PITTSFORD — The Buffalo Bills’ offense opened training camp Sunday with nine straight “go routes” down the sideline in one-on-one passing drills.
A capacity crowd of about 3,500 at St. John Fisher College was buzzing as rookie quarterback EJ Manuel hit three long bombs, two to T.J. Graham and one to Marquise Goodwin, in the first two minutes of practice.
That was the highlight of Day One of the Bills’ quarterback battle between Manuel and Kevin Kolb.
Once the team went to work in 11-on-11 drills, the Bills’ defense got the better of the action. The offense wasn’t especially sharp, and it had trouble with the heavy blitzing tactics of the defense, which is to be expected in training camp.
• The offense did not huddle. It worked at an up-tempo pace through the entire 2½-hour practice.
• Kolb, the seventh-year veteran acquired as a free agent from Arizona, took the first snap of practice and got most of the snaps with the first-team offense.
• Kolb got 36 snaps, Manuel got 28, by unofficial count, in the 11-on-11 portions of practice.
“We’re working EJ in,” said coach Doug Marrone. “We’ll get the reps to 50-50. ... I don’t mean to be cliche about it, but there were some good things in it. Again, this is our first time throwing to receivers in a long period of time. We have to work on our timing. We had a lot of work pre-practice before we got into the team work. But again, we’re going to have to do a better job, receiving, throwing, protecting, and just work to get better.”
The receivers were excited to show off their speed early.
“We came out and said we’re all going to run go routes to set the tone,” Graham said. “We’re a different team, a different receiving corps. We’ve got speed to show.”
Graham got behind Justin Rogers twice for long catches. Goodwin got behind Nickell Robey. If Robert Woods hadn’t dropped a well-thrown Manuel ball, the rookie would have hit four straight deep passes.
But as the evening wore on, the offense looked much more like a collection of new pieces learning a new system.
In one 10-play stretch late in practice, there were four plays whistled dead by sacks, a flag for offensive holding and an interception by safety Mana Silva on a ball thrown by Manuel late over the middle. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine threw a good number of blitzes at the offense. Edge rusher Jerry Hughes, in particular, was a consistent presence in the Bills’ backfield.
“It’s a Catch 22,” Marrone said. “Our defense is showing us a lot of different things. We’re seeing a lot of different things. Once you get to game plan, it becomes a little bit easier. So for us to see those things now, we’ll just get better and better at picking it up.”
Manuel, the 16th overall pick in April’s NFL draft, generally did a good job of getting the ball out of his hands. Late in the session, he read the blitz and hit Marcus Easley on a short slant. He hit Brad Smith on a crisp, 12-yard out, too.
Kolb threw an interception over the middle to safety Aaron Williams. His best throws were a perfectly timed corner pattern to tight end Scott Chandler on the sideline and a deep ball to Easley down the left sideline.
The competition between Kolb and Manuel figures to be the focus of camp attention until the Bills leave suburban Rochester on Aug. 21.
Marrone didn’t make any prediction on when he would declare a starter for the season opener. However, he indicated he needs it settled shortly after the third preseason game.
“Really if you can get 10 to 12 days prior to that first game, that’s when you’re gonna get pressed for time to have to make a decision on the quarterback,” Marrone said. “Because that’s when you’re probably going to start preparing – 10 days out – for that first game.”