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Bills camp observations: Josh Allen, Gabriel Davis shine under the lights at Highmark

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — After almost two full weeks of work, the Bills ditched the dorm rooms at St. John Fisher University and got a taste of playing at Highmark Stadium on Friday night. In front of 35,911 fans, the Bills went through their biggest training camp practice yet, focusing heavily on scrimmaging in typical game situations.

The results were not kind to the defense. There wasn’t a single turnover, and the offense scored on eight of 12 total drives. Six of those scoring drives went for touchdowns. Three quarterbacks, Josh Allen, Case Keenum and Matt Barkley, completed 74 percent of their passes for 499 yards. Not a bad day at the office.

Who stood out on Day 10 of camp? Here are seven observations from the Bills’ lone night practice of the summer.

Davis steals the show

Allen and the passing offense could do (almost) no wrong Friday night. Allen wound up completing 18 of 27 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns for the most prolific passing practice of the summer, and he couldn’t have done it without starting wideout Gabriel Davis.

The third-year receiver was getting open at will against the top cornerbacks the defense had to offer. Whether it was on short routes, in intermediate areas or deep down the field, Davis was getting open and making the defense pay. Allen wound up targeting Davis six times, and the pair linked up for five catches and 76 yards. More importantly, they teamed up for two of Allen’s three scoring tosses.

The lone miss between the two was barely a miss at all. Allen lofted a perfect ball 25 yards down the field to the left side of the end zone. Davis beat cornerback Dane Jackson, rose up to secure the catch, got one foot in bounds and his second foot barely missed the end zone, making it an incompletion. Had Davis dragged the second foot, his day would have been five receptions on five targets for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Instead, Allen found Davis a handful of plays later for a 2-yard score. Davis’ biggest gain of 45 yards came from Allen as he duped the defense into leaving Davis all by himself, and Davis took the pass on the right sideline and scampered to the 3-yard line.

Davis was the best pass catcher on the field, but Stefon Diggs was also heavily targeted by Allen. Diggs converted on five of his eight targets for 49 yards. Although he didn’t hit a significant gain, he was consistently getting open in the short to intermediate areas, helping the Allen group thrive. From where Allen’s group started its drives, the maximum yardage could have been 280 yards, and Allen wound up with 184. Only one of Allen’s four drives did not result in a touchdown.

Elam, cornerbacks can’t get their footing

It’s a bit of an understatement, but the young cornerbacks struggled mightily. You might have guessed, seeing that the Allen-led offense collected nearly 66 percent of the possible passing yardage. It just came far too easily for the prolific passing group, and it underscores what has been a pretty consistent trend throughout the 10 days of training camp.

Although they have some young talent in rookie first-round pick Kaiir Elam, and some experience with Jackson, the defense has had to rely on the pass rush to make an impact. And when the pass rushers haven’t, Allen and his pass catchers have made their presence felt all summer.

Allen, Diggs and Davis picked on Elam a bit Friday night. They hit him on some underneath throws and then burned him for both Davis touchdowns. And it could’ve been worse. On one play, Diggs beat Elam clean to the end zone, getting the rookie to stumble in coverage, but Allen underthrew the pass, allowing Elam to get in the way. If the ball was there, it would have been another touchdown. On another end zone attempt to Diggs, safety Damar Hamlin bailed Elam out by faking out Allen and nearly picking off the pass. But Diggs beat Elam cleanly at the line.

Elam and Jackson’s struggles have allowed rookie sixth-round pick Christian Benford to enter the starting conversation. For the fourth straight practice, Benford got some work against the Bills’ top receivers in team drills. It remains to be seen when Tre’Davious White will be able to return from his torn ACL rehab, or who will start the opener if White isn’t ready by then.

However, the Bills need to see Elam, Jackson and Benford in a live game setting against someone other than the Allen, Diggs and Davis passing attack. The preseason opener against the Colts next Saturday seems like an ideal opportunity to see how far Elam has come, and who the Bills can trust to open the season at boundary cornerback.

Running game struggles and an early exit for Singletary?

The passing offense was simply outstanding, regardless of who was playing quarterback. The running game? Not so great. They raced off to a big start on a second-and-7 run by Devin Singletary and a gaping running lane opened up by center Mitch Morse for a 24-yard gain. After that, Bills running backs gained only 47 yards on 19 rushing attempts. Singletary did not get a single carry or target after that early practice run, which makes you wonder if something happened to him on the play and they were just being cautious. He was seen on the sideline without his helmet at the end of practice.

Third-year running back Zack Moss got a lot of short-yardage opportunities, and the defensive line completely engulfed the offensive line on his first four chances. Moss wound up gaining only 12 yards on seven attempts — and an average of 1.7 yards per carry. Rookie James Cook and veteran Duke Johnson weren’t much better. Cook averaged only 2.8 yards per carry and Johnson a meager 1.8.

That offensive line group struggled to make an impact against the talented defensive line, and the stats showed. If anything, it’s a confirmation that this is a pass-oriented offense, but the Bills do need to be better running the ball than they were Friday. On the positive side, the offensive line got a tad healthier as projected starting right guard Ryan Bates mixed in on team drills for the first time since early in camp.


Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa appears to be the leader for the No. 3 pass rusher role. (Rich Barnes / USA Today)

Epenesa gets the call as Miller sits

At the start of the evening, star pass rusher Von Miller ran onto the field in full pads, his entrance generating a huge roar from the crowd. Miller didn’t do much else, though, as he sat out the entirety of team drills for a likely veteran rest day. How the Bills replaced him was indicative of how the rotational pass rushers have performed this summer. Third-year pass rusher A.J. Epenesa filled in for Miller against the Allen-led offense, confirming the strong camp Epenesa had had at St. John Fisher.

Epenesa has made at least one play in the backfield in most of the practices, a positive sign after his inconsistent first two years in the NFL. Epenesa has outperformed second-year player Boogie Basham and veteran Shaq Lawson. The next step is to continue to make impact plays in the preseason. As it stands, it seems he has the best chance to be the third edge rusher in the rotation behind Miller and Greg Rousseau.

Araiza wins another round of the #MattVsMattPuntapalooza

Rookie Matt Araiza and veteran Matt Haack had a bit of a day to forget in the punting competition. With near-perfect weather, both players struggled with yardage and hang time. In team drills, Haack managed only manage a 38-yard punt that went down to the 22-yard line for a fair catch. Araiza was next with a low-lining punt that zoomed past the goal line for a touchback and only 30 net yards.

Araiza had another opportunity to boom a punt out of the end zone from his own 5-yard line, but he missed on the ball a bit and it went only 40 yards in the air with a hang time of 2.83 seconds. The ball bounced for some additional yardage, but it wasn’t quite the field-flipping punt Araiza is known for. Still, just before team drills began, Araiza drilled the best punt of the evening to win yet another day. He crushed one kick 69 yards that landed just in front of the end zone and hung in the air for 4.68 seconds.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was the third straight punting practice that Araiza has won. If Araiza does well in the first preseason game or two, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Bills to make their decision well before cutdown day on Aug. 30.

Poyer’s reduced wrap and a discouraging sign for Stevenson

Now a few days removed from his elbow injury, starting safety Jordan Poyer appeared to be in great spirits on the sideline with his teammates. But more importantly, he was wearing a smaller wrap on his left elbow as the Bills remain hopeful that he can return before start of the season. The Bills said on Thursday that Poyer would be out “maybe a week or two,” though they wouldn’t commit to him being ready for the season opener. Poyer has rarely missed time, and the seemingly minor injury may only cost him practice time in the summer build-up to Sept. 8.

On the opposite side, second-year Marquez Stevenson wasn’t able to even be in his jersey on the sideline as he was in a walking boot at practice. Near the end of the session, he was seated on a scooter, watching his teammates from the tunnel. The walking boot was on his right foot, the same foot that landed him on injured reserve last summer.

The Bills have already said Stevenson will miss “weeks” with the newest foot injury. Given the nature of the wide receiver depth chart and the Bills’ talent, this may be an opportunity to hang on to Stevenson without subjecting him to waivers. They could stash him on injured reserve if they deem the foot injury serious enough and keep him on his four-year rookie contract, with two years remaining beyond 2022. Even healthy, it might have been a struggle to crack the 53-man roster. It’s not ideal for Stevenson, but the Bills could benefit.

Bottom-roster standouts under the lights

Quarterback Matt Barkley had his best practice of camp and did so in front of the biggest crowd of the summer. Barkley completed 16 of his 21 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns as he was as accurate as he’s been during camp. A few of those incompletions were a byproduct of not being on the same page with his receiver, which shows just how dialed in Barkley was from start to finish. Tanner Gentry and undrafted rookie Neil Pau’u were two of Barkley’s favorite targets. They both had a bunch of targets and each came down with a touchdown catch. Gentry had one of the day’s best catches, a 29-yard gain as he laid out for a Barkley pass.

Defensive end Kingsley Jonathan was another standout. He worked against undrafted offensive tackle Alec Anderson for a pair of sacks and routinely won that one-on-one battle. It was the type of practice that could endear him to the coaching staff enough to warrant practice squad consideration.

(Top photo of Gabriel Davis: Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)

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