Take away the entertaining finish orchestrated by rookie quarterback Cardale Jones and the big news that Ralph Wilson Stadium is getting a new name, and the Buffalo Bills’ preseason-opener Saturday night followed a disturbing pattern that much of last year’s 8-8 regular-season finish followed.
Too many penalties. Too much self-destruction.
That was the thrust of the message Rex Ryan delivered to his team after the Bills’ 19-18 loss against the Indianapolis Colts.
“The mistakes that we made, as I pointed out to our team, it’s like we’ve got to turn the page on that,” Ryan said. “That was last year’s team, and we can’t have that.”
The Bills finished with 11 penalties for 106 yards to Indianapolis’ seven for 75. They had four offside calls, including two in a row that helped the Colts on their first touchdown drive, and three penalties on special teams.
Just before kickoff, the Bills announced that they reached a deal with Buffalo sports-cap manufacturer New Era for naming rights of the stadium that previously was named after team founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr. The Associated Press reported the deal will cover the balance of the seven-year lease and is worth more than $3 million per year.
The Bills were going to be hard-pressed to do anything a whole lot more newsworthy. And, for the most part, they didn’t.
Sticking very much to preseason-opening form, the teams combined for 12 first-half punts. The Bills’ defense - despite missing several starters – did give a solid performance in keeping the Colts off the scoreboard until the final two minutes of the half. Yet, the night took a negative turn for the defense from that point on. First came what Ryan described as a major knee injury to IK Enemkpali, who has started at outside linebacker for most of training camp due to injuries to Shaq and Manny Lawson. Then came a mostly sloppy second half filled with penalties and dropped passes, including three by veteran receiver Leonard Hankerson. “He had a horrible game,” Ryan said.
But he was more bothered by the rash of yellow flags his team drew.
“That blueprint was what last year’s blueprint was,” the coach said. “And, as a team, there isn’t anybody that’s in (the locker room) that’s happy with that performance just because of that.”
There was a little bit of added anticipation for the game with Tyrod Taylor starting at quarterback for the Bills a day after receiving a contract extension that adds five years to the one season left on his current deal and carries a value of more than $90 million. But Taylor left the game after only one series. He completed two of three passes for seven yards before giving way to EJ Manuel.
Bills running back LeSean McCoy also made a cameo appearance. He carried once for nine yards, showing impressive speed in finding no running room to his right and then cutting to his left to get enough of a gain for a first down. McCoy also caught a pass for two yards.
“Still a little rusty,” McCoy said at halftime. “Still warming up. I’m going to tell you this: It’s coming.”
On a night when numerous starters from both teams were kept out mostly due to injuries, Bills backup tight end Chris Gragg was the offensive star of the first half. One surprise scratch was Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who has taken every snap in Colts training camp and was due to start in last Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game against the Green Bay Packers that was canceled due to poor field conditions caused by a botched paint job.
Colts owner Jim Irsay posted a tweet before the game that suggested Luck was being held out over concerns that Ryan would come after him more aggressively than a pass rush should in the preseason.
Chris Gragg got the Bills on the scoreboard first by breaking cleanly through the middle to block a Pat McAfee punt that McAfee knocked out of the back of the end zone for a safety with 8:28 left in the first quarter. Gragg also delivered the game’s first touchdown when he caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Manuel to give the Bills a 9-0 lead with 4:08 remaining in the first quarter. Manuel played into the third quarter, completing 10 of 18 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown, before being replaced by Jones.
Scott Tolzien started for Luck and reminded the Colts why they desperately need to keep their starter healthy. Tolzien struggled mightily as the Colts produced only one first down in the first quarter. He did pick things up later in the half, connecting with running back Jordan Todman on a screen pass for a 42-yard touchdown to make it 9-6 with 1:50 left in the half.
Defensively, the Bills did do a good job of pressuring Tolzien. Enemkpali was able to come off the edge repeatedly to hurry the quarterback before his right leg twisted awkwardly and he had to be carted off the field just before halftime.
Inside linebacker Preston Brown and safety Corey Graham also generated some pressure on blitzes. In addition, the Bills’ secondary did a nice job of preventing the Colts from doing a whole lot in the passing game. Tolzien completed only 12 of 23 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown before Stephen Morris took his place at the start of the third quarter.
Adam Vinatieri made it 19-12 with a 38-yard field goal with 1:08 remaining before Jones drove the Bills 83 yards to his four-yard scoring throw to Jarrett Boykin to make it 19-18 as time expired. He wasn’t able to connect on a two-point conversion.