ORCHARD PARK, New York — Don't count EJ Manuel out of the Buffalo Bills quarterback competition just yet.
After spending much of the previous two weeks working with the Bills' second- and third-stringers, Manuel will get his turn to start in Buffalo's third preseason game against Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Coach Rex Ryan made the announcement following practice Thursday, when the team returned to Orchard Park after breaking camp in suburban Rochester.
Acknowledging he didn't have an exact plan on who would start in the Bills' third preseason game when training camp started, Ryan said Manuel "earned the shot at this." Ryan based that assessment on how Manuel went a combined 13 of 22 for 188 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of each of Buffalo's first two preseason games. That includes a touchdown drive and 2-point conversion in the final minutes to pull out an 11-10 win at Cleveland.
"I just love the competitiveness in him," Ryan said. "All he's gotten is reps with the threes and the twos. And now it's a shot to get reps with the ones as well. And I feel good about that."
The decision means all three quarterbacks competing for the No. 1 job will have had a start this preseason. Matt Cassel started the opener against Carolina, and Tyrod Taylor started against Cleveland last week.
Ryan, however, cautioned that while Manuel will start, Cassel and Taylor will also have a chance to work with the first-team offense against the Steelers.
That's fine with Manuel, because all he's wanted is a chance to prove himself under Ryan, who took over in January after Doug Marrone stepped down abruptly on Dec. 31.
"I think it's another great opportunity," Manuel said. "I've just got to continue to work. The decision hasn't been made. Whatever I can continue to do to get better and show coaches that I can be the starter, I just want to continue to do that."
Cassel is a 10-year journeyman and acquired in an offseason trade with Minnesota. He's a pocket passer, efficient in running the offense.
Taylor signed with Buffalo in March after spending the past four seasons as Joe Flacco's backup in Baltimore. Taylor is a mobile player, who has the potential of adding a read-option dimension to the Bills offense.
Manuel has remained upbeat despite an inconsistent and injury-troubled first two seasons in Buffalo since being selected in the first round of the 2013 draft. He went 4-6 as a rookie and missed six games due to three separate knee injuries. Last year, he went 2-2 to open the season before losing the starting job to journeyman Kyle Orton.
Manuel's latest opportunity comes 10 days after acknowledging that his days in Buffalo might be numbered. He told The Associated Press he didn't know if his long-term future was in Buffalo or "somewhere else," and said he understood the business side of the game.
Manuel said his confidence has grown since capping the touchdown drive against Cleveland with a 14-yard pass to Andre Davis on fourth-and-goal.
"I'm a competitor and it just came out of me a little bit," Manuel said, referring to how he celebrated afterward on the sideline. "I had to calm myself down because we still had some time left, but I was excited."
Ryan hasn't revealed a timetable as to when he intends to name his starter. And he might wait until the week leading up to the season-opener against Indianapolis on Sept. 13 so as not to tip his hand to the Colts.
NOTES: RBs Boobie Dixon (calf) and Bryce Brown (hamstring) returned to practice Thursday, but it's unlikely they will play Sunday. ... The Bills are also expected to be without their top three WRs for a second straight game with Sammy Watkins (gluteal muscle/hamstring), Robert Woods (tightness) and Percy Harvin (hip) still nursing injuries. ... TE Charles Clay practiced and is expected to play after he hurt his knee on Tuesday.