Young Bills taking their first shot at filling holes - The Buffalo News
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Young Bills taking their first shot at filling holes

PITTSFORD — Stevie Johnson is just as eager as Buffalo Bills fans are to see what their team will be in 2013.

And like them, Johnson will watch this afternoon’s preseason opener at the Indianapolis Colts on television.

“I want to see guys step up and make plays,” said Johnson, who didn’t make the trip to Lucas Oil Stadium because of a strained hamstring.

While a few thousand fans have seen the Bills practice at St. John Fisher College, the overwhelming majority of Western New Yorkers will get their first glimpse today. First-year head coach Doug Marrone and new coordinators Nathaniel Hackett and Mike Pettine will deploy some of their schemes. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel will start.

“What I’d like to see out of EJ and the rest of the players,” Marrone said, “I’d like to see them go out there and be very competitive. Go out there and win a game.”

Johnson won’t get to watch in person, but as one of Buffalo’s premier players, he’s curious to see how the roster will begin to sort itself out. Johnson guessed he would watch the game from the trainer’s room at St. John Fisher College.

“I want to see how certain players react to situations,” Johnson said. “I’m also going to look for the big play. I want to see the speed. Everybody has heard we have speed at receiver, and they want to see it. I’m no different.”

One player’s performance Johnson claimed not to be overly interested in is Manuel’s. Johnson delivered a remark that seemed to suggest the writing is on the wall for Manuel, the lone quarterback drafted in the first round this year.

“Week One, yeah, I’ll be like, ‘Let’s see how he do with this,’ ” Johnson said. “But in the preseason, I’m not really focused on whether he throws completions, incompletions or interceptions.”

Manuel might be starting because veteran Kevin Kolb didn’t practice for a week. Then again, perhaps Manuel would have gotten the assignment anyway, even had Kolb not hurt his knee or left the team to attend a funeral.

Marrone said Kolb will be in uniform this afternoon but won’t see any meaningful action, and that undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel would be the second quarterback. Kolb returned to practice Friday night but didn’t stick around for the entire session.

The quarterback competition, however, is far from over – Manuel must show he can handle an NFL defense – and far from the only position to monitor today.

With Johnson and Brad Smith absent from the lineup because of hamstring injuries, Buffalo’s young receiver group will get that many more snaps. Fans have heard and read much about rookies Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Da’Rick Rogers and the offseason development of sophomore T.J. Graham.

“I want to see them all make a play and come back here the next day excited and relieved from, ‘OK, I got my first snap in the NFL,’ ” Johnson said. “I want to see them succeed and then build from there.

“I want to see no mental errors from my group. Don’t look confused. Know what you’re doing and do it fast and make it happen.”

Left guard has been a focal point in training camp. Marrone expressed frustration last week that neither Colin Brown nor Doug Legursky had staked a claim to the job vacated by Andy Levitre.

Tight end is an unsettled spot. So are depth roles along the offensive line and in the backfield, particularly at fullback.

Fans should expect a beige playbook in the exhibition opener. The Bills don’t want to reveal all their philosophies before the regular season begins.

Established players such as C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson likely won’t see much action.

“I want to see guys like Kendall Gaskins move the ball,” Johnson said. “The ones that we know is going to be here? I’m not really worried about them. Hopefully, the other guys that are lower on the depth chart can make plays.”

On defense, recovering stars Mario Williams and Kyle Williams will see limited action if they play at all. Marrone already has ruled out cornerback Leodis McKelvin with a groin injury, and Justin Rogers likely won’t play because of a bad hamstring.

Pass-rushers Jerry Hughes (playing against his former team), Jamie Blatnick and Kourtnei Brown are jockeying for roster spots.

Aside from top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo’s secondary has been shoddy in coverage throughout camp. It will face difficult challenges against Colts quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck.

This afternoon rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso and free-agent linebacker Manny Lawson will also make their Bills debuts.

Indoor conditions could provide an opportunity for rookie kicker Dustin Hopkins to display his big leg. He clearly is stronger – and cheaper – than incumbent Rian Lindell, but Hopkins’ accuracy must pass the preseason test.


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