Doug Marrone made good on his promise to play his offensive starters Thursday night in the Buffalo Bills’ preseason finale.
It was a calculated risk, however, that might end up costing the Bills.
Rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, the team’s first-round draft choice, suffered a rib injury during the Bills’ second offensive series against the Detroit Lions at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills ended the preseason with a thud, losing 23-0 before an announced crowd of 57,247.
Quarterback EJ Manuel attempted to complete a slant route to Watkins, who was well covered. The pass was incomplete and just after the ball arrived, Watkins took a shot to the left side of his ribs from the forearm of Lions linebacker Ashlee Palmer.
The receiver didn’t go down, but seemed to grab at his ribs. Before the Bills could run their next play, Watkins’ teammates began waving for trainers to look at him.
He walked off the field under his own power and took a seat on the bench, where head trainer Bud Carpenter and Dr. John Marzo, the team’s medical trainer, examined him. After being evaluated for a few minutes on the bench, Watkins walked back to the locker room under his own power.
The Bills announced Watkins was questionable to return, before later downgrading him to being out for the game.
Marrone explained after the game why he wanted Watkins, who missed Saturday’s preseason game against Tampa Bay with a rib injury, to play at all.
“My goal was, and I said at the beginning of the week, that I wanted those guys to play together,” he said, referring to Watkins and Manuel. “One of the big questions is the quarterback with Sammy. They haven’t really played a lot in games. They played quite a bit in practice. But I think it’s different in games.
“Once the trainers cleared him to play, I was excited because he hasn’t really played now since the first quarter in Pittsburgh, and he didn’t play a lot before that because we were planning on playing him a lot in the Tampa game. I always get concerned when people come out. Especially when you’re a rookie, you’ve got to play. You don’t just throw them in there during the season. So we’re behind on that.”
Last season, Marrone rested most of his starters in the final preseason game. He opted for a different approach Thursday in an attempt to build some mojo heading into the regular season, but that didn’t happen. The team’s fifth preseason game followed the script of the first four – an offense struggling to find any momentum and a solid effort by the starters on defense.
Manuel led three drives, with none of them resulting in points. He finished 3 of 7 for 56 yards. His first pass of the night was his best – a 16-yard completion to Robert Woods on the first play from scrimmage. He also converted a third-and-14 situation with a short pass to Fred Jackson in the left flat that went for 20 yards on the opening drive.
Manuel, though, was sacked twice on the drive, including on a third-and-10 play from the Detroit 48-yard line. Running back C.J. Spiller carried twice during the series, for minus-3 yards.
The running game in particular looked stuck during the starting offense’s three possessions. On five carries – Spiller’s two and three by Bryce Brown – the running game accounted for minus-1 yard.
While the offense sputtered, the Bills’ defense looked good, forcing a pair of three-and-outs by the Lions in the first quarter.
Manuel and Co., however, couldn’t generate any points on their third and final series. After a fortuitous bounce landed in the hands of Woods for a 20-yard gain and a pass interference call against Detroit gave the Bills the ball at the Lions’ 42-yard line, the drive sputtered out. Brown ran twice for a loss of 2 yards and Manuel couldn’t connect with Woods on third down.
That forced Brian Moorman’s third punt of the first quarter – the net average of which was less than 32 yards.
After Manuel exited, newly signed Jordan Palmer saw his first action as a member of the Bills. Things did not get any better. Palmer’s sixth pass was thrown behind receiver T.J. Graham, leading to an easy interception for Lions safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. It was the first of three interceptions for Palmer, who played the final three quarters and finished the game 9 of 22 for 73 yards. He was sacked twice.
Palmer’s first interception set up the Lions’ first touchdown, which came on a 1-yard pass from Kellen Moore to receiver Jeremy Ross and gave Detroit a 10-0 lead. Detroit made it 17-0 just before halftime on a 25-yard throw from Moore to receiver Corey Fuller.
For the second straight game, the crowd in the Ralph showered the home team with boos as it made its way to the locker room.
The Lions sat 11 starters – seven on offense and four on defense – including star quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Reggie Bush, wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
The Bills sat cornerbacks Corey Graham (ankle) and Stephon Gilmore (groin), along with tight end Scott Chandler (knee). Tight ends Tony Moeaki (hamstring) and Lee Smith (toe), left guard Chris Williams (back), cornerbacks Bobby Felder (groin) and Mario Butler (ankle) and safety Jonathan Meeks (neck) also were held out of the game with injuries.
Rookie linebacker Randell Johnson worked out prior to the game, but did not play with an ankle injury.
The Bills must trim their roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. Saturday.