight reel. The biggest question mark surrounding Araiza has been whether he can be a successful holder on field goals and extra points. He ended up doing the job successfully on every attempt, including the game winner at the end.
Only second-round running back James Cook and sixth-round offensive tackle Luke Tenuta had quiet days. Cook finished with five rushing yards on three attempts as well as five yards through the air on one reception. He also returned the game’s opening kickoff. Tenuta was pushed around quite a bit by the Colts’ front.
Turnovers were a problem
The Bills’ offense turned the ball over five times. Backup quarterback Case Keenum, who started the game for Buffalo, lost one fumble and threw two interceptions in the first half, one of which bounced off the hands of receiver Jamison Crowder. In his defense, Indianapolis played a good amount of their starters to begin the game, which Buffalo did not. Still, Keenum’s ball placement was off on several passes. Assuming Josh Allen does appear with the ones at some point this preseason, Keenum should have a better opportunity to succeed against the twos.
Matt Barkley also threw one interception and wide receiver Jake Kumerow fumbled once. Obviously, this is something the coaching staff would like to clean up next week.
One free agent addition made a loud introduction
A noticeable chunk of the Bills’ offseason haul did not play, including Von Miller, Rodger Saffold, Jordan Phillips and DaQuan Jones. However, one big signing did not waste any time making his presence felt on the field.
Tim Settle Jr., who was brought in on a two-year contract to strengthen the interior of the Bills defensive line, proved to be extremely disruptive during their first two series. He recorded two tackles, including one run stuff near the goal line. Perhaps even more impressive was how he bulldozed All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly on a couple occasions.
This “loud introduction” was fitting for a player who has been described by his teammates as one of the loudest talkers in the locker room, other than receiver Isaiah McKenzie. Settle’s energy has already made him a fan favorite and should make him a valuable asset towards setting the tone in the trenches this year.
One free agent addition was surprisingly quiet
Former first-round draft pick OJ Howard signed a one-year “prove it” deal with Buffalo shortly after the Von Miller news broke, pairing him with Dawson Knox in the tight end room. Howard, 27, tore his achilles in 2020 and saw his involvement in the Tampa Bay Buccanneers offense decline last year. Still, based off his past flashes production, fans were excited about the pairing of two very athletic receiving threats at tight end.
Finishing Saturday’s game with no receptions is not the most concerning part about Howard’s debut. The real surprise was that he played pretty much the entire game. Typically, players of Howard’s caliber do not appear anywhere close to the fourth quarter of a preseason game. Unless there is some other reasoning behind this that no one is aware of yet, this could be a strong indication that Howard is not a lock to make the Bills’ 53-man roster. Something worth monitoring in the next couple weeks.
Depth pieces made big plays
Entering his third season, running back Zack Moss was in need of a strong camp to re-establish himself in a position group that was addressed in both the draft (James Cook) and free agency (Duke Johnson). So far, he has proven to be more than ready for the challenge.
Moss, who has performed very well in practice this summer, carried that momentum into the first preseason game. He appeared healthy, arguably running with more confidence than we have ever seen from him at the pro level. Moss finished with 37 yards on three carries, at one point bouncing off defenders for a 27-yard gain. He also caught two passes for five yards.
When asked about his performance after the game, head coach Sean McDermott said he has been “very impressed with Zack” this offseason, adding that he has put in a lot of work on and off the field.
Isaiah Hodgins, a third-year receiver who has barely seen the field due to injuries in his young career, finally got the opportunity to prove himself. He played a major role in leading the fourth quarter comeback, finishing with nine receptions for 77 yards, flashing his route running ability and making some spectacular grabs along the way.
Backup safety Jaquan Johnson made a couple big plays, coming up with a key tackle during a goal line stand in the first quarter. He also intercepted a pass from Foles in the second quarter, returning it 32 yards deep into Colts territory.
Last but not least, undrafted rookie running back Raheem Blackshear out of Virginia Tech scored two touchdowns on the ground, adding another 60 yards on four receptions. He exited briefly due to an ankle injury but returned to finish the game. This will be a very difficult roster to make as an undrafted rookie, especially in such a deep position group. However, if Blackshear’s performance and display of toughness tell us anything, it is that he is not backing down from the challenge.
The first round of cuts around the NFL are due Monday. Rosters must be trimmed from 90 players down to 85.
Next up on the schedule, the Bills will host the Denver Broncos for their second preseason game on Saturday, Aug. 20 at 1:00 p.m. ET.