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PITTSBURGH – What a rough night for many of the Buffalo Bills’ starters.

An encouraging week of practice was dashed by a pedestrian performance in Saturday night’s 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

EJ Manuel sputtered at times again. Top draft pick Sammy Watkins got hurt. The first-string defense was beaten on two long touchdown strikes.

Manuel and Buffalo’s first-team offense played until halftime but, despite marching against Pittsburgh’s backups, failed to score their first preseason touchdown.

“Coming off the field, it was frustrating,” Manuel said. “I’m not going to lie.”

Manuel’s stat line looked decent. He completed 17 of his 27 passes for 148 yards. But he threw a bad interception when trying to connect with tight end Scott Chandler deep up the seam.

Eleven of Manuel’s completions were to running back Fred Jackson (seven catches for 28 yards) and Chandler (four catches for 40 yards) because the Steelers were dropping seven defenders much of the time.

Manuel conducted some decent drives in terms of possession time. Buffalo had the ball for 20:42 of the first half yet managed only two field goals.

“He put us in a situation where we were moving the football,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said, “and that’s what you want your quarterback to do. He put us in a situation where we could make the plays.”

Manuel spoke this week about how important it was for the first-team offense to score a touchdown, and Marrone apparently agreed. Twice late in the second quarter, Marrone kept his offense on the field on fourth down while in field-goal range.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the red zone,” Marrone said. “So my point was when I went down there, with all the work we’ve done and trying to see who’s going to make a play for us during the year and force that situation when it comes up, that was what I was trying to get done.”

Marrone sent Manuel and the rest of his starters back onto the field against some of Pittsburgh’s defensive reserves before halftime.

On fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line with 32 seconds left, a pass intended for Chandler was knocked down by safety Robert Golden.

“We’re very close offensively,” Manuel said. “Obviously, there’s still tons of work to be had until we get to that point, but I think we’re doing the right things.”

In three preseason games, Buffalo’s first-team offense has had 10 possessions. They’ve kicked four field goals, threw an interception, punted twice and failed on fourth-and-short three times.

“We’ve got to get that fixed,” Manuel said. “We have to score in the red zone.

“If we can score as a first group, that’ll help give us more of a cushion so the second- and third-team can relax a little more.”

Pittsburgh’s offense struck quickly. Ben Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown on a slant that turned into a 76-yard touchdown on Pittsburgh’s second play. Brown zipped behind Buffalo linebackers Brandon Spikes and Nigel Bradham, while safety Da’Norris Searcy took a bad angle that allowed Brown to sprint up the left sideline.

Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton beat top Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the left corner of the end zone late in the first quarter. Roethlisberger made a perfect throw for a 16-yard touchdown.

“That’s something that we’ve got to stop,” Marrone said.

Not all was ugly for the Bills.

Their run defense remained strong. They limited Le’Veon Bell and LaGarrette Blount to 11 yards on five carries. Throughout the preseason, the Bills’ first-team defense has given up only 29 yards on 15 attempts.

The Bills also were efficient on third downs, converting five of their nine chances.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com