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Signs of Life: Bills Offense Comes Alive in Overtime Win Against Jacksonville

There hasn’t been much worth cheering about thus far through the Bills’ two preseason games.  After all, not only did they lose both but points were about as scarce as batteries, flashlights, milk and bread this weekend with Hurricane Irene battering the east coast. 

But, on Saturday night the Bills’ first string put on a performance worth while.  They displayed signs of life and improvement, especially on offense.  In what was widely considered to be a dry run for the opener on Sept. 11, Buffalo looked legit.  Granted, it’s only preseason and we won’t actually start counting wins and losses for a couple of weeks.  This, however, was about as critical a performance needed from the first stringers as you can imagine.

On the surface, it would’ve been easy to predict another yuckish effort.  Their most popular guy in the locker room (Lee Evans) is gone.  Fred Jackson went public with his unhappiness about the Bills’ backfield situation and having to keep looking over his shoulder for the day (should it arrive) when C.J. Spiller becomes the starter.  And perhaps the worst situation of them all: the offensive line.  

If I buried the Bills after a horrid showing in Denver, then I’ll be at the forefront of praising the Bills for doing a 180 on Saturday night.   There was no other player on the field who needed to have a bounce back big game than Ryan Fitzpatrick.  He’s looked below average, at times confused and in search of confidence while leading the first team unit to just six points in six drives through two preseason games.  Led by Fitzpatrick, the Bills scored on their first three drives.  He was almost flawless, completing his first 11 passes and finished the first half going 11 of 12  for 165 yards and two touchdowns.  Fitz engineered scoring drives of 64, 82 and 52 yards including an 11-yard touchdown to Marcus Easley and a 52-yard beauty of strike to Stevie Johnson.  If he was saving his best for last,  then mission accomplished.

Johnson, now the de facto No.1 wide receiver, finished with four catches for 76 yards and one touchdown.  Easley wasn’t far behind, hauling in five receptions for 51 yards and a score.  Both figure to play prominent roles in the passing game, but I’d argue that if Fitzpatrick was at the top of the list of players desperately needing to deliver a convincing performance then Easley was 1A.

Lost for the season a year ago to the IR with a knee injury and battling a knee problem throughout training camp, Easley got the start in the absence of Donald Jones who is still feeling the effects of a head injury suffered in Denver.  But if the Bills had their heart set on having Jones line up as the team’s No.2 receiver, Easley gave them a alot to think about.  Withouth Evans, the Bills will need as many wide outs as they can get to make plays and produce to take the heat off Johnson.

There was also Fred Jackson reminding us (and hopefully the Bills’ brain trust) that there’s really not a running back controversy as to who the starter in the backfield is or should be.  Jackson rushed for 33 yards on nine carries and hauled in a pretty, 30-yard pass from Fitzpatrick.  C.J. Spiller ran for 21 yards on four carries and Bruce Hall led the Bills with 33 yards on seven carries and a touchdown.

Defensively, the Bills did a pretty good job of forcing pressure on Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard.  Kyle Williams and Robert Eddins each recorded sacks and Antonio Coleman and Danny Batten each were credited with a half sack.  The first team defensive unit (minus starters Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman) didn’t allow Jacksonville to have a play go for more than 18 yards in the first half.

In the second half, the Bills’ reserves had their hands full keeping the Jaguars off the field and off the scoreboard.  Jacksonville scored 23 consecutive points.  Aided by a pass interference call against Reggie Corner that kept a drive alive, the Jaguars scored on their first possession of the second half capped off by a two-yard rushing touchdown by Brock Bolen.  Two short possessions later, backup quarterback Tyler Thigen threw an interception that was returned 16 yards for a touchdown by Jacob Cutrera and the Jaguars had their first lead of the game 24-17. 

Just five seconds into the fourth quarter, Jaguars rookie signal caller Blaine Gabbert connected with DuJuan Harris for a 16-yard touchdown, then went right back to Harris for a successful two-point conversion.  With Jacksonville firmly in front 32-17, it appeared as though the game was all but over.  But rookie Da’Norris Searcy and Thigpen played integral roles in the Bills’ fourth quarter revival.

Thigpen guided the Bills on a nine-play 58-yard drive finished off by Hall’s five-yard touchdown run to but the lead to 32-24.   Jacksonville’s next possession lasted just :58 seconds after Searcy picked off Gabbert.  With four minutes left in the game, Searcy forced a fumble that was recovered by fellow rookie Michael Jasper.  Buffalo mounted a late drive with just over three minutes to go.  Thigpen marched the Bills 33 yards on nine plays and finished off the drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to Paul Hubbard.  Just as the Gabbert/Harris connection scored both a touchdown and then the subsequent two-point conversion, the Thigpen/Hubbard connection worked again for the game-tying two-point conversion to tie the game 32 all with :38 seconds left.

In the overtime period, it was Levi Brown who led the Bills on their game-winning possession.  Brown led the Bills 35 yards on nine plays setting up Rian Lindell’s 40-yard game winning field goal with 3:08 to play giving the Bills their first win of the preseason, 35-32.

So in their dress rehearsal the Bills managed to raise the curtain and get their act together.  Fitzpatrick was confident and delivered a terrific performance. The protection from the offensive line was solid.  Fred Jackson played with a purpose.  Marcus Easley took a couple of big steps forward.  The defensive coverage wasn’t springing any major leaks like they had in Chicago and Denver. 

Signs of life were on display inside Ralph Wilson Stadium on Saturday night.  Now, if only the Bills could bottle up this game and store it away until Sept. 11.

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