As the Bears prepare to open the 2014 regular season on Sunday afternoon, they will see an opponent that looks pretty similar to themselves. Like the Bears, the Buffalo Bills are entering their second season under their head coach, with the goal of reaching the playoffs on their mind. The Bills were 6-10 a season ago, but feel they can take a major step forward this fall under coach Doug Marrone. Buffalo is optimistic in the development of quarterback E.J. Manuel, the team's first-round draft choice in 2013. Manuel started 10 games as a rookie and is hoping to build on his performance in his second season.
Speaking Wednesday on a conference call with Chicago reporters, both the quarterback and head coach said they were excited to see the improvements the Buffalo offense can make this coming year.
"The biggest thing was getting a true grasp of the playbook, knowing the ins and outs," Manuel said of the work he put in this offseason to improve as a player. "Along with that was getting myself healthy, making sure I was 100 percent as far as it was running or throwing the ball. Overall just decision-making, understanding that you don't have to always have to force a ball in there, knowing that we have a progression-type offense, a checkdown isn't bad." Marrone said because of all the time Manuel missed, they basically started from scratch this offseason to ensure the quarterback was ready for the 2014 season.
"I think (EJ has) shown to have good mobility and be able to run at times," Marrone said. "He can throw with consistency at times, that's one of the things he has to do a good job of. But he'll have a great challenge going against Chicago."
The Bills were a run-based offense a season ago, leading the AFC and finishing second in the league with an average of 144.2 yards per game on the ground. Hoping to have a more balanced attack this year, Buffalo traded up in the draft to select All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins from Clemson. Manuel was out to dinner with friends in Florida when he heard from Bills running back C.J. Spiller that the team had dealt for Watkins' rights. Manuel – who went to Florida State – and Spiller – a fellow Clemson product – were both pleased to add another speedster to the offense that had played collegiately in the ACC. Now the three players hope to showcase that speed against NFL defenses.
"Sammy has been great. He doesn't get involved with the hype. Sammy has enough confidence in himself to know what kind of player he is and what kind of player he can be," Manuel said. "I'm a huge Sammy fan even before we got him here, going against him in the ACC. We're extremely excited to have such an explosive receiver in the arsenal now."
On Sunday, the new-look Buffalo attack will square off with a Bears defense that has seen its fair share of changes as well. With so many new players, many of whom didn't play together during the preseason, there isn't a lot on tape of the current edition of the Chicago defense. That has complicated things for Marrone and the Bills, though the coach was confident his team would be ready when the game kicks off.
Marrone faced the Bears previously as offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints from 2006-2008. "I still think (the Bears have) always done a great job of creating turnovers," Marrone said. "They do a great job of covering. They've upgraded themselves on the inside with the depth. They have the pass rusher, they have the corner. It's the same thing. I've been going at them for some time from when I was with New Orleans. (Lance) Briggs is a great player, and there's a lot of good players on that field. We have to do a good job. Theyhave been very successful. Last year may not have gone how they wanted it, but it's a new year and they'll be ready to go for sure on opening day."