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Bills' Matt Barkley: 'No one's discouraged in this locker room'

Vic Carucci

No matter who starts at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills against the Tennessee Titans Sunday, the mission is the same.

Don't become so caught up in the excruciating loss against the New England Patriots that it lingers and gets in the way of preparation for the Titans. Look at what's ahead rather than in the rear view mirror.

"Yeah, it's big," Matt Barkley said to reporters Wednesday of the importance of moving on from squandering a perfect opportunity to beat the Patriots. "We're not treating this week any less than we did last week. It's just a normal week and it's a big week, nonetheless. And I think the comforting part is no one's discouraged in this locker room. There's no one that's still hanging their head.

"It was a 24-hour rule. We watched the tape, we got out of the building Monday and then we're moving on to the Titans. (New England is) in the past and all we controlled was today and when tomorrow gets here, we'll worry about that."

Barkley spoke in classic quarterback style. He presented the natural sense of leadership that goes with the position.

The Bills had just finished a practice in which Barkley took the starting reps because Josh Allen was in concussion protocol from the hit that knocked him out of the Patriots game early in the fourth quarter. What that means for Sunday remains a mystery. Allen took part in individual non-contact drills that the media were allowed to watch, and his teammates generally saw nothing to suggest he was anything other than his typical self. He also has participated in quarterback meetings, as he normally would.

But coach Sean McDermott wouldn't give even the smallest hint about his quarterback plan. Maybe it's for gamesmanship, maybe it's wishful thinking, or maybe it's because he truly won't be able to determine what to do until Allen is cleared by the NFL-appointed independent neurological consultant.

"We'll get them both ready, as much as we can," McDermott said.

One thing Allen wasn't allowed to do was speak with reporters. That's standard procedure for a player in concussion protocol.

As a result, Barkley was in the unusual — for him — position of standing in front of his dressing cubicle while surrounded by a horde of men and women holding cameras and microphones.

The last time this happened in November, when, only 11 days after joining the Bills, Barkley was pushed into the No. 1 job against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium because of an injury to Allen. Barkley threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns in a 41–10 victory.

"Yeah, I was a little limited last time with my knowledge of the offense, but we got it done," he said. "And I've come a long way, I think, just in my total grasp of what we're trying to do, all the calls, all the checks, audibles, stuff like that. So I definitely feel much more prepared than last time."

Although the Bills entered that Jets game in a familiar funk, thanks to a four-game losing streak (including a 25-6 home loss against New England), the circumstances were far different from now. Expectations were low for the team and for Barkley, who was making his first NFL start in two years.

Barkley didn't perform nearly as well in relief of Allen last Sunday, completing nine of 16 passes for 127 yards and throwing an interception to end the game. His limited preparation as a backup probably had something to do with that, although he didn't want to offer that as an excuse Wednesday.

For the Bills as a whole, however, expectations are significantly higher than a year ago. Their 3-0 start promptly inflated hopes. And despite a sixth loss in a row to New England, their defensive dominance against Tom Brady has caused plenty of optimism that the Bills will be playing meaningful games late in the season.

The biggest concern is with Allen. Not just with the fact he suffered a concussion or that the running he did on that play and does with frequency will expose him to more injuries. It's also with the three interceptions he threw ... and with his multiple overthrows ... and with the general confusion and disorientation he repeatedly showed before taking that helmet-to-helmet hit from Jonathan Jones.

While getting as much work on the field as possible is important for every position, McDermott acknowledged it's "very important at (quarterback) in particular, with the timing and the reads and all that type of stuff." Without a full week of practice, it's fair to think he could have similar struggles against a Titans defense that is similar in structure and scheme to that of the Patriots because former New England linebacker Mike Vrabel is the Titans' coach.

Vrabel told reporters Wednesday that his team is preparing for both quarterbacks.

"There’s going to be things that they do with Matt that they don’t do with Josh," the coach said. "Josh has plays, obviously, designed for him to run that maybe Matt won’t have. But we’ll have to have a plan either way."

When Barkley studies the Titans' secondary, this is what he sees: "Guys who have been in big games before and have locked down some top receivers. They have a lot of different looks, a lot of different disguises, and we're just going to have to be on point with who we're reading and who we're keying, and not trying to force anything into windows where we can be seeing ghosts."

Allen saw ghosts last Sunday. Unfortunately for him and the Bills, actual Patriot defenders were the ones who caught his passes. Bill Belichick's brilliant defensive scheming has gotten the best of far more experienced and accomplished quarterbacks, but it has a history of being particularly unkind to younger ones.

"I think he continues to learn," McDermott said of Allen. "I mean, he's still a very young player and so every young player has to figure out how to play in this league, number one, to be effective, but also so that they play for a long time. And I think that's what happens to young players.

"I would say we've moved on beyond that (New England) game, number one. B, it's about Josh's overall development regardless of who we play, and a very good opponent this week with Tennessee. But in addition to that, regardless of who we play, it's Josh's development and learning and growing just in the early part of his second year now. You've got to learn from the good, learn from the bad and then continue to develop and move forward."

But this isn't training camp. It's a quarter of the way through the NFL season, and if the Bills are to have a shot at reaching the playoffs, they can't afford to toss away many more chances for wins. A beatable Titans team is one of them.

Regardless of his six interceptions and two fumbles and other miscues in four games, Allen is the Bills' starter for a reason, just as Barkley is their backup for a reason. They're separated by a significant talent gap.

Mentally, however, Barkley might give the Bills a better chance against a defense as complex as the one they will face Sunday. "Experienced players have seen more football in the NFL than non-experienced players," McDermott said. "Other than that, we have a lot of confidence in Josh. I've got a lot of confidence in Matt."

At 6-foot-2 and 234 pounds, Barkley doesn't possess the size, strength, speed or athleticism of the 6-5, 237-pound Allen. When blitzers come free and/or plays break down, Barkley is likely to have a harder time escaping trouble.

That would make it imperative for the Bills to structure their game plan and play-calling accordingly.

"You're always going to want to put players in positions that they're comfortable in, that puts them in positions of strength," McDermott said. "And, so, we're extremely confident in Matt Barkley and so we'll just see how that moves forward as we go through the week."

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