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Bills training camp observations: Von Miller contributing on and off the field


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Ever since coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane arrived in Buffalo in 2017, they’ve made it a point to have a veteran presence in almost every position room. It just so happened that for 2022, in adding future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller, they were getting someone who could help on the field and as a veteran leader.

In that way, Miller adds value to the Bills’ roster even when he’s not practicing, as was the case Tuesday for Day 3 of training camp. Likely getting a veteran rest day as the Bills often award their older players, Miller watched from the sideline in his jersey and a bucket hat rather than a helmet.

But rather than just being an observer, Miller inserted himself into the practice in his own way. Whether it was standing in the offensive backfield and watching team drills unfold, chatting with teammates, or hanging on the sidelines to be a sounding board for the young defensive ends, Miller was fully invested in the practice.

“When you get an extra set of eyes on the sidelines, particularly for the young guys, it means a lot,” linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said after practice. “Just him sitting back and the young guys coming up asking him questions, asking him what did he see. It’s just like another coach on the sidelines that you can probably relate to more because he’s actually in that position playing with you.”

Since Miller’s arrival, younger pass rushers Greg RousseauBoogie BashamA.J. Epenesa have taken to Miller’s combination of skills and expertise. All three are facing critical years in careers, so the benefit of having Miller there is huge.

“Sometimes a little bit different when you’re out there versus coming back hearing it from a coach,” Edmunds said. “I know when I was a young guy and we had guys like Lorenzo (Alexander) here that may have a vet day or something like that, I knew I could come to the sideline and ask him a question because he’s been in the same position I’m in.”

Miller had to be happy with what he saw from the young pass rushers during Day 3 of training camp and their results in team drills. Between that and some thoughts about the offense, here are seven observations from the most recent session in Pittsford.

1. Epenesa flashes again; Rousseau has his best day yet

It’s been quite the start to training camp for third-year player A.J. Epenesa. The defensive end has worked his way into the backfield for a sack on three straight days during team drills. The first two days were one thing, with Epenesa getting in the backfield to force a negative play on either Case Keenum or Matt Barkley. But with Miller to the side on an off day, it afforded Epenesa opportunities to work against starting left tackle Dion Dawkins.

On the second set of 11-on-11 against Josh Allen, Epenesa worked his way past Dawkins for a “sack.” Epenesa’s start to camp should be a highlight for the Bills, although it’s fair to point out that it has come without the pads on and with physicality discouraged. Epenesa has mostly won with speed around the edge, but that shouldn’t take anything away from him. These are good building block days that the Bills will hope can continue once the pads go on Saturday.

While Epenesa has been consistent, Greg Rousseau was the best defensive end on the field Tuesday. The Bills ran their first set of one-on-ones against offensive linemen, and Rousseau dominated David Quessenberry on his lone rep. Then in team drills, Rousseau used his length to work through Quessenberry once again for a “sack” of Allen. On the next snap, Rousseau beat Quessenberry again to force Allen to scramble out of the pocket and make a last-ditch throw to Gabriel Davis that fell incomplete. Rousseau will benefit when the pads go on, so having a big day without them is an encouraging sign. Of the three young edge rushers, the Bills likely have the highest hopes for what Rousseau can become in 2022.

2. Oliver a dominant force

While Rousseau was the top edge rusher, Ed Oliver was the best player on the field Tuesday, and it wasn’t particularly close. On multiple occasions, Oliver was unblockable for whoever drew the assignment. It began with one-on-ones, as Oliver made one explosive move forward while chopping Cody Ford’s extended arms down and then sprinted past for the easy victory. Then in the early stages of 11-on-11 work, the offense mostly called running plays. Oliver blew through the combination block attempt of Quessenberry and Ryan Bates to meet the runner in the backfield for a loss on the play.

Later in practice as a pass rusher, Oliver had two instant victories in a three-play series that resulted in “sacks” of Allen. He was a headache for the offensive line all practice. This is the version of Oliver the Bills are hoping will emerge in 2022. With all the potential to be a game-changer from the interior defensive line and the best supporting cast of his career around him, Oliver could be a key factor in the Bills achieving their goals this season.

3. A frustrating day early for Allen and the passing offense

Based on the defensive line prominence in the first two sections, you probably could surmise that the Bills’ passing offense didn’t fare as well as it did on Day 2. Out of Allen’s first four series in team drills, he completed just one throw out of eight possible passing plays. Allen would have been sacked on four of those plays, and he threw three incompletions intended for James Cook, Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie. After the miss to McKenzie, Allen grabbed his helmet with both hands above his head but resisted the urge to throw it to the ground.

The offense improved in Allen’s final two team drill sessions, as he completed eight of 11 attempts. Still, a learning curve was evident throughout the practice. Once Allen’s group finished its last team drill opportunity, Allen and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey had a long conversation on the sideline. Then, Allen walked over to receiver Stefon Diggs, where Dorsey rejoined them to continue the conversation. McKenzie and center Mitch Morse also walked over at one point, and it was more than just the typical quick-hitting statements from one person to another to get on the same page. It will be interesting to see how the Bills come back on Wednesday and what Dorsey might add about it in his scheduled news conference ahead of practice.

4. #MattVsMattPuntapalooza update

The Bills punters knocked the rust off during Day 1 of camp, and after a day off from those reps Monday, they returned for their heaviest work day yet. There were a total of 15 punts, accounting for multiple situations. The incumbent punter Matt Haack had eight and rookie Matt Araiza had seven, and the team gave each the same situations from the same yard markers and side of the field. Here are the stats we tracked in the seven common circumstances.

Bills punting battle, Day 3
PLAYER
  
YARDS PER PUNT
  
AVG. HANG TIME
  
41.9
4.52
43.9
4.17

The highlight of Haack’s day was a booming 60-yard punt that hung in the air for 4.54 seconds and forced Marquez Stevenson to make a tough catch that he muffed. Araiza had the longest punt of the day of 64 yards, but it was airborne for only 3.98 seconds. That’s the tale of the tape with Haack and Araiza. The rookie has the advantage in the yards average but falls well behind in hang time.

It was a draw between the two players if we were to judge Tuesday on a punt-by-punt basis in the seven similar situations. Each player “won” the rep on three occasions. They also arrived at a push on the seventh situation, just taking different avenues to get there. While Araiza booted a ball from the Bills’ 41-yard line into the end zone for a touchback, Haack kicked his only 39 yards but with a hang time of 4.73 seconds to force a fair catch at the 20-yard line. Araiza’s punt in that situation landed about 4 or 5 yards past the goal line.

And not only did we see copious punts, but for the first time since Araiza arrived in Buffalo, we saw him serve as the holder for field goal kicker Tyler Bass. Araiza was perfect on every chance, even adjusting well to a low snap and getting it in position for Bass to boom it through the uprights. Although Haack is the more natural and experienced field goal holder and will henceforth be known here as Holdinho, Araiza made a solid first impression.

5. Cook a popular pass target

Throughout Day 3, Bills quarterbacks targeted 13 pass catchers, but rookie running back James Cook was the clear leader in targets. He caught four of five targets thrown his way, as the next closest Bills receiver had only three targets (McKenzie, Stefon Diggs, Khalil Shakir and O.J. Howard). Once, Cook took a pass in the open field and put on the brakes, easily juking past linebacker Joe Giles-Harris.

It is fair to note that only two of Cook’s targets came from Allen. The first resulted in a drop over the middle of the field as it appeared Cook short-armed it. The other three targets came from Keenum, and all were completions. It remains to be seen how big of a role Cook will have as a rookie, especially with the prevalence of both Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. Still, it’s pretty clear that the Bills want to see what he can do in open space as a pass catcher.

6. Shakir continues to impress with additional reps

The Bills were without slot receiver Jamison Crowder for the second straight practice because of general soreness, and on Tuesday, they also gave Jake Kumerow the day off for the same reason. Those two absences gave rookie receiver Khalil Shakir even more time on the field to work with Allen in routes versus air. Shakir’s footwork was a standout in the positional drills, showing an excellent setup into his break and a deceptive mini-step out of it into his next move. His route running has taken a minor step forward since spring workouts, especially now that he’s gotten some professional coaching under his belt.

In team drills, Shakir was targeted three times, all by Keenum. The first reception was by far the most impressive. Shakir was running toward the sideline, and the throw was slightly behind him to allow safety Damar Hamlin back into the play. Shakir absorbed the contact and brought down the contested catch for a very impressive reception. Shakir also caught his second target of the day, and the third was an incompletion as he didn’t really have a chance after Keenum was pressured by defensive end Shaq Lawson.

What’s most interesting about Shakir is that he can be more than a primary slot receiver. He definitely has the route-running and contested-catch skill set to play inside and outside. The Bills made it a point to help Davis learn all three positions as a rookie, so if Shakir can show the same comfort with more on his plate, that could be an option for him this season.

7. Gap widens between Knox and the rest of the tight ends

Although starting tight end Dawson Knox didn’t make a catch and wasn’t targeted in team drills on Tuesday, the early part of camp has shown that he’s well ahead of backup O.J. Howard. Howard just hasn’t been a good pass catcher so far. Although he’s a good blocker, he’s not the best mover on routes and failed to secure a pair of catches he should have on Tuesday. Howard’s route allowed rookie linebacker Baylon Spector to get in the play, and the tight end failed to bring in a contested catch opportunity. On the last play of the day, Allen sent a deeper pass to Howard along the sideline, and the tight end tried to catch it with one hand. The ball dropped to the ground for an incompletion and should have been a reception.

Still, Howard is well ahead of the rest of the tight ends despite the missed chances. Tommy Sweeney has struggled to make much of an impact in the first few practices and has been outplayed by Quintin Morris, a practice squad player from last season. Undrafted rookie Jalen Wydermyer hasn’t gotten many opportunities in team drills and will need to show a lot more to have a chance at the roster.

As of now, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bills rolled into the season with only two tight ends — Knox and Howard — and use fullback Reggie Gilliam as a hybrid. If Sweeney wants to make the team again this season, he’ll need to earn his way there or it could be a practice squad year for the first time in his career.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

 

Twitter: @HKTheResistance

 

HipKat, on *** other h***, is genuine, unapoli***tically nasty, and w**** his hea** on his ******. jc856

I’ll just forward them to Bridgett. comssvet11

Seek help. soflabillsfan

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Teams are going to have to stick TEs and RBs in to help contain miller. That is going to leave everyone else on the line free to get 1v1 match ups. If Oliver and Phillips are consistently getting 1v1 matchups, the line should get pressure inside. inside pressure is what destroys game plans.

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This looks like an epic defense on paper

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

 

Twitter: @HKTheResistance

 

HipKat, on *** other h***, is genuine, unapoli***tically nasty, and w**** his hea** on his ******. jc856

I’ll just forward them to Bridgett. comssvet11

Seek help. soflabillsfan

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