Tonight's third preseason game for the Buffalo Bills is an opportunity to delve deeper into the summer of self-discovery before the first roster cuts are made. The Jacksonville Jaguars are merely another foil in this editing process.
Every aspect will be under scrutiny when the Bills meet the Jaguars at 7 tonight at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Background story lines include the availability of two key starters on defense: rookie end Marcell Dareus and linebacker Shawne Merriman, as well as the return of linebacker Paul Posluszny in his first trip to Buffalo since signing a free agent deal with the Jags in July.
"I can't give him too many props," Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said jokingly. "He's hurting for No. 95."
Of course, this is the preseason and the Bills will be focused much more intently on themselves than on whoever is across the field. The Bills may be without as many as four starters tonight, including Dareus, who has a bruised calf and sore ankle, and Merriman, who revealed this week he's been struggling with a sore groin.
Whether Merriman plays is almost beside the point. If, after seeing how Merriman's groin responds following one day of practice and a walk through on Friday, the Bills choose caution, Merriman is experienced enough to prepare himself for the season opener during the next two weeks of practice. Most of the others do not have the luxury of time. Receivers Roscoe Parrish (left calf), Donald Jones (head) and Naaman Roosevelt (right ankle), and linebackers Arthur Moats (leg) and Chris Kelsay (eye surgery) are all sidelined.
Coach Chan Gailey will make difficult roster decisions soon, and the Bills will devote much of this game to evaluating the starters.
"I just think there's 'chippiness' in preseason everywhere I've ever been," Gailey said. "Everywhere I've ever been there's been competition for starting jobs. That's the nature of our business. You have to go want it every time you walk out there. I like that part of it, to be honest with you."
The most compelling competition is at running back. Fred Jackson was told by offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins that he's starting tonight ahead of C.J. Spiller, who started last week's game at Denver. Gailey didn't show his hand when asked who will start because he didn't want season-opening opponent Kansas City to know but the usually easygoing Jackson let the Chiefs and just about everyone else know his displeasure about a possible backup role.
"We both push ourselves to try to be great and to try to help our team win," said Spiller. "Of course there will be some frustration that can get overshadowed, but there's nothing wrong with a guy forcing his opinion. There's no jealousy amongst me and Fred. I really didn't get involved with it. I come in, get my job done and then I go home and relax."
On the offensive line, Demetrius Bell will start again at left tackle and will rotate with Andy Levitre, who will start at left guard as Gailey tries to find some sense of balance to his troubling offensive line. Earlier this week, Bell began splitting reps with Levitre at left tackle because Gailey wasn't happy with Bell's performance in Denver. Depth is a major issue and adding to Gailey's woes is the fact that second-year tackle Ed Wang will miss the game with a shoulder injury.
"It's football, the most cut-throat business there is," Bell said, "so you have to live with it and take it in stride."
Because the starters will play into the third quarter, this may be their most critical game of the preseason because it will give coaches the longest view of where the team stands.
This is also another crucial test of the Bills' offense and pass defense. After seeing how the Jaguars moved the ball through the air against Atlanta with quarterbacks David Garrard, Blaine Gabbert and Luke McCown, the Bills' secondary can expect to face more pressure. The first-team offense, which has scored just six points in the preseason, is still trying to organize its maze of plays.
"We're moving the ball," Gailey said. "We just need to get in the end zone. That's the thing we haven't done."
The Bills officially announced the signing of free agent linebacker Kirk Morrison on Friday. Morrison has started 95 of 96 games since entering the league in 2005 and recorded 573 solo tackles, five sacks and seven interceptions. The Bills were in the market for an inside linebacker after Reggie Torbor suffered a shoulder injury and was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound San Diego State product was a third-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2005 and was acquired by Jacksonville last season. Morrison participated in the team walk-through on Friday but is unlikely to play tonight against his former team. Morrison will wear No. 58, the number worn by first-round bust Aaron Maybin.
Bills vs. Jaguars
At Ralph Wilson Stadium
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
Radio: 96.9 FM