With Tuesday’s training camp practice now complete, the Bills have hit their second day off of the summer and their first since full pads went on this week. And with the day, there was one notable absence on the field, though it wasn’t a player.
Bills coach Sean McDermott was not in attendance for the team’s practice on Day 6. A team spokesman said McDermott was attending a personal family matter, and the expectation was for the coach to rejoin the team on Tuesday afternoon.
Even without McDermott, his defense put together one of their strongest efforts in training camp this year. Along with a brief scare about the franchise quarterback, here’s what stood out from Tuesday’s practice.
Allen has minor injury scare but misses minimal time during defensive sackfest
For the second day in a row, there was a momentary scare for franchise quarterback Josh Allen. On Monday, it was accidental contact from nickel corner Taron Johnson that knocked over Allen at the end of practice, only for the quarterback to appear okay in the post-practice activities. And then on Tuesday, Allen only missed a couple of reps. On only his second set of team drills, Allen dropped back to pass as the entire defensive line began to engulf the pocket. The throw was whistled dead for a would-be sack, and Allen immediately jogged away from the area while a backup quarterback took his place in the huddle.
Allen took his helmet off as an athletic trainer came over to check on him, where both began looking at his lower right leg and foot area. General manager Brandon Beane also came to chat with Allen, with the conversation eventually appearing jovial with a laugh by the end of it. Once team drills moved on to effectively a walkthrough period of installation, Allen resumed practice initially, then subbed out for a play as he took his right shoe off and appeared to get it tapped. Without delay, Allen returned for the following play and didn’t miss a designated rep for the rest of practice.
However, even as Allen finished out the day, it was one of the more frustrating practices for the offense as the defense was consistently in the backfield, impacting the outcome. The first-team defense wound up with six would-be sacks throughout the practice on only 25 dropbacks, and on some of the actual pass attempts, Allen had to settle for a shorter throw because the pressure got there quickly. After three good days of offensive success, the defense battled back to win the day both at the line of scrimmage, and then dominated the final portion of practice as well.
One-minute drill to end practice was a complete offensive failure
Although the offense had their moments on Day 6, none occurred during the final stage of Tuesday’s practice. The Bills gave both the first-team and second-team offense an opportunity to operate a one-minute drill. Allen and the first-team unit started with only 40 seconds to play on their own 45-yard line. Kyle Allen and the second team took the ball at the defense’s 40-yard line with 50 seconds to play. As it turned out, it didn’t matter much where each unit started their drive or how much time they had. The first and second offenses collectively went a combined 0-for-8 with two false start penalties, one sack, two turnovers on downs and a net yardage of minus-16.
It wasn’t just misfire after misfire for the offense, though. The first-team defense saw two excellent plays in coverage to break up a pass at the last minute. The first came from linebacker Matt Milano, who ran stride for stride with rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid before breaking up the catch attempt along the right sideline. Then on fourth down, safety Cam Lewis made up for fellow safety Taylor Rapp’s poor angle to the throw and made an outstanding pass break up deep over the middle against receiver Khalil Shakir. The second-team defense saw Christian Benford’s play instincts nearly pick off a Kyle Allen pass, and defensive tackle Kendal Vickers worked in for a sack on the second play. Especially going into a day off, the offense will likely have a lot of motivation to fire back on Thursday for Day 7.
Spector gets skipped in the MLB rotation, though there could be a reason
Through the first three days of camp, the Bills gave Tyrel Dodson, Terrel Bernard and Baylon Spector — in that order — their own day to work as the first-team middle linebacker alongside Milano. The rotation turned over on Day 4, with Dodson getting his next day with the top unit, and then Bernard on Day 5. If the same rotation held, Day 6 should have belonged to Spector. However, as the day went along, it was Dodson getting all the first-team time next to Milano. There are two plausible reasons for this until we get more information on Thursday for Day 7.
The first possibility is that the Bills decided to get Dodson on even-footing in terms of padded practices. The physical element is critical to the Bills’ decision on the starter, and because the team only began with full pads on Day 5, perhaps they wanted Dodson to get his first full day with the top unit in pads, while avoiding the optics of having Dodson working with the top unit on back-to-back days. If Spector is indeed with the top unit on Day 6, that would be the likeliest explanation.
However, there is also a possibility the Bills narrowed their search down to just Dodson and Bernard, pushing Spector out of the competition entirely. Considering how much they value fully padded practices for this role, it would be a slight surprise for Spector to have been eradicated from contention after only one non-padded opportunity. We’ll find out on Day 6, but it would make the most sense if Spector is next to Milano on Thursday.
Bills observations: High praise for James Cook, Terrel Bernard makes impact play
James Cook heavily involved in pass game on Day 6
Even though Josh Allen struggled down the stretch and had to be frustrated with all the pressure in his face, he still completed 12-of-19 pass attempts through the entire day of team drills. And of those 12 completions, second-year running back James Cook came down with five of them. Cook was easily the Bills’ best offensive player with the first unit, making good reads on run opportunities and then showing off his speed and hands as an outlet for Allen.
His best play was on a throw toward the sideline to Cook, where the running back zoomed out to the throw in the flat and caught it in stride, beating the lightning-fast Matt Milano to the spot up the field. It was an easy money type of rep, and if the super athletic Milano was slow to get to Cook for an early stop, that could really take advantage of some slower linebackers in the NFL on game day. Cook has continued to look like the far-and-away top back at training camp and seems destined for at least over half of the offensive snaps this season if he continues this level of play.
Elam continues to get top-unit time
As the three primary starting battles continue, the search for a running mate with cornerback Tre’Davious White continued on Tuesday. Dane Jackson, Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam have all gotten their fair share of reps with the first-team unit to this point, and on Day 6, Elam had his most extensive work there all camp. There wasn’t a ton that initially stood out from Elam during team drills against the first unit except for the fact that he was on the field, which is an action of trust from the coaching staff.
Though with three players all vying for a spot and with each player having a varying amount of reps with the top unit by each day, it’s shaping as an elaborate rotation that isn’t as straightforward as middle linebacker. Dane Jackson got first-team time through the first five days but didn’t get any on Day 6. Christian Benford got first-team time each of the first three days, stayed on the second unit for the following two days, and then got more time with the top unit on Day 6. Elam didn’t get any legitimate first-team time until Day 4 but continued to get some on Days 5 and 6. To this point, Benford has been the most impressive of the trio and has what defensive backs coach John Butler called “elite” processing skills. Regardless, we’re still some preseason games short of knowing who will win this job outright.
Cam Lewis putting together a strong case to make the team again
Although to most defensive back Cam Lewis is seen as a fringe roster player for the 2023 Bills team, he’s quietly putting together an excellent camp and has seen his opportunities increase during camp across the board. We’ve seen him be a nickel and safety hybrid during a few days of camp, and on Tuesday, as starter Jordan Poyer sat out on a vet rest day, Lewis even occasionally worked in with the first unit at safety. He made the huge play to break up the pass on fourth down to Shakir near the end of the session, and he’s made several other good pass breakups at each position. That defensive versatility as a possible backup nickel and safety will go a long way for Lewis, and that’s before you even consider how valued he is by special teams coordinator Matthew Smiley. Lewis could also be the direct answer to taking the pressure off of both the Bills and Damar Hamlin for Hamlin to be an immediate contributor on the 53-man roster. It would not be a surprise if the Bills keep five safeties this year, with Lewis as fourth on the depth chart, giving the ability to make Hamlin a healthy scratch if the safety isn’t ready for game action by September.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 1, 2023
Hamlin took his first big contact
Although Monday will be remembered as the day safety Damar Hamlin donned full pads for the first time since January, it was Tuesday that brought on the first time he really popped the pads with an offensive player. It happened on a run play to Damien Harris, where Hamlin rushed toward the backfield from the defensive left side. On his way, an on-the-move Dion Dawkins caught Hamlin clean on a block that knocked him back a couple of steps. It was one where you could hear the pop of the pads from the sideline, and on the next play, Hamlin was right back in it, communicating and directing traffic from the defensive middle before the snap. There will be plenty of other firsts for Hamlin before it just becomes normal again, but that first big contact was a big step.
Day 6 non-participants: S Jordan Poyer (vet rest), DT Tim Settle (groin), WR Isaiah Coulter (knee), WR Bryan Thompson (concussion), CB Kyron Brown (groin), DE Von Miller (knee, PUP list), DT Jordan Phillips (shoulder, PUP list), LB Tyler Matakevich (calf, PUP list)
(Photo of Josh Allen: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)