It didn't start to materialize until the latter stages of practice, but the chirping back and forth between the offensive and defensive units during an 11-on-11 red zone period certainly upped the intensity of practice. It also prompted Eric Wood to step out onto the field and shout at the second team defensive linemen who were getting ready for the next play while the second offensive line came up to the line of scrimmage.
Wood hurled some choice words in their direction and the defensive linemen waved him off. That was followed by a sack on the next play by DE Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, which led to some hollering by the defensive players watching on the end line. Back and forth it went and head coach Doug Marrone was clearly fine with it as it raised the level of competition between the two units. The players seemed to welcome it too.
"I think intensity is good and I think that's what we need, especially on offense," said EJ Manuel. "So many times the defense has an aggressive nature and I think that's something I want our offense to have an attacking nature to go out there and apply pressure not take pressure off a defense. I think intensity is fine, being passionate out on the practice field and trying to treat it like a game is important for us."
"It's very competitive and I like it," said Sammy Watkins. "It keeps me going. It keeps me fired up and on my toes to go out there and compete. It keeps us all together as one knowing we're trying to get each other better. It's just fun and the practice goes by so fast you don't even notice the periods."
Players work through the small details
Several players have mentioned it through the course of the OTA practices and after hearing coach Marrone assess the nine voluntary sessions that are now complete it's clear the men on the roster were echoing their head coach.
"We put in a lot of offense. We've made a lot of improvement on the little things," said Marrone. "Our goal was the trust in the communication. I've seen more of that from this team than in the past which I'm proud of, but the main thing is what I told them at the end. We can have all that stuff and make these strides at this period of time, but if you don't retain it and you don't keep working on it you basically flush it down the toilet when you show up again."
On offense the players felt their timing in the passing game was as good as it's been all spring as they connected on a lot more passes through the course of Thursday's practice.
"It takes time and we go through routes versus air every day," said Watkins. "(EJ Manuel) knows where to put the ball in tight coverages. Today he did a great job throwing the ball and he did a great job running our offense. I think this was one of our best days from an offensive point of view. For us wide receivers we didn't have that many mental errors."
Thad Lewis, who was also encouraged by the collective performance of the offense, believes with the step orientation of the offense for both the quarterbacks and the wideouts reaching the level of precision desired was going to take everybody feeling comfortable enough in the offense to be completely in sync.
"The thing about it is you go through three weeks and you try to get the timing down and it's a team effort," said Thad Lewis. "That's not just me, that's the receivers being confident in the routes they're running, being confident in the scheme and the quarterbacks being confident throwing the ball. We just stayed on it and for the last day of OTAs that was pretty good so I guess that's a great building block going into minicamp."
Marrone didn't deny that the offense has had some difficulty from time to time with their execution, but Buffalo's head coach is looking at the bigger picture and the advantageous matchups that they'll be able to put on the field come September.
"I'm happy. I'm really happy about where it is. I'm happy with the ability of our matchup potential now and where we can put different players," he said. "There are things now that we can do that we couldn't do last year. From that standpoint I'm happy.
"As far as trying to go out on the field and keep score, that's tough. There are moments all the time for both sides. The only one who is ever going to really win out here is the head coach because some days the offense is going to do well and you're happy for them. The defense is going to do well and you're happy for the defense."
As far as EJ Manuel's development is concerned Marrone likes the strides that his quarterback has made in June.
"I'm excited because what happens is that a lot of times even players you're looking at the end product and looking for end results. For us we're looking for those steps and where he's going with the ones he's taking," said Marrone. "Really with everything we've got going in and the volume, which is full scale right now, he's making a great amount of improvement in the things he didn't do as well last year. It starts with the foundation and his footwork and the things that are going on. I'm really excited about where he is and the amount of stuff that we put on his plate."
"I would say from the last game last season to now I'm way further ahead," said Manuel. "We've learned our responsibility of having the ability to change plays. Coach Hackett is not second guessing what we're doing. I think he trusts me a lot more to get us in the right play. I definitely feel a lot better with my grasp of the offense."
Watkins feels good about what Manuel has shown in the spring to this point.
"He's a great quarterback and from a wide receiver point of view we've got to get the steps (down)," said Watkins. "It's our fault if he doesn't get us the ball because it's all about steps and timing and it's coming along. We've still got a lot to work on because sometimes we're doing five and six steps when we should be doing seven. That's something we've got to clean up before we start the season."
Among some of the better plays turned in during team portions of practice, Chris Hogan made a nice over the shoulder reception on a pass from EJ Manuel, who caught the safeties cheating up field.
Lee Smith snared a high speed pass that came in just over his head on a seam route for a 25-yard gain from Manuel.
Sammy Watkins took a quick slant pass and tore up the field and likely would've outrun the safety on the play for a 70-yard touchdown.
During red zone work Robert Woods pulled in a Manuel pass for a touchdown on a post route.
Rookie Caleb Holley pulled in a touchdown pass on one of the best throws of the day from Thad Lewis in the front left corner of the end zone. Holley had another touchdown later that he caught from Dennis Dixon.
Defensively, Ron Brooks almost came away with an interception as he broke up a Manuel pass that had Chris Gragg targeted during a red zone period.
Nickell Robey knocked away a quick hitter attempt by Manuel as he tried to get the ball to Sammy Watkins.
Jerry Hughes and fellow DE Ikponmwosa Igbinosun both logged sacks.
With Brandon Spikes not in attendance Thursday rookie Preston Brown got all the first team reps at middle linebacker in both base defense and nickel packages.
In the nickel he was paired with Kiko Alonso, who saw his most extensive action this offseason. The linebacker appeared to be full go as he got snaps in team work from start to finish.
Another entrenched starter, who saw his most extensive action in the team portions of practice was safety Aaron Williams, who was paired with Da'Norris Searcy on the first team defense.
Keith Rivers was running mainly with the first unit in base defense as the strong side linebacker.
With Leodis McKelvin not on hand Ron Brooks still got the first team reps at cornerback. Stephon Gilmore worked in sparingly on the other side.
J.J. 'Unga was working at second team right guard while Antoine McClain flipped to the left side with the second unit. 'Unga had missed some practices due to an undisclosed injury.
Chris Hairston returned to the practice setting Thursday, but was stationed at third team left tackle presumably to keep his workload down on his first day back on the field. Fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson worked alongside him.
Doug Legursky was back practicing Thursday and worked as the backup center.
The Bills mandatory minicamp begins next Tuesday with a 3:15 practice. Head coach Doug Marrone said he expects everyone to be in attendance.