First Impressions – Bills @ Broncos

| August 21, 2011

Two of last season’s AFC also-rans met up in Denver as the Broncos and Bills continued their preparations to atone for poor 2010 seasons. The Bills made a bright start but failed to capitalize as the Broncos eventually got their passing game into gear despite getting out of the gate slowly.
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The Broncos’ defensive overhaul under John Fox is taking shape with some impressive displays but on the evidence of this preseason showing, both teams still have strides to make with a lack of defensive discipline and a moments of offensive timing issues hurting both teams.
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Buffalo – Three Things of Note
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●  For a team that had its share of problems on the offensive line last season, it was refreshing to see the Bills come out with an improved effort in the blocking department early on in this game. Facing a team that struggled up front defensively last season, the Bills really needed to seize the opportunity and did just that. Eric Wood had a pair of strong blocks on the opening drive and the excellent effort wasn’t solely reserved to the offensive linemen with Stevie Johnson also contributing on Fred Jackson’s first carry; holding his block on the corner at the edge to allow Jackson to get upfield for a solid gain. The Bills are in a division with some tough defensive fronts, far tougher than they faced from the Broncos on Saturday night, and they will need this improvement to carry forward into Week 1 and beyond if they are to make significant strides this season.
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●  One player the Bills seemed determined to give the ball to early and often was CJ Spiller. Whether as a ball carrier, a receiver out of the backfield, or even a receiver from out wide, Chan Gailey & Curtis Modkins were clearly making a conscious effort to put the ball into the hands of the former Clemson Tiger. The Bills made a hefty investment in Spiller last season and they need to know what they have in him. In Fred Jackson they already have one more than capable back of a similar type but Spiller showed in this game the sort of spark that could make him a real fan favorite in Buffalo with the ability to make people miss. The concern for the Bills fans & coaching staff could simply be how similar he is to Jackson and that neither of them really possesses that ability to be a downhill runner and grind out the tough yards. If the run blocking from the Bills line doesn’t improve then the pressure will be squarely on the shoulders of Spiller & Jackson to make things happen this season.
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●  Chan Gailey didn’t pull out the complete bag of tricks last night, but with a fake punt run on the opening drive and an array of screens, he wasn’t shy of giving his offensive players a full taste of the plan. While the screens were working reasonably well, the performance of his starting signal caller when running a more “conventional” passing game will have raised cause for concern. At times, Ryan Fitzpatrick showed some good timing in terms of drawing in the pass rush (which was, as expected, aggressive from the Broncos) but his touch, accuracy and timing with his receivers was noticeably off. Clearly the Bills still have time to work on this ahead of the season but Fitzpatrick’s play was a real bright spot in the Bills’ disappointing 2010 season and if they are to move forward you feel that Fitzpatrick will need to replicate that form. At least on last night’s showing, Fitzpatrick is some distance from doing so.
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Denver – Three Things of Note
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●  The selection of Von Miller has certainly caused a buzz in Denver this offseason. Where does he fit? How good a football player is he? Is there someone else who could come in and contribute more straight away? If you were looking for a perfect “scheme” match you may have looked somewhere else, but on the evidence of his performance against Buffalo on Saturday night, the Broncos have found in Miller a football player, plain and simple. The ability to use front seven defenders in a variety of places has become the fashionable thing and Miller showed an ability to make plays as a 4-3 end and as a stand-up linebacker against the Bills, a rare thing indeed. The consistency and the true judge of him will come in the regular season, but the ability to step straight in and blow past the still hapless Demetrius Bell – and then look just as at home sitting in a zone and closing on CJ Spiller for a stop short of the marker – should give Broncos fans some comfort that they may just have themselves a top-drawer defender to pull this team up from the depths of the AFC West.
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●  The Broncos’ offense really started to pick up on its second drive and Denver fans will have been heartened to see that the connection between Kyle Orton & Brandon Lloyd was not a one season wonder. Lloyd really came out of nowhere in 2010, showing the kind of catches, form & consistency that has been so desperately lacking to this point in his career. They connected a handful of times last night and Lloyd showed again a great ability to manipulate coverage and make defensive backs look a little silly. DBs seem to have a habit of not facing the ball when they cover Lloyd and he’s really started to use this to great effect, he works back to the ball on back shoulder throws as well as any receiver in the league and had no difficulty in making both Leodis McKelvin & Terrence McGee appear mediocre. With Eddie Royal still struggling to return to his rookie form (a regulation drop on 3rd down to end the opening drive sticks in the mind), the connection between Orton & Lloyd will be crucial if the Broncos are to be a threat and not simply use 2011 as a launch point for a re-built team around Tim Tebow in 2012.
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●  When the Bills were putting together such a nice opening drive, I had my concerns that despite bringing in John Fox’s great mind, the end result on the field for the Broncos’ defense was looking eerily similar to 2010. Defensive linemen were controlled far too easily and there was a lack of discipline in sticking with assignments in space. However, after that slow start, things tightened-up and the Denver defense started to put a bit of a brake on Buffalo’s attack. Denver has made some nice additions that, if Fox can get them to gel, should pay dividends this season. The addition of Miller could be crucial but adding in a contributor like a Broderick Bunkley along with getting players like Kevin Vickerson & Wesley Woodyard back into a 4-3 front to which they are more suited could be the catalyst that sees this defense carry its weight and turn the Broncos back into contenders.
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Hearing Vern Lundquist’s dulcet tones providing the play by play commentary for the NBC broadcaster in Denver was a welcome reminder that football – on both Saturdays and Sundays – is almost back with us. However, seeing the lack of timing in both passing games gave that same unsatisfied feeling of sneaking a peak at your Christmas presents before the big day, there’s a reason you wait until everyone’s ready to start. Both of these teams need a little bit more time to come together as units before they’ll be ready to hit the ground running after Labor Day.

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