It's been a most unusual offseason, but with all of the headlines about negotiations and mediation now in the rearview mirror, the Bills can begin their first and final stages of preparation for the 2011 season as they travel to Chicago to take on the Bears for an 8 pm kickoff at Soldier Field Saturday night.
Naturally the players are anxious knowing they haven't had much opportunity to stay in sync throughout the offseason. The preseason opener will be the first real measuring stick to see just how much ground they've made up in two weeks of training camp.
"I think we've had a lot of good work since we've been (at camp)," said Fitzpatrick. 'The good thing about these preseason games is to figure out where you're at. That's some of the excitement for this first game as well. We've got a pretty good group right now and we'll get a chance to go out there and kind of see where we are.
"We want to go out there and limit the penalties, especially the pre-snap stuff, the stuff that makes the game sloppy. It'd be nice to just be consistent and put a drive or two together and get in the end zone."
The Bills and Bears have met 14 times previously in the preseason. Overall Buffalo holds a 2-11-1 preseason record against Chicago.
Playing timeBills head coach Chan Gailey laid out his plans for playing time with respect to his starters on both sides of the ball, but explained that it won't be cut and dry.
"We've talked preliminarily about them going to somewhere around the first quarter, maybe a little bit less, maybe a little bit more," he said. "It depends on how many plays we get."
Gailey has a fine line to walk in this preseason. Knowing the players haven't much time on the field and just two weeks of camp, the risk for injury at game speed is potentially higher. At the same time Buffalo's staff wants their players on the field long enough to get quality work in to be properly prepared for the regular season.
"The one thing I know is if they go out and you get guys hurt because you left them out there too long and they're not ready to play September 11th that's not a good thing," said Gailey. "So you've got to find ways to keep pushing them to be ready for September 11th and get them ready for September 11th without going over that line."
Gailey indicated that some players on the starting units might see a little more time, some might see a little less.
"We'll take this game more individually than maybe we've ever taken a game," he said. "We may say the first group plays so long, but there may be two guys that don't or maybe one guy that plays more just because he needs it."
Players that figure to fall into that category are Shawne Merriman, who is coming off an extended layoff from live game action. It's expected he'll play a bit less than the rest of the starters.
Meanwhile players like starting right guard Kraig Urbik and starting right tackle Erik Pears might play a bit longer to get more accustomed to one another as linemates being that they're both new to the starting offensive line this year.
QB rotationThe quarterback rotation is expected to follow suit with the way the signal callers have been rotated through in training camp practices. Ryan Fitzpatrick will lead the starting offensive unit. Tyler Thigpen will enter the game next as he has had the most time with the second unit, but Gailey intends to use all of his top four signal callers.
With respect to Brad Smith, Gailey said that he will come in and out as opposed to orchestrating a full series or long drive. He'll be followed by Levi Brown.
"Offensively we just want to go out there and execute and do all the little things right so we can build on that and go into the next week," said Thigpen.
Whether undrafted rookie Josh Nesbitt sees any action at quarterback is up in the air.
Debut of DareusNaturally there is a lot of anticipation about the debut of Bills top pick Marcell Dareus. Through two weeks of training camp he's made his share of plays in the run front. The Alabama product said he won't be nervous come game time.
"The whole point of working out and practicing and getting ready for the game was to be ready," said Dareus. "Why be nervous for something we already worked our butts off for? We worked out the kinks and we should be ready to go."
Dareus is fully aware of the team's struggles last season in stopping the run. He aims to be a big part of fixing that, and is hopeful they can begin showing Saturday that they're a far more capable unit in that aspect of their game.
"We have a lot to prove, but we've improved a lot," he said. "I think we're ready to go out there and show what we've been working on. We had a lot of miscommunication last year which I heard from the veterans. So I think right now we're communicating a lot better and I think we should be able to go out there and (be successful) beginning this weekend."
Lineup changesTorell Troup suffered a cracked bone in his hand in practice early this week and his right hand was fitted for a cast. He practiced on Thursday with his cast heavily wrapped. Initially he was not expected to play Saturday, but Gailey is now leaning toward having Troup play Saturday.
"We will evaluate that, but I'm more convinced that we will play him than not play him at this point," Gailey said.
Troup has had a solid training camp, but the club on his right hand will prove to be an adjustment.
Roscoe Parrish tweaked him left hamstring in practice Wednesday night and has been ruled out for Saturday's game, so David Nelson and Donald Jones are expected to be the primary slot receivers with the first team offense when the team goes three wide.
The fourth receiver could be either the recently signed Craig Davis or Marcus Easley. Easley just returned to practice Wednesday after missing more than week with a hyperextended knee, so his amount of time is not expected to be extensive.
"I think Marcus will get his share and everybody has a different share in this ball game, but he's going to get a decent number of reps," said Gailey. "The thing we don't want to do is overextend him."
The case is much the same for ILB Kelvin Sheppard, who missed almost the same amount of time with a pulled hamstring.
"Probably very sporadically," said Gailey of Sheppard's playing time Saturday. "He hasn't had the (practice) time he needs to play."
Drayton Florence is now expected to start after returning from an ankle injury sooner than expected. Florence injured the ankle in a night practice last Saturday and was all but ruled out of Saturday's game with a prognosis of four to six days. Florence was back practicing Wednesday night and will now play Saturday barring any setbacks.
Not expected to play are TE Shawn Nelson, CB Justin Rogers, who have been sidelined by injuries and have not practice at all this week.
The opponentMuch like the Bills the Bears added some new pieces to their roster, most notably Dallas cast off WR Roy Williams and RB Marion Barber.
With the addition of Williams to the receiving corps, Johnny Knox is now running fourth on the receiver depth chart for the Bears behind starters Williams and Devin Hester, with Earl Bennett the slot receiver.
Chicago also traded TE Greg Olsen to Carolina for a third-round draft choice. The new starting tight end is fourth-year man Kellen Davis. They also parted ways with long time center Olin Kreutz, who has been replaced by former guard Roberto Garza.
With Garza moving inside Lance Louis and Chris Williams are now the starting guards with J'Marcus Webb at left tackle and first-round pick Gabe Carimi at the starting right tackle spot.
Head coach Lovie Smith, much like Chan Gailey, was weighing the pluses and minuses of playing his starters a bit more than normal knowing they missed close to three hours of practice time this week due to a power outage at a night practice, unsafe field conditions and lightning.
The last timeThe Bills last played the Bears in Week 1 of the 2009 preseason at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Tied at 13 after three quarters of play Buffalo scored a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns on a three-yard reception by Shawn Nelson and a four-yard run by Bruce Hall to take a 27-13 lead en route to a 27-20 victory.