So much for a dress rehearsal.
The norm around the NFL is that teams treat their third preseason game as the final tuneup for the regular season, keeping their best players in the game as deep as the third quarter. But coach Rex Ryan bucked that trend in Friday's 21-16 loss to the Washington Redskins, resting the majority of his starters and pulling others after only two possessions.
The reasoning from Ryan likely will be two-fold. First, the Bills' first-team defense could not have performed better in its playing time in each of the first two preseason games, holding the Colts to 17 net yards on three possessions and limiting the Giants to 23 net yards on four drives. Second, there was little reason to risk injury to key players such as LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay, Jerry Hughes, Stephon Gilmore or Ronald Darby -- all of whom sat out Friday's game.
"I'm doing what's best for our team," Ryan said on the team's television broadcast at halftime. "We want to show up at the starting game of the regular season."
The prize in Ryan's eyes is having his team healthy for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener in Baltimore, and after he witnessed his defense virtually shut down its first two preseason opponents, there was little purpose in the Bills' second-year coach treating the third preseason game as a dress rehearsal.
QB depth chart: Tyrod Taylor played the first two drives of the game and went 2-for-5 passing for 11 yards. He got little help from his offensive line on the first possession, taking a sack and another hard hit that surely had Buffalo's coaches squirming. "Looks like a stupid decision to play him because I never expected him to get hit," Ryan said at halftime. Taylor's accuracy could have been better on a fade pattern to Sammy Watkins in the red zone on the Bills' second offensive series. EJ Manuel replaced Taylor midway through the first quarter and played for the remainder of the game because the Bills' only other quarterback, Cardale Jones, was held out of the contest because of shoulder soreness.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Bills looked ... : With so many starters not in uniform or kept on the sideline, there wasn't much to evaluate from Buffalo's top players. Watkins' preseason debut was limited to the first two possessions and included only one target -- Taylor's overthrown pass to the end zone. The Bills played only four probable Week 1 defensive starters in Friday's game: defensive linemen Adolphus Washington and Corbin Bryant, as well as linebackers Manny Lawson and Zach Brown. Washington, a third-round pick, continued to look disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
Maybe that dude could start: If Manny Lawson is unavailable for the regular-season opener or at any other point because of potential discipline stemming from the NFL's investigation into a possible violation of the league's personal conduct policy, the Bills could turn to Lorenzo Alexander to start in his place at outside linebacker. A 33-year-old veteran whose contributions have come mainly on special teams, Alexander showed up Friday night in the pass rush against right tackle Morgan Moses. On one of his rushes, Alexander drew a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty for hitting quarterback Kirk Cousins too low.
Who got hurt? Reserve tight end Chris Gragg exited the game in the second quarter with a left knee injury sustained on a hit by Redskins safety DeAngelo Hall. He walked off the field under his own power and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. Cornerback Jonathan Dowling, a long shot to make the 53-man roster, left in the second quarter with a knee injury and also was ruled out. Rookie running back Jonathan Williams left on the final play of the third quarter after taking a hard hit at the end of a run; he was ruled out with a rib injury. Receiver Walter Powell also got attention from trainers on the final play of the game.
One reason to be concerned: Missed tackles. The Bills' defense struggled with wrapping up ball carriers throughout the first half of Friday's game, with safety Duke Williams and cornerback Kevon Seymour among the notable offenders. Both players are highly likely to earn 53-man roster spots, so their snafus can't be written off as preseason struggles by players who won't be looked to contribute in the regular season.
A surprise player who impressed: Before his injury, Jonathan Williams gained a net zero yards on his first five carries of Friday's game but broke free on a 37-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The fifth-round pick got an excellent block from fullback Glenn Gronkowski, but also showed some power by bouncing off a couple Redskins defenders on the run. As long as he stays healthy, Williams stands to benefit from the Bills' decision to release Karlos Williams -- but he'll still need to fight for playing time (and potentially a spot on the 46-man game-day roster) with Reggie Bush and Mike Gillislee.