PITTSBURGH — Buffalo quarterback EJ Manuel welcomed the opportunity to watch Ben Roethlisberger practice this week, certain he could glean something from the way Pittsburgh star goes about his job.
Apparently, there's still much to learn. For Manuel and his rebuilding club both, particularly if they have to carry on without Sammy Watkins.
Manuel passed for 148 yards in a half of work but failed to lead the Bills to the end zone yet again in a 19-16 loss to the Steelers on Saturday night. Watkins, the fourth overall pick in the draft, left in the first quarter with a rib contusion and did not return.
Buffalo coach Doug Marrone declined to elaborate on the former Clemson player's status. The Bills (1-2) host Tampa Bay next Saturday.
"They're going to run tests and everything and we'll see how he is," Marrone said.
With Watkins sidelined, the Bills were given a somewhat sobering glimpse of what they might look like without the fourth overall pick in the draft. Manuel completed 17 of 27 passes with an interception as Buffalo's first-string offense continued to have trouble turning yards into points.
Four times the Bills drove into Pittsburgh territory in the first half only to come away with a pair of Dan Carpenter field goals and two failed fourth-down attempts.
"The whole night I thought we were moving," Manuel said. "We had long drives, 86-yard drives. We just didn't capitalize in the red zone."
Something that's become an alarming trend with the preseason more than half over. Marrone abandoned his original game plan in hopes of getting something going. He kept the starters in the entire first half looking for a spark.
He's still waiting. So are his players.
"We just have to finish," tight end Scott Chandler said. "We have to get in the end zone."
Manuel played well during a pair of joint practices with the Steelers this week and some of it carried over under the lights. Buffalo (1-2) moved the ball with relative ease during a half in which the first-string offense racked up 212 total yards.
All those first downs, however, translated into just six points.
"In the two games that we've lost this year, we've had a lot of opportunities," Marrone said. "We have to be able to score more and not give up the big plays early on."
Roethlisberger, working with an offense he insists can be one of the more explosive in the league, threw a pair of touchdowns in just over a quarter of play. He hit Brown in stride on Pittsburgh's second play from scrimmage and the Pro Bowl receiver ran away from a pair of defenders on his way to a 76-yard score.
"It was a great read by Ben," Brown said. "The defensive back got caught up with another guy. Ben hit me in the spot and I was able to get up to speed and turn the corner."
The Steelers (1-1) got the ball back moments later when rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier — who missed the preseason opener with a right knee injury coach Mike Tomlin called a "boo boo" — showcased why Pittsburgh took him with the 15th pick in the first round. Shazier stepped in front of Manuel's pass intended for Chandler and returned it 27 yards to the Buffalo 37.
The play highlighted a breakout night for Shazier, who finished with 11 total tackles in addition to his pick.
Working almost exclusively out of the no huddle, the Steelers took advantage. Facing third-and-11 at the Buffalo 16, Roethlisberger waited for Wheaton to beat Stephon Gilmore to the left corner. Wheaton's hauled it in before tumbling out of bounds to make it 13-3.
Roethlisberger played one more series before giving way to the backups.
"The communication was what I wanted to work on, and we didn't have mental errors of what I saw so far," Roethlisberger said. "It was a good start to the no huddle."
The Bills operated at nearly the same pace, just without the same result.
Twice Marrone had his starters go for it on fourth down in Pittsburgh territory in the first half.
And twice they came up short. Manuel's pass to T.J. Graham on fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 21 was knocked down by defensive lineman Cam Heyward. Manuel returned for one final drive at the end of the half and moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 3 only to see his fourth-down throw to Chandler batted away by Robert Golden.
"It would have been good if we would have finished with a touchdown on one of those drives," Chandler said. "Wish we would have made it on that last one."