Written by John Sparaco
Remember that one time when the Buffalo Bills scored touchdowns on every single drive against the New England Patriots during the AFC Wild Card game?
Of course you do.
Well, that team showed itself again on Saturday in a 42-15 win against the Denver Broncos. Yes, it was a preseason game. Yes, the starters only played briefly against Denver’s backups. Yes, they did punt once – although they more than likely would have gone for it on fourth and one had the team not been in the midst of a punting competition between Matt Araiza and Matt Haack.
That being said, the Bills showed what fans would hope to see from them given the circumstances. From Allen to Keenum to Barkley, the team scored touchdowns on each of their first six drives.
Once again, the final score of preseason games does not matter. The Bills have managed to win 10 of them in a row dating back to 2018, on the other hand, so no one can say they do not take these games somewhat seriously.
Almost every starter took the field at the beginning, with the exception of 33-year-old pass rusher Von Miller, who the Bills have been careful with this summer. The first-team defense appeared a bit shaky at first, missing some tackles and committing multiple penalties before holding the Broncos to a field goal on their opening drive. As for the first-team offense, well, they did not miss a beat. They marched right down the field into the end zone on six plays. That was the end of quarterback Josh Allen’s day, though the rest of the starters remained in the game for a bit longer to get some work in with backup quarterback Case Keenum.
By the time the clock hit all zeroes, Bills fans were able to go home with plenty more to be encouraged by than worried about.
Everyone left the game healthy
Almost all of Western New York let out a collective gasp when head coach Sean McDermott announced two days before the game that the Bills starters would play a “healthy amount” against the Broncos. Nobody wants to see anyone get injured, especially in a “meaningless” preseason game, but every team has their own strategies when it comes to preparing for the regular season. Buffalo rested their starters last week. Denver chose to rest their starters this week.
Fortunately for the Bills, it appears they escaped this one without any serious injuries. The only player to leave the game at any point was second-year cornerback Nick McCloud who got a laceration on his face but later returned to action after receiving six stitches. Although the final score of this game has no impact on the outcome of the regular season, staying healthy certainly does.
Josh Allen is still Josh Allen
It is safe to say that the player fans were most concerned about seeing in action this week was superstar quarterback Josh Allen. After all, Allen is the highest paid player on the team coming off his second consecutive MVP caliber season. He also has a history of showing little regard for his own safety on the field, rarely shying away from contact. It was evident that the coaching staff felt similarly cautious, pulling Allen from the game before any of the other starters on offense.
In case there was any doubt, Allen was lights out during his brief showing. The fifth-year gunslinger completed all three pass attempts for 45 yards, sealing his lone drive with a 28-yard strike to wide receiver Gabriel Davis after dancing around in the pocket. According to Next Gen Stats, the touchdown had an expected completion probability of only 21.6%. That same duo connected for four touchdowns and 201 yards the last time they saw game action in the AFC Divisional playoff game. Both players are widely expected to post more big time statlines in 2022-23.
As of now, it is unclear Allen will get extensive work next weekend like he did in Week 3 of last year’s preseason or if the Bills will opt to play it safe and place him in bubble wrap instead.
Case Keenum bounced back in a big way
Once Allen’s day was done, veteran backup quarterback Case Keenum got his chance to redeem himself from a frustrating outing last week. Against the Colts defense, Keenum finished 11-of-18 for 86 yards, throwing two interceptions and fumbling once. However, the overreactions to his performance were a bit unfair, given that he was running exclusively with the second stringers against the Colts’ first team defense.
This time around, Bills fans got their first look at what Keenum can do when surrounded by the starting offense, including superstar wideout Stefon Diggs, who he played with in Minnesota. Keenum finished the day 16-of-18 for 192 yards, leading the offense to touchdown drives on all three possessions. He threw one touchdown pass, connecting with tight end O.J. Howard shortly before the first half expired.
While Keenum does not have the athletic ability or arm strength of Allen, his veteran leadership and command of the offense is enough to give the Bills a chance to win in case of emergency.
All of the running backs are thriving
The Bills’ run game has been an area of concern ever since Allen arrived in Buffalo back in 2018. Despite the success of Buffalo’s passing offense, there is a valid argument to be made that the lack of a threat in the backfield can make a team one dimensional. Towards the end of last season, Devin Singletary took a step forward, emerging as a dependable option to move the chains. Still, Zack Moss’ struggles and the lack of a true receiving threat in the backfield limited what they could accomplish.
Enter James Cook, who was drafted by Buffalo in the second round to add a more dynamic speed threat into the backfield. After receiving limited touches last week, Cook receieved more of an opportunity to show what he can do against Denver. Cook rushed for 38 yards on four carries, smoothly gliding across the field while displaying excellent burst. He also had one reception for 12 yards to move the chains near the goal line, giving fans a taste of what he can provide through the air.
Singletary looked just as strong as he did down the stretch last year, making multiple defenders miss and finishing with nearly identical numbers to Cook on the ground, averaging 9.8 yards per carry. Moss’ strong summer continued, following up his touchdown from last week with two more against the Broncos.
The current favorites to headline Buffalo’s backfield during the regular season are Singletary, Cook, and Moss, however, veteran addition Duke Johnson and undrafted rookie Raheem Blackshear are not making the decision easy. Johnson, who also handled some kickoff returns for the second week in a row, rushed for 55 yards on nine carries, scoring two touchdowns of his own.
Every year, a new undrafted rookie makes enough noise to emerge as a fan favorite in training camp. This year, that player is Raheem Blackshear, and for good reason. The 5-foot-9 back out of Virginia Tech has all the tools of a successful NFL running back. He’s shifty, he’s tough, and he can hurt you in both the ground game and the passing game. For the second week in a row, he has broken off multiple chunk plays, ending the game with 79 total yards on seven touches. Not only has his performance caught the attention of fans, but also general manager Brandon Beane. According to Steve Tasker during the TV broadcast, Blackshear recently made a particular cutback during practice that really left an impression on him. Whether or not Blackshear cracks the 53-man roster immediately, he is definitely on his way to carving out his place in the NFL.
As a unit, the offensive line has performed well under new coach Aaron Kromer to this point. They have paved the way for each of these running backs to maximize their abilities, which is a promising sign for Buffalo.
Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson: Back like they never left
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and edge rusher Shaq Lawson last suited up in a Bills uniform during the 2019 season prior to training camp this year. Known for the abundance of energy they brought to each game, together they became fan favorites. Each player earned multi-year contracts that priced themselves out of Buffalo back then, departing to Arizona and Miami in free agency the following offseason.
Despite leaving, their relationship with their former teammates, coaches, and the Bills Mafia never wavered. When the opportunity arose for each player to return this offseason after their previous stops did not pan out, they did not hesitate to come back.
“Shaq, sign the contract,” Phillips stated during his first press conference back, just minutes before Lawson followed suit.
Neither player is being asked to start like they did the last time they were in Buffalo. Behind the likes of Von Miller, Greg Rousseau, and Ed Oliver, the two now offer valuable defensive line depth instead. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier likes to utilize a heavy rotation in the trenches to keep each player fresh late in the game, which should still give them valuable snaps.
On Saturday, Phillips and Lawson saw game action together for the first time this preseason and did not miss a beat. The two disrupted some plays, each finishing with a tackle for a loss. Lawson also batted down a pass on third down, ripping off his helmet near the sideline immediately after yelling, “I’m back” as sort of a reintroduction to the fan base. Phillips and Lawson both fired up the crowd, reminding everyone what kind of spark plug they can be for the Bills defense.
Another round of cuts is due by Aug. 23, with the roster set to be trimmed to 80 this time around. Next week will be filled with challenging decisions for the front office and coaching staff, as the final cut to 53 players will take place on the 30th. Players have one last game to make an impression, traveling to Carolina to face the Panthers on Friday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. ET.