The Bills' starters gave a better-than-usual preseason crowd at New Era Field nothing to cheer about in the third preseason game Sunday afternoon.
Top observations from the Cincinnati Bengals' 26-13 victory over Buffalo:
1. The Bills' offensive line is searching for answers.
The Bengals had five sacks in the first half.
Marshall Newhouse, starting in place of left tackle Dion Dawkins, gave up the first sack and generally struggled protecting Josh Allen's blind side. Dawkins was held out with a sore hip. The Bills need a healthy Dawkins.
Center Ryan Groy gave up the second sack, getting beaten up the middle by Bengals nose tackle Andrew Billings.
Left guard Vlad Ducasse was responsible for the third sack, getting bulled backward into Allen's lap, which allowed Carl Lawson to get wide and deep on Newhouse and take down the QB.
Right guard John Miller was primarily responsible for the fourth and fifth sacks, although Allen might have pulled the trigger on an anticipation throw on the fourth.
"I take it personally," said Groy. "It was embarrassing as a unit. . . . I think it came down to technique stuff. . . .
We each lost a couple different times on certain drives, certain plays, one guy here, one guy here. That's what really kills you at the end of the day."
The Bills' coaches rotated the middle three all half. By the final dress rehearsal, you'd like to have the lineup cemented. But coach Sean McDermott said it was all a function of giving Groy work at guard, should he be forced to work there. Groy started at center between Ducasse and Miller.
But for the third drive, Ducasse was out, with Groy at his left guard spot and Russell Bodine at center. For the fourth drive, Groy to Miller's guard spot. For the fifth and sixth drives it was back to Groy at center. Then it was Bodine at center with Ducasse on the left and Groy on the right. Then it was Bodine at center with Groy on the left and Miller on the right. The normal starters (Ducasse-Groy-Miller) were back in place to start the third quarter.
Groy said the shuffling was part of the plan.
"We had talked about it earlier in the week, me getting a couple series at guard," he said. "We've got to do a better job of playing together and playing as a unit to keep drives alive."
Who wins the center job? Groy has started the first and third exhibitions. He has the edge. Bodine started the second. Perhaps the bigger question: Can Miller handle the right guard job, or will Groy have to take over that spot before too long?
There's a lot to sort out in the next two weeks.
2. We learned little about the QB job.
No, Allen didn't make anything happen in the first half. The O-line was a mess and the offensive scheme was vanilla. Nathan Peterman led a TD drive in the third quarter against the Bengals' second-string defense.
Should Allen start vs. Baltimore in the opener? To answer that, the coaches might want to answer the following: Do they trust the O-line to protect the QB in the first month of the season, when the Bills face three rugged defensive fronts (Baltimore, the Chargers and the Vikings)?
3. Vontae Davis needs to give John Ross more room.
The Bills' veteran starting cornerback was beaten deep on a go route by the NFL's fastest man on Cincinnati's first play from scrimmage. Second-year receiver John Ross, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2017 draft blew by Davis and safety Jordan Poyer for a 57-yard TD catch. Ross ran the fastest official 40-yard dash time ever at the combine in 2017, 4.22 seconds.
While the Bills' back-seven starters played the entire first half, Davis gave way to Phillip Gaines in the second quarter. But Davis was back with the starters on the opening drive of the third quarter.
4. Rookie still leads slot corner battle.
Rookie fourth-round draft pick Taron Johnson held down the slot corner job for the second straight game, ahead of the veteran Gaines. Johnson had good coverage on a third-down incompletion late in the first half. It looks like he's winning that spot to start the season.
5. Defensive silver linings.
Left defensive end Shaq Lawson looked stout against the run again. Rookie middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds had a better outing. He showed good acceleration in attacking ball carriers. Lawson bulldozed a tight end to force a 3-yard loss on a Joe Mixon run. He and Lorenzo Alexander collapsed the backfield on another 3-yard loss. Then Lawson had a hurry on a third-down incompletion. Edmunds had a near interception late in the first half and swarmed Giovani Bernard to force a 6-yard loss on the next play. Alexander was stout vs. the run, too.
6. TE is separating.
Tight end Jason Croom caught a 17-yard TD pass and added a 21-yard catch over the middle in the third quarter. Croom showed his mobility by stepping out of a tackle attempt by safety Josh Shaw on his TD play. Croom looks like the favorite for the No. 2 tight end job.
7. No punter drama.
We like punters who have good hang time. Prevent any chance of a big return. Incumbent punter Colton Schmidt had a solid first half, punting seven times for a 42.7-yard average, with four fair catches and returns of 2, -2 and 10 yards. That included a 59-yarder with a fair catch.
Newly signed Jon Ryan from Seattle didn't get much chance to put heat on Schmidt. Ryan had just one punt, for a touchback, in the second half.