After taking a few small steps earlier this month, the Buffalo Bills took some great strides in improving their offense Friday night.
In their most impressive performance of the preseason, the Bills rode a pair of long touchdown drives to a 17-9 victory over the Chicago Bears before 41,684 at Soldier Field.
The Bills did a solid job of controlling the ball and the clock to score on two of their three possessions in the first half.
There were still some mistakes (four holding penalties), but that couldn't diminish the Bills' first win under Wade Phillips and the team's first-ever victory at Soldier Field.
"I am certainly excited about the way we played tonight," Phillips said. "I thought we took a step forward, and that's what we need to do. We need to continue that into the next ballgame and I think we'll be ready for the season."
Quarterback Rob Johnson looked as if he is ready to take the Bills into the regular season.
He completed 10 of 13 passes for 62 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He scrambled four times for 26 yards, but he displayed more poise and patience in the pocket.
"We did a good job tonight," Johnson said. "We had only three possessions (in the first half), but we took advantage of them and scored touchdowns. I'm ready to play, but it's nice to get two more weeks to practice before the season starts."
The running game, especially when rookie Jonathan Linton was carrying the ball, also did some good things.
For the second straight game, Linton led the Bills in rushing, with 55 yards on seven carries.
"I'm just going out and trying to make the most of my chances," Linton said. "Obviously, running back is my natural position and where I'm more comfortable. But whether it's running back or fullback, I'll do whatever it takes to make a contribution to the team."
Despite the holding penalties, the Bills' offensive line had its best game of the preseason. Although Johnson ran around a little, he enjoyed good protection most of the night.
"There have been a lot of questions and criticisms about the line, but we're out there trying to prove to ourselves that we can get the job done," said Jamie Nails, who made his third straight start at right guard. "We're just trying to get better every game. Tonight was a good start."
The Bears got on the board first with a 38-yard field goal from Jeff Jaeger on the game's opening possession, but the Bills answered with their best drive since the preseason-opener at Pittsburgh.
Following a 31-yard kickoff return by Kamil Loud, the Bills moved 69 yards on 14 plays, culminating in a 3-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to wide receiver Eric Moulds with 24 seconds left in the first quarter.
Johnson was sharp on the 8-minute, 8-second march, completing 5 of 6 passes for 34 yards and kept the drive alive with a pair of scrambles for 22 yards.
With Curtis Conway making a couple of nice catches against Bills cornerback Thomas Smith, the Bears threatened again the second time they had the ball. But a holding penalty nullified a 29-yard touchdown run by fullback Robert Chancey, and Jaeger missed a 43-yard field goal attempt.
Midway through the second quarter, a 28-yard punt return by Undre Williams set the Bills up in Bear territory at the 43. Johnson blew a sure touchdown by overthrowing Moulds on the first play, but he made up for it the rest of the drive.
On fourth-and-1 at the Bears' 23, Johnson crossed up the Bears and completed an 8-yard pass to fullback Sam Gash.
On third-and-goal from the 2, Johnson rolled out and fired a bullet to Quinn Early, who reached around the back of cornerback Tom Carter for the touchdown grab with 17 seconds left in the half.
The defense almost produced a touchdown on the last play of the first half. Nose tackle Pat Williams sacked Bears quarterback Erik Kramer, forcing him to fumble.
Linebacker Marlo Perry scooped up the loose ball at his own 45, but just as he was about to break into the clear, Kramer reached out and tripped Perry up at the Chicago 36.
Backup quarterback Doug Flutie got a chance to work some with the first-team offensive line. He didn't produce any points, but he was all smiles afterward after completing 6 of 7 passes for 49 yards.
"It felt nice," Flutie said. "You've got guys making plays for you and I was able to step up in the pocket."
Phillips was also impressed with Alex Van Pelt. In his first preseason appearance, Van Pelt guided the Bills to their other score, a 37-yard field goal by Steve Christie with 3:43 left in the game.
"Alex moved the team well," Phillips said. "He's such a good leader and his presence in the huddle makes a big difference."
Chicago had a chance to win the game late. A 2-yard touchdown run from Bam Morris cut the deficit to 14-9 with 9:15 left, but Erik Kramer couldn't connect with receiver Chris Penn in the end zone for the two-point conversion.
A last-minute drive engineered by backup quarterback Rick Mirer stalled at the Bills' 25, when Shane Doyle and Shawn Moran combined for a sack and Hardy Mitchell followed with another.