By BBD Writer Eric Samulski
The reactions Bills fans will have to this Sunday’s clash against the Browns will depend almost entirely on the confirmed status of CJ Spiller’s injury. As of writing, Chan Gailey believed the talented RB would only miss two weeks, but no details had been released. If that is indeed the case then the Bills can breath a sigh of relief and take solace in another dominant performance by the offensive line, few errors by Fitz, and the continued pressure being applied by the defensive line. With the rest of the AFC East showing some kinks the armor, the Bills might not be far away from the improved result that we hoped for heading into the season.
With that said, let’s see how the Bills answered the biggest questions facing them today.
1. The Bills are becoming a power running offense
(Question #1 was: Are the Bills becoming a ball control offense?)
The Bills look as though they are going to hang their hat on the running game this year, and it’s hard to blame them. Fred Jackson exploded out of the gates last year, but the Bills offensive line was able to open up running lanes mainly by spreading the defense out wide with multiple wide receiver sets and exploiting the holes. This year is a completely different story. The Bills linemen are putting a hat on a hat and just beating defenses off the snap. The linemen are playing physical and opening up holes easily against seven man fronts. Even after Spiller and Jackson went down with injuries, the Bills continued to run the football with journeyman Tashard Choice because of the success of the offensive line. If they keep this up, they can begin to slow the game down and control the clock, two important steps towards winning more games.
2. Fitzpatrick seems to be playing smarter football
(Question #6 was: Is Fitzpatrick losing confidence?)
It seems strange to say that a Harvard graduate doesn’t show consistent intelligence, but that’s certainly the case with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Throughout his career he’s frequently forced passes into tight coverage and hung receivers out to dry with poor decisions. His reputation as a “gunslinger,” was one that he embraced last year, often to his detriment. This year, things seem to be changing a bit. After a dismal week one performance, Chan Gailey dialed back how much he asked his quarterback to do, focusing on the run instead. Fitzpatrick responded by slowly morphing into a game manager. He’s still under-throwing receivers and has yet to prove to a defense that he can stretch the field consistently, but he’s also cut down on his mistakes and forced passes. After throwing 5 TDs to 0 INTs in the last two games, there is some hope for the future.
3. The highly-paid free agents finally showed up in the stat sheet
(Question #2 was: Can the defensive ends notch a sack?)
Well, it took three games, but Mario Williams finally recorded a sack. In fact, he recorded 1.5. Fellow new acquisition, Mark Anderson, tallied a sack of his own to go along with one from Kyle Williams and a half sack from Marcel Dareus. It was the Bills second straight game with at least four sacks and suggests that the defensive line is started to find it’s groove. Cleveland is a pretty talented team up front, but the line was able to push the pocket consistently. They were also able to do it despite some serious hands to the face that went uncalled all game long. On Williams’ first sack, rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz had his hands up under Williams’ facemask, pushing his head backwards, but Williams was still able to take Weeden down.
4. The rookies are continuing to improve
One of our season-long questions for the Bills is whether the plethora of rookies being started at crucial positions can continue to hold their own. So far, so good. Cordy Glenn has acquitted himself nicely to the left tackle position, continuing to show physicality and help the Bills prevent any defense from notching a sack so far this season. He has more athleticism than people gave him credit for and stood up to the challenge against a strong Browns pass rush. Stephon Gilmore similarly has shown marked improvement in each game. He didn’t have much to do today and gave too much cushion once or twice, but he’s been around the ball more and playing with physicality since being called out by Gailey. Lastly, TJ Graham had three catches and a TD in his second NFL game. He, again, wasn’t asked to do much, but he’s shown solid hands and good quickness is space. As he gets more comfortable with the offense, he could become a solid weapon.
As with every game, there comes some bad with all the good….
1. Other wide receivers still not huge part of the game
(Question #3 was: Can WRs other than Stevie Johnson make an impact)
The Bills did a better job of spreading the ball around to multiple receivers today, but there is certainly still work to be done. Donald Jones was a bigger part of the gameplan against the Browns weak secondary catching five passes for 42 yards, which doesn’t include one twenty yarder that was called back on a BS pass interference call. TJ Graham had three catches for 24 yards and a TD, and Scott Chandler had two catches for 22 yards out of the tight end position. So, while the numbers aren’t bad, it’s important to note that this was against a Browns secondary without it’s top corner corner that had also just changed half of it’s starting lineup. The Bills have been able to win the past two games by pounding the ball on the ground, but the WRs are going to need to prove that they can make plays if the Bills are going to beat better teams.
2. The secondary still seems a little shaky
(Question #7 was: will the secondary struggle without Byrd?)
Jairus Byrd went on the play in this game, and the secondary wasn’t given a huge challenge from the Browns receivers, but there are still some elements of concern. The most glaring is that there are still receivers who are open by five to ten yards. That’s not just guys getting beat, its huge coverage lapses. The Bills were lucky that Greg Little and Travis Benjamin dropped a couple of passes, but they’re going to need to figure out what’s happening. At times, the corners are simply giving too big a cushion. Terrence McGee was guilty of this at least twice on the day. That kind of soft coverage leads to third down conversions and extension of drives. Lastly, Aaron Williams saved himself from a real bad day. He got beat badly on two deep routes but displayed good recovery speed and a real knack for finding the ball, which enabled him to swat away both passes. However, he was still beat badly off the line by mediocre receivers. With the Bills run defense standing up to the challenge early, teams are going to continue to throw and the secondary needs to start making some plays.
With Spiller and Jackson likely out for the week four showdown against the Patriots, the Bills are quickly going to find out just how much they can rely on their line play. If the defensive line can get pressure and the offensive line can keep defenders out of Fitzpatrick’s face, the Bills might be able to make something happen. With that said, this week will certainly be centered around the work done in the training room to get this team back to full strength.