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Bills leave preseason looking sick

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Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012 9:30 am

On a night when 93-year-old owner Ralph Wilson was admitted to the hospital in “good condition,” with an illness, it was his Buffalo Bills who looked a bit sick.

When it was over on Thursday night at Detroit’s Ford Field, Wilson’s team had concluded a winless preseason after a 38-32 decision to the Lions.

THE BILLS’ best news lasted exactly one possession.

That’s when struggling starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed all five of his passes, converting an 83-yard, 11-play touchdown drive with a pretty 4-yard toss to wide receiver Stevie Johnson for the score.

After that, Buffalo’s performance was mostly uneven.

— Start with the second possession.

The Bills’ touted defensive line never got close to Lions’ star quarterback Matthew Stafford who might as well have been in a rocking chair, so little was he bothered while throwing. He capped his only possession (80 yards, seven plays) by splitting Buffalo cornerback Aaron Williams and free safety George Wilson who were easily outjumped by Detroit’s 6-foot-5 All-Pro wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, for a 24-yard TD.

— The Lions’ second touchdown was a gift thanks to a physical and mental error by Brad Smith, Buffalo’s kick returner/wide receiver who’s also the nominal No. 3 quarterback.

His fumble on the kickoff return after the Stafford-to-Johnson TD, gave the ball to the Lions at the Buffalo 9-yard line. Two plays later Detroit scored.

But riddle me this ... when did the Bills’ coaching staff and its kickoff returners decide that a touchback is a bad alternative?

Before he suffered a groin injury, Smith returned three kicks. The first was from five yards deep in the end zone and he got out to the 17. Then he came out from four yards in and fumbled at the 11. And finally, Smith brought one back from two yards in and made it only to the 18.

Had he just knelt down, Buffalo would have started at the 20 each time and been spared that killer fumble and ensuing touchdown.

Worse, it was epidemic.

Justin Rogers  brought out a kickoff from five yards in and was stopped at the 16. And finally, rookie T.J. Graham also started from five yards deep, but got out to the 22.

Still, what’s wrong with starting at the 20 and avoiding injury and maybe a turnover when a kickoff goes in the end zone?

— And what about the curious case of Marcus Easley?

The third-year wide receiver, beset by injury problems his first two seasons, seemingly had played himself off the Buffalo roster with a lackluster training camp.

Then, against the Lions, his fate was seemingly sealed when he ill-advisedly tried to return a kickoff from six yards deep ... barely making it out to the 10.

But Detroit was offside on the play and Easley took the re-kick 100 yards for a touchdown, then put his 6-foot-2, 217-pound frame to good use, muscling his way across the goalline on a two-point conversion reception that temporarily put the Bills ahead.

It’s not certain what effect that sequence will have on Easley’s Buffalo future, but those two plays might have kept him in the NFL.

Of the TD, coach Chan Gailey said, “That was a great lesson for our  kickoff coverage team. They gave us a second chance from five yards back and we took it all the way.”

— Then there’s reserve quarterback Tyler Thigpen.

He appeared to be toast when the Bills cut Vince Young, who was supposedly the backup to Fitzpatrick, and immediately signed veteran Tarvaris Jackson ... especially with Gailey preferring a two quarterback system with Smith in reserve.

But after his first pass was intercepted and returned for a  pick six, Thigpen played well.

He was 18-of-30 passing for 186 yards,  with a touchdown (4-yard toss to Dorin Dickerson) and two interceptions, both of which were tipped.

And when Smith left the game with that groin problem, it increased the chances that Thigpen might survive tomorrow’s cut from 75 to 53, especially given Jackson’s inexperience.

As Gailey noted of Thigpen,  “Tyler played good ... he made it tough (to make a cutdown decision). It was all on the line and he did a good job.”

— Would somebody please point to the scoreboard for Leodis McKelvin.

The veteran cornerback will never figure out when self-promotion is appropriate ... if, in fact,  it ever is.

With the Bills trailing 28-7, the former first-round draft choice tore the ball from the hands of Detroit wide receiver Maurice Stovall in the end zone.

McKelvin then commenced to celebrate as if he’d just broken up a pass that assured Buffalo a playoff berth.

Later on that same possession, he blocked a Jason Hansen field goal, took a sweeping bow on the field, then continued posturing on the sideline.

It was absurd behavior for a player whose roster spot was actually in danger at the beginning of training camp.

— It would be a surprise if Gailey cuts kickoff specialist John Potter, the seventh-round draft pick from Western Michigan.

Potter’s first 10 kickoffs were touchbacks, the only one in the NFL who was perfect.

Finally, against the Lions, his 11th was returned from two yards deep ... but only to the 17.

He then followed with another touchback ... making it 11 of 12 touchbacks  on the preseason.

(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor,  can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)

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