The Buffalo Bills got a glimpse of what life without Josh Allen is like on Saturday.
Predictably, it wasn’t pretty.
Late in the second quarter, Elam collided with Indianapolis Colts 6-foot-5 tight end Alec Ogletree and Bills teammate Christian Benford on a play that became a Colts touchdown.
Backup quarterback Case Keenum accounted for three of the offense’s four turnovers in the first half during a 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Highmark Stadium.
Keenum, who was acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns this offseason, is expected to take over as the team’s No. 2 quarterback – a role occupied last season by Mitchell Trubisky. While his grasp on that job probably isn’t is danger after one particularly ugly half of preseason football, there wasn’t much to build on against the Colts.
“That’s the No. 1 job as quarterback, and I pride myself in being very stingy with the ball and to go out and do that, that was uncharacteristic of me. I take full responsibility for all those,” Keenum said.
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Keenum played the entire first half, going 11 of 18 for 86 yards and two interceptions, a quarterback rating of 33.3. He also rushed once for 3 yards. The Bills’ first drive of the game was actually one of the best, as the team went 75 yards in 10 plays. On fourth-and-4 from the Colts’ 5-yard line, Keenum threw an incomplete pass intended for tight end O.J. Howard.
“I’m out there with 10 guys who are prepared, practiced a lot with, had a great game plan, and I thought coming out the first drive we moved the ball well, thought we ran the ball well. I thought the offensive line played pretty well,” Keenum said. “It is preseason, so you need to take it with a grain of salt knowing that it’s not quite as game planned of a call sheet that we normally have. I thought we did some good things and there’s a lot of stuff to work on and get better at, as well.”
Things went downhill fast after the first drive.
Keenum was intercepted on the first play of Buffalo’s second possession. His throw was intended for Jamison Crowder was slightly high, and the ball bounced off the receiver’s hands into the waiting arms of Colts safety Rodney McLeod.
After a three-and-out on the third possession, the Bills turned the ball over again at the end of the first quarter. Keenum connected with wide receiver Jake Kumerow on a 20-yard gain, but the receiver fumbled at the end of the play, and the ball was recovered by Colts cornerback Isaiah Rodgers. The turnover trouble continued on the Bills’ next possession, when Keenum was sacked by Colts defensive end Kameron Cline, leading to a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Curtis Brooks.
After Bills safety Jaquan Johnson gave his team great field position following an interception of Colts quarterback Nick Foles, Keenum made his worst throw of the night. On first-and-10 from the Colts’ 15-yard line, he was intercepted on a throw intended for receiver Isaiah Hodgins down the left sideline.
“I was completely at fault,” Keenum said. “Kind of a weird look, the release he got. I thought the corner did a great job playing it. I don’t need to throw that ball, though. Especially after we get a turnover, we’ve got points. We’re trying to take a shot. I’ve got to be smarter than that.”
To be fair, Keenum was playing with backups across the board. The Bills elected not to start just about all of their projected opening-day starters, so the first-team offense against the Colts looked like this: Keenum, Howard, Kumerow, Crowder, wide receiver Khalil Shakir, running back Zack Moss and an offensive line, from left to right, of Tommy Doyle, Bobby Hart, Greg Van Roten, Cody Ford and Luke Tenuta.
Keenum was replaced by Matt Barkley to start the third quarter.
“Case is a good football player. I’ll start there,” head coach Sean McDermott said. “I know he wants some plays back. I do, too. There are some things I could have done better. I think that’s true for our entire football team, right? This is one game, and it’s a preseason game. There is a lot for us to learn from it. I know the result was the result and we win. That’s great, but the things we can learn from this game, Case included, myself included, will benefit us as we move forward.”
2. Boogie Basham makes a big play. The Bills have challenged their young defensive ends – Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Basham – to make more plays this season. Basham did just that against the Colts in the second quarter, sacking Foles and forcing a fumble that was picked up by rookie linebacker Terrel Bernard and returned 69 yards for a touchdown.
“I would say before the play even started, I was holding up guys like, ‘We need a big play right here.’ So, you know, I lined up, the tackle gave me what I wanted,” Basham said. “I took advantage of it. Seeing the quarterback was holding the ball, the same drill we work on every day, getting the ball out. Got the ball out, I look up, I see ‘TB’ picked the ball up, running down the sideline, scoring. It don’t get no better than that.”
Basham, who has switched to No. 55 this season, which was previously worn by veteran Jerry Hughes, had a difficult time getting on the field as a rookie, playing in just eight games in the regular season. The Bills will want that number to increase, and plays like the one he made Saturday will help build his case for more playing time.
“I would definitely say for me, it’s just a momentum builder,” Basham said.
Rousseau sat out, along with the rest of the Bills’ projected defensive starters. The starting lineup against the Colts looked like this: Basham, Epenesa, defensive tackles Tim Settle and Brandin Bryant, linebackers Andre Smith and Bernard, cornerbacks Kaiir Elam, Christian Benford and Cam Lewis and safeties Damar Hamlin and Johnson.
“Good to see the young guy get out there and make the most of the opportunity,” coach Sean McDermott said, and then smiled, during a halftime interview.
3. Punt God goes boom. Rookie punter Matt Araiza, amazingly enough, is one of the players fans and media has watched closely throughout the summer. Araiza showed why against the Colts in the second quarter, unleashing an 82-yard punt. Sure, it went into the end zone, but still … 82 yards!
“It got everybody geeked up, including us on the bench,” Keenum said of Araiza’s punt.
Also of note: Araiza held for Tyler Bass on an extra point in the first half and on a pair of field goals in the second half, including the game-winner. All of the holds were clean, including on a low snap on the extra point. Incumbent punter Matt Haack did punt once, and did a nice job from the 50-yard line, inducing a fair catch at the Indianapolis 12-yard line.
“That’s great experience for Matt there, and then being able to flip the field like that was huge,” McDermott said of Araiza, speaking first about the job he did holding. “I thought he was pretty consistent throughout the night in what we did. I thought Matt Haack had a good punt early there with the pooch situation.”
4. Shakir had a busy night. The Bills’ rookie receiver, who impressed during training camp at St. John Fisher University, led the team with five catches for 92 yards. Shakir mostly lined up as an outside receiver. He also served as the primary punt returner, although he didn’t have a ton of success in that regard. Shakir’s two return attempts went for just five yards.
“He just seems like he’s got a good knack and feel for the position,” McDermott said. “I know that’s what (general manager) Brandon (Beane) thought coming out, and his staff. You watch him, whether he’s returning punts back there or catching the football or blocking in the run game, which is also an important piece of being a receiver on this football team. No job is too small and in the same way, no job is too big, it appears. He’s off to a good start.”
While few, if any, of the Bills’ starters are expected to play Saturday’s preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts, here are the players who were not in uniform during warmups.
5. Seven Bills were not in uniform. Although most of the Bills’ starters didn’t play, they went through the process of suiting up and took the field for warmups. Just seven players on the roster were not in uniform, as counted by The Buffalo News. They were: Safety Jordan Poyer (elbow), wide receivers Tavon Austin (tightness) and Marquez Stevenson (foot), and defensive tackles Eli Ankou and DaQuan Jones. Ankou was activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list Friday as he recovers from a calf injury. It’s unknown if Jones is dealing with an injury. Additionally, cornerback Tre’Davious White (knee) and guard Ike Boettger (Achilles) remain on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
6. Raheem Blackshear scores twice, gets hurt, comes back. The rookie running back from Virginia Tech sparked the offense in the second half, gaining 54 yards on three receptions and pounding in a pair of touchdown runs from 1 and 3 yards out, respectively, in the fourth quarter. On the second of those scoring plays, however, Blackshear suffered a left ankle injury. He was able to make it back into the game on the Bills’ final drive.
“He gave us some juice. He was different when he came on the field,” McDermott said. “He didn’t want to be taken out. I’d say the same thing about ‘TB’ after the interception for a touchdown on defense. He went right back in. These are the things you don’t always see or hear. He had a chance to tap out the next kickoff coverage – I’m talking about Terrel Bernard – and he’s like, ‘No, I got it.’ That says a lot about a young man in terms of wanting to be out there and wanting to do everything he can to help the team and taking advantages of all the opportunities they get.”
7. Barkley leads the comeback win. The Bills pulled out the win thanks to a 46-yard field goal from Bass as time expired. The 12-play, 45-yard drive took the remaining 3:25 off the clock, and was highlighted by a pair of third-down conversions. Barkley connected with Isaiah Hodgins for 7 yards on a third-and-5 play, and then later completed an 8-yard pass to rookie receiver Neil Pau’u on third-and-1 from the Colts’ 41-yard line with less than a minute remaining. Hodgins led the Bills’ receivers with 11 targets, which he turned into nine catches for 77 yards. Barkley finished the game 18 of 24 for 224 yards and one interception.
“We had time and even under 2 minutes, we still felt comfortable,” Barkley said. “We just needed to get in field goal range knowing that T-Bass would dink it in. So I think it was a good tempo, guys weren’t panicked, there was no look of rushing or anything in guy’s eyes. … I think a lot of guys feel comfortable and we executed. Protections were on point even when we were going fast. Just finding those open windows with guys being where they need to be was encouraging.”
Buffalo has won eight preseason games dating to a 28-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 on Aug. 26, 2018, in the “Andy Dalton Appreciation” game.
8. The preseason win streak marches on. The Bills entered Saturday night having won their last eight preseason games. The Bills were undefeated in the preseason in both 2021 (3-0) and 2019 (4-0). There was no preseason ahead of the 2020 regular season because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bills’ streak of nine straight wins is second in the NFL behind the Baltimore Ravens, who Friday night won their 21st straight exhibition game, extending their NFL record.
“I remember going undefeated the last time we were here in preseason,” Barkley said. “I think that’s a testament to the culture that Sean brings. I was even telling someone after this, that we’ve practiced that two-minute drill in situations nearly every practice, whether it’s end of the half, end of the game, need a touchdown to tie, need a field goal to win. Everything you’d imagine, Sean puts out there where we get to practice that, and so I think that preparation and the level of play that we’ve seen on both sides of the ball in training camp against each other made today fun.”