Written by John Sparaco
Although Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and most of the expected starters for the 2021-22 Buffalo Bills did not see the field in their preseason opener this past Friday, fans did receive a glimpse of the potential wreckage their new and improved defensive line can impose on opposing teams this season.
Buffalo invested a ton in their defensive line depth this offseason, bringing Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham, and Efe Obada into the mix. Added to a room that already includes Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, and AJ Epenesa, it is fair to say that position group is loaded.
What was especially striking in their preseason debut was not only the immediate and consistent pressure that was generated by the new additions, but also the way these players were utilized. All offseason long, many talked about how Rousseau and Epenesa have the versatility to kick inside. However, in the first game, it was in fact Basham and Obada that were kicked inside, while Rousseau and Epenesa played exclusively on the edge.
The possibilities are endless in terms of how the Bills choose to align their pass rushers, especially with so much depth at DE and DT. While a miraculous late minute fourth down conversion between QB Jake Fromm and WR Marquez Stevenson was the highlight that set up a 16-15 preseason victory, it was that dominant pass rush that may be the biggest indication of what is to come this season.
DE Greg Rousseau
It is only fitting to highlight the defensive end that had the most eye opening debut. When the Buffalo Bills selected Greg Rousseau with the 30th selection in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft, the consensus was that he would be a “project” due to him not having played last season in college. However, the player that everyone saw against the Lions has been the same one who has been turning heads all throughout camp.
Right off the bat, Rousseau’s remarkable length stood out immediately. Standing at roughly 6’6” with an 83 inch wingspan, Rousseau simply has an advantage that cannot be taught. Lined up across Lions rookie OT Penei Sewell, who many view as a “can’t miss” prospect, Rousseau gave his fellow draft classmate all he could handle right from the very beginning.
On the first drive, Sewell could not get his hands to Rousseau fast enough due to his rare combination of size and speed, as Rousseau overpowered him to record his first sack. Based on the entirety of his performance, it was abundantly clear that Rousseau is much further along than expected. The way things are trending, the rookie DE may very well have a much more immediate impact this season than most anticipate
RB Devin Singletary
Last season was a struggle by all accounts for Devin Singletary, but in his first preseason appearance, fans were able to witness the 2019 version of Singletary. The third-year back looked extremely comfortable on the field this past Friday, showcasing the burst and vision he once displayed as a rookie. Singletary found the open rushing lanes, gaining 42 yards on the ground on eight carries. Additionally, Singletary found the end zone on a wide open six-yard pass from QB Davis Webb late in the first half.
It was odd seeing Singletary play that late into a preseason game, but due to injuries to Zack Moss and Christian Wade, options were limited. If Singletary continues to uphold this standard of performance in the regular season, the Bills coaching staff should be very pleased.
LB Andre Smith
Among the many positional depth battles shaking out this summer, the backup linebacker competition has been one of the most competitive. Aside from Tyler Matakevich, who is as close as one can be to a “roster lock” for special teams purposes, the other two spots are wide open for the taking.
This spot could have gone to either Joe Giles-Harris or Andre Smith after both impressed on Friday, but ultimately it went to Smith for his additional contributions on special teams. Smith excelled in coverage, flying from sideline to sideline defensively. He even leapt into the air for an acrobatic interception at one point, but it was called back due to a questionable roughing the passer call against DL Efe Obada.
The competition between Smith, Giles-Harris, Tyrell Adams, and Tyrel Dodson has been neck and neck to this point. There is still too much time left to predict who will make the final 53, but Smith certainly helped his cause on Friday.
Bonus: The Kicking & Punting Units
Kickers and punters never get enough recognition for the job that they do, but when they put together a performance like the ones Bills Kicker Tyler Bass and Punter Matt Haack put together on Friday, they deserve praise.
Bass and Haack were essentially flawless on Friday night. Haack punted five times with an average of 44.2 yards per punt, pinning three of them inside the 20-yard line. Bass went 3/3 on his field goal attempts, drilling a 50-yarder as well as the game winner.
There are no extra camp legs to compete with this Summer, but if there were, it may not have even been a competition.
OT Bobby Hart
When it comes to Bobby Hart’s performance this past Friday, it is safe to say that it did not go well for anyone involved. It was a tough day for Hart, and an even worse experience for QB Jake Fromm, who was subjected to an overwhelming amount of hits as a result.
Hart was tossed around like a ragdoll by the Lions defensive line for the greater part of night. The moments where he was not getting forcefully thrown to the ground, he appeared to be overmatched by the speed of the edge rushers lined across from him.
Despite Hart’s inconsistencies in the past, it was startling to see someone with plenty of starting experience struggle so heavily against third and fourth stringers. Nonetheless, he will get an opportunity to redeem himself this week as he managed to survive the first round of roster cuts.
CB Dane Jackson
Appearing on the arrow down portion for the third week in a row, Dane Jackson’s struggles in the first preseason game continued to widen the gap between him and Levi Wallace for the starting CB2 job.
Jackson was not the only corner to have a disappointing evening. Specifically, Siran Neal and Rachad Wildgoose had a number of plays they would certainly like back. Even so, Jackson’s struggles were especially notable due to the performance of his direct competition, Levi Wallace.
Wallace displayed the consistency expected from a starter on Friday night, making the plays that came his way, including an impressive pass breakup in the end zone. As for Jackson, he was exposed multiple times in coverage, even missing a tackle, which is uncharacteristic for him.
There is no doubt that Jackson can contribute to the Bills defense in 2021, but it may be time to temper expectations of him breaking out right away.
OT Tommy Doyle
Tackle play was an issue all around on Friday night, and fifth-round pick Tommy Doyle was no exception to that. Doyle badly missed on multiple blocks, allowing one sack. He did have some good moments, but it was evident that the rookie needs much more time to develop.
The issue with the Bills is that, at this point, it seems that they do not have enough capable options to step into game action if either Dion Dawkins or Daryl Williams cannot play. They do have third-round pick Spencer Brown, who arguably had the best day of the backup tackles. He had a couple hiccups as a run blocker, but overall, he looked promising.
Outside of Brown, the Bills may need to explore the trade market and/or waiver wire for another reliable tackle. If that is the case, the plan may be to stash Doyle on the practice squad, unless another team poaches him on waivers of course.
The Bills’ second preseason game is approaching quickly, as they are set to take on the Chicago Bears this Saturday at 1pm ET. The main storyline will be Mitchell Trubisky returning to face his former team at Soldier Field, going head-to-head with their new promising rookie quarterback, Justin Fields. Before that, Buffalo hero Andy Dalton will see an increase in playing time along with the rest of the Bears’ starters, according to their HC Matt Nagy.
Once again, Josh Allen will not play this weekend. More starters are expected to debut though, including DT Star Lotulelei, who sat out last season.