It was the first afternoon practice in six days and though the session ran long, head coach Doug Marrone planned for two longer breaks due to a rising heat index. Two players who were not affected by the heat put on a show in the passing game Sunday.
1. Hogan, Williams shine
We wrote back in the spring that Chris Hogan looked like one of the most improved players in OTAs and minicamp. From his burst off the line to his route running, Hogan just looked quicker. For those that had yet to read of Hogan's improvements they were on display Sunday. Right from the get go on the first play of 11-on-11 Hogan ran a letter perfect route on a deep in cut and EJ Manuel had it timed up well. Hogan leaped and pulled the pass in for a 20-yard gain.
That was followed by a difficult catch in traffic with three defenders in his vicinity two plays later. Hogan had five receptions in the practice and capped his afternoon by going up the ladder to pull down a touchdown pass in 7-on-7 red zone on a crossing pattern.
"I'm just trying to come out here every single day and make the best of my opportunities and make the plays when they present themselves," Hogan said.
It got to a point where Manuel's eyes were naturally going to Hogan to deliver the football as the practice wore on. He even hit Hogan with a pass before the receiver was close to turning his head during a red zone period and the wideout still made the catch for a score.
"Chris has done a great job, especially in the red zone where the area is a lot tighter," said Manuel. "I know there was one I threw him, he wasn't even looking, I kind of just stuck it in his stomach. As soon as he turned his head the ball was on him. That's a hard catch to make, especially in traffic."
Hogan wasn't alone. We've mentioned more than once that there are few equals when it comes to Mike Williams' ability to high point the football. On Sunday he put on a clinic. It began in 1-on-1s in the red zone when receivers go against defensive backs. Williams on a fade to the back corner of the end zone out jumped his defender, twirled in the air and tapped both sets of toes down in the end zone for a touchdown. The play drew a loud reaction from the crowd.
Williams also had five catches on the day with the last four all coming late in practice. In 11-on-11 red zone he pulled in a touchdown pass from Manuel and made the catch look easy. That was followed with a 7-on-7 red zone period to close out practice. Manuel zipped in a scoring pass to Williams out wide and then Jeff Tuel put up a fade pass in the left rear corner of the end zone.
The ball looked like it was going to sail out of bounds, but Williams soared over his defender and pulled the ball back in play and landed in bounds for a score. Many of the fans in attendance rose to their feet for that play. Tuel was so excited he ran to the end zone and did the jumping hip bump with his receiver.
"Mike is going to be a huge asset for us out wide. He's a guy who, in the red zone, teams will know we're going to him, and even though they'll know I'm throwing to him he'll still be able to come down with some balls," said Manuel. "Sammy (Watkins) is showing it too. He can go up high and get the ball and as a quarterback that's awesome. It gives me a lot more room for error as far as when I throw the ball up to a guy, just wanting to give him an opportunity to make a play."
2. Offense responds
Bills DE Jerry Hughes told Buffalobills.com he expected the offense to have some retribution at practice Sunday due to the defense's dominant performance the night before. To their credit the offense did perform better than they had, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Hogan and Mike Williams.
EJ Manuel felt there was a good deal of improvement in the offensive protections.
Definitely, we had a much better day. The work in the red zone, that kind of stuff, we scored a lot of touchdowns, so that was good," he said. "The defense still made good plays, but offensively I feel like we did a good job. We went back and worked on the protection aspect of things so we could protect the pocket a little better and each one of those guys did a better job."
3. Goal line a draw
For the first time in training camp the team ran a live goal line drill with tackling to the ground. The offense ran eight plays at the goal line, an area where the Bills had trouble punching it in at times in 2013.
On the first play EJ Manuel targeted newly signed TE Dominique Jones on a play fake, but the ball was knocked away for an incompletion.
Frank Summers was stopped short of the goal line on the next play. Anthony 'Booby' Dixon followed with a goal line carry, but he too was stuffed as Kyle Williams and Brandon Spikes teamed up for a tackle for loss.
It wasn't until the second half of the eight-play series that the offense found the end zone more consistently. After a trick play got the offense their first score, C.J. Spiller was stopped short of the goal line.
Dixon followed with a strong touchdown run dragging defenders with him.
FB Evan Rodriguez finished the series with a plowing run over the right guard for a score.
"It was very competitive," Dixon told Buffalobills.com. "They stopped me on the first one, but on the second one I got in there. That's what we're doing trying to make each other better. It's tough out there. I feel like the more we compete the better we're going to be."
4. Tight end shortage
The Bills went into training camp with four tight ends in Scott Chandler, Chris Gragg, Tony Moeaki and Lee Smith. After one week of training camp only one of those players is capable of practicing. Gragg was initially lost to severe muscle cramps which led to the tight end being hospitalized for a couple of days.
That was followed by the hamstring injury to Moeaki, and on Sunday Chandler was lost to a groin injury. Buffalo has already signed one free agent tight end on Dominique Jones to have enough tight ends to operate in practice. Gragg is supposed to be back on the field sometime this week, but it doesn't sound like Doug Marrone is interested in making another roster move to add one.
"Scott went down and then Chris (Gragg) isn't back yet," said Marrone. "So I think of it as we're going to try to put some different people in there without having to go out and bring another person in. There are a lot of things that we can do. I don't want to say I like it because then I'd be saying I'm happy that someone got hurt, but it forces our hand to do some things that we might have to do during the year to be successful."