They say the third NFL preseason game is a dress rehearsal for the regular season, a chance to see how the squad is coming along with the real games just a couple of weeks away.
If so, Saturday’s game in Washington was not an encouraging sign. The Bills looked like a bunch of nervous schoolboys who flubbed their lines at the mere thought of a real show. If Doug Marrone had been a high school drama teacher, he would have yanked them off the stage and regrouped.
The Bills were bad in every phase of football in a 30-7 loss to the Redskins. The offense was bad, running a hurry-up-and-do-nothing scheme.
Mike Pettine’s vaunted attack got counterattacked into submission by Mike Shanahan’s crew. The special teams were thoroughly ordinary.
All right, so it was a preseason game. They were down to their third-string quarterback, Jeff Tuel, by the end of the first quarter. Marrone now faces the reality that both EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb could be unavailable for the opener, forcing Tuel or Matt Leinart to start against the Patriots.
One game doesn’t nullify all the promise of training camp, and the first two practice games. But this should be a sobering dose of reality for all the delusional fans who were beginning to think the Bills could contend for a playoff spot this year.
You can’t gush over the two preseason wins and pretend this one doesn’t matter. The Bills were trying to go 3-0 in the preseason for the first time since 1966. I’m guessing that if they had won, some fans would have been mapping out the Super Bowl victory parade.
The third exhibition is generally the most significant. It tells you how ready your team is for the real games. It was against a Redskins team that made the playoffs a year ago and has developed a physical, aggressive identity under Shanahan, the veteran coach.
The Bills were exposed as a raw young team, not ready for prime time. Much will be made of the quarterback issue. It’s harrowing to think of Tuel going up against a Bill Belichick defense with the “real bullets” flying in Orchard Park on Sept. 8. Hey, it might be ugly if Manuel starts.
But as bad as the offense played (three-and-out the whole second half), it was the performance of the defense that was most alarming.
The Skins outgained the Bills, 452 yards to 155. They had 299 yards in the first half alone, including a staggering 14 plays of 10 yards or more.
Washington had 208 yards rushing, averaging a shade under 5 yards a rush.
They dominated the time of possession, 38:52 to 21:08.
Don’t cry for the Bills. The Skins were without their top two quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, from the start. Rex Grossman, a career mediocrity, alternated with Pat White, an ’09 draft pick who has yet to complete a regular-season pass in the NFL.
Go ahead. Blame the offense. It’ll be fashionable if they play at breakneck speed without sustaning drives. There’s always an excuse for the D. They were horrible last season, but people act as if adding a rookie linebacker turned them into some formidable unit.
It looked a lot like last year’s defense Saturday, without Nick Barnett and George Wilson. Oh, I almost forgot Jairus Byrd. After watching marginal NFL quarterbacks make plays down the middle against that secondary, did you get the impression that they might miss Byrd a tad?
The defense looked suspiciously like the one that got abused last season. Seeing obscure Washington runners cut back for big yards on stretch plays, I was reminded of the Patriots running through them here last year. Watching White make plays in the read option brought back memories of Russell Wilson waltzing into the end zone in Toronto.
Fans are giddy about Pettine’s attacking defense. It’s a refreshing change from Dave Wannstedt. But just because teams don’t know where the rush is coming from doesn’t mean they can’t make plays against it.
This is the NFL. There are no secrets. Teams have ways of using your aggression against you. Wannstedt wasn’t a total moron. One reason he played soft was because he didn’t trust his front four to get there, and wasn’t comfortable with the secondary’s ability to cover.
Attacking can lead to overpursuit, a defining quality of last year’s defense. Shanahan’s offense is designed to take advantage. Roy Helu, Keiland Williams and Chris Thompson popped through big holes. As we know, obscure backs salivate at the sight of the Bills’ run defense.
Losing Stephon Gilmore didn’t help. They’re in big trouble if Gilmore’s wrist injury is a long-term issue. Leodis McKelvin didn’t look like a starting corner. Justin Rogers didn’t distinguish himself. There seemed to be some miscommunication in the safety ranks.
It wasn’t all bad. Rookie Kiko Alonso continues to impress at inside linebacker. He plowed through a couple of running backs who were in pass protection. But Alonso is also guilty of over-aggression at times. It’ll be even more evident when he goes up against live offenses.
Nigel Bradham seems over his head as a starting linebacker. The Bills have some promising depth on the defensive line, but how good can it be if they’re giving up 200 yards on the ground? Oh, and it looks about over for Torell Troup. He’s simply not an NFL player.
This defense will give up yards and points in bunches again if the offense struggles. And it’s hard to imagine the offense producing at a high level right away. Manuel is ahead of schedule, but it’s asking a lot for a rookie quarterback to learn the ropes while playing at a fast tempo.
There’s a reason NFL coaches get conservative. There were already signs on Saturday. The defensive backs were playing soft. Tuel threw four passes on third down that were at least a yard short of the first-down sticks.
The new coaches have made a nice impression with the aggressive, attacking approach. In time, you find that it’s not so easy in the NFL. It’ll become even clearer in two weeks, when the curtain rises for real.