Observations from the Buffalo Bills’ 28-23 exhibition loss to the Carolina Panthers Thursday night:
1. Brian Daboll makes a good first impression.
Believe it or not, the first half was a thoroughly entertaining exhibition of offensive football by the Bills’ new offense.
The Bills drove 85, 47, 66 and 74 yards with their four first-half possessions in racking up 17 points.
This is not the Rick Dennison offense of 2017. Keep in mind this is a Carolina defense that held the Bills to three points in Week 2 last year (a 9-3 Panthers’ win) and a season-worst 176 total yards on offense. Carolina finished last season ranked No. 7 overall in yards allowed, No. 4 against the run and No. 3 in sacks.
Daboll talks a lot about playing to the strength of matchups. The Bills did not try to come out and pound the ball into Carolina’s superior front seven (as they did last Sept. 17).
The Bills passed on 14 of their first 16 plays.
And just as the Bills have shown all training camp, they will use a multiple offense that tries to make the defense think before the snap.
The Bills used pre-snap motion on nine of their first 12 plays and 19 of 32 first-half plays. That’s a quarterback-friendly approach, letting the offense know whether the coverage is man or zone.
The first touchdown of the game, a 28-yard pass to Kelvin Benjamin, came out of an empty formation. The second TD, a 7-yard run by Marcus Murphy, took advantage of tight end motion. Jason Croom went in motion to the right, then came back to the left before the snap. He and pulling guard Ike Boettger led the way for Murphy into the end zone.
Daboll was calling plays from the press box and relaying them down to the sideline via tight ends coach Rob Boras. There was a surprising lack of confusion, given the play-to-play substitution of personnel.
The Panthers’ starting defense only played the first series. There was no game-planning on either side.
Nevertheless, Bills fans have to feel good about the increased creativity of the offensive scheme.
2. Marcus Murphy makes a push.
The 26-year-old running back has looked good the first two weeks of training camp and continued his push for the No. 3 running back job.
Murphy, drafted by New Orleans in the seventh round in 2015 and picked up by the Bills last November, rushed seven times for 35 yards and caught four passes for 30 yards. He showed quickness and good contact balance.
On the Bills’ field goal drive in the second quarter, he made 3 yards out of nothing on a second-and-10 run, bouncing off a hit at the line of scrimmage. Then he got 4 yards after contact on a 5-yard run to the Panthers’ 9. On his 7-yard TD run, Murphy ran out of the arms of Carolina defensive end Wes Horton at the line of scrimmage.
Murphy also served as the No. 2 punt returner behind Jeremy Kerley. For now, he’s ahead of Travaris Cadet and Taiwan Jones in the Bills’ backfield battle.
3. The muddled receiver competition marches on.
Kelvin Benjamin is the No. 1 wideout. Kerley, Zay Jones and newly acquired Corey Coleman are locks to make the roster. All indications are special teams ace Andre Holmes is going to make the team. He started opposite Benjamin Thursday. That leaves one or maybe two spots available on the 53-man roster.
Let’s give points to Rod Streater, Brandon Reilly and Ray-Ray McCloud in the race for a job. Streater, who has one season as a Raiders starter in 2013 on his resume, had a nice, 19-yard catch to convert a third-and-15 play on the Bills’ field-goal drive in the second quarter. Reilly had a 59-yard catch on a Carolina coverage bust. But Reilly also made a nice coverage play on a kickoff return, holding containment wide to the left to prevent a big return. McCloud showed sure hands, with catches of 25, 11 and 14 yards (for a TD).
4. Ryan Groy starts.
Groy, the fifth-year pro from Wisconsin, got the start at center, while Russell Bodine worked with the second team. It was mostly a pass-blocking night for the O-line, and neither were exploited in protection.
5. There was mostly good health.
None of the Bills on the first or second teams were injured. Cadet walked off the field in the first half after being shaken up on a special-teams play.
6. Shaq shows up.
Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson started in place of Trent Murphy, who was held out with a sore groin. Lawson batted down a Cam Newton pass to force a punt on the first series of the game.
7. Roster rotations.
The Bills’ starting defense played two series, with the exception of rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and cornerback Vontae Davis, who played three drives. Kyle Williams sat out and was replaced by Harrison Phillips in the starting lineup. (Phillips had a coverage sack.) ... Carolina’s starting defense played just one series, except for linebacker Shaq Thompson who played two (and had an interception). ... Tanner Vallejo was the Bills’ second-team middle linebacker. He’s being pushed by Julian Stanford. Stanford got caught in a tough coverage situation in the fourth quarter and was beaten by Elijah Hood for a 21-yard TD. ... The Bills’ second-team offensive line remained the same, left to right, Marshall Newhouse, Wyatt Teller, Russell Bodine, Ike Boettger and De’Ondre Wesley. Conor McDermott remained the third-team left tackle.
8. Zebras were not a factor.
The much-anticipated controversy over the new helmet-lowering rule did not materialize. The only foul for a helmet hit came with 7:22 left in the third quarter when Carolina linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. was flagged for hitting Bills receiver Kaelin Clay near the end of a play.