By BBD Writer Eric Samulski
The Bills got their momentum moving in the right direction last week with a 35-17 victory over the Chiefs. The defensive line started to exert its dominance, CJ Spiller continued putting up impressive numbers, and the team played with impressive physicality. This weeks match-up with the Browns may look easier on paper, but it’s an important game for the Bills to continue moving in the right direction. In order to do that, they’re going to have to answer a few important questions…
Question One: Are the Bills becoming a ball control offense?
After the Bills got throttled by the Jets in the opening week, Chan Gailey and coaches made a rather drastic change in their offensive philosophy. The Bills came out against the Chiefs and dialed back their quick-hitting passing attack, choosing instead to pound the ball with Spiller and Choice. It might seem like a move away from what Gailey does best, but at Georgia Tech and in Dallas, Gailey has always been a fan of a power running attack. Whether the decision was made in order to hide the poor play of Fitzpatrick or as a result of the early success that Spiller found against Kansas City, the Bills became a ball control offense within the span of one week. With Fitzpatrick putting in another shaky performance throwing the football, and Spiller exploding on the ground, the Bills are likely to turn to the run game again against the Browns. However, the Browns defense is strongest in their defensive line, and without Joe Haden they have a real weakness in the secondary. The Bills best chance to move the football might be through the air, if Fitzpatrick is up to it.
Question Two: Can the defensive ends notch a sack?
The Bills defensive line has had its ups and downs so far this season. In both games, Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams have been near dominant in the interior of the line. They’ve continually pushed the pocket, stuffing the run and getting pressure on the quarterback in both contests. However, Mark Anderson and Mario Williams haven’t found the same success. While they both have made their share of tackles in the run game, neither player has brought the quarterback down, and together they’ve only notched a few quarterback pressures. Their presence has opened up the holes for the Bills defensive tackles, but in order for the defense to do damage against the best offensive lines, the ends are going to need to get in on the action. Browns tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz should be a tough challenge but one that Williams and Anderson are going to need to win.
Question Three: Can WRs other than Stevie Johnson make an impact?
As I mentioned earlier, the Browns secondary is one of the weaker spots on their defense. Without Joe Haden, the Browns have lost their shutdown corner and need to reshuffle their entire strategy. Last week the Bengals exposed that weakness, especially that of starting free safety Eric Hagg. If the Bills are also going to take advantage of this, they’re going to need their wide receiver corps to step up. Stevie Johnson has a pair of touchdowns on broken coverages this season, but other than that, the Bills receivers haven’t been able to do much damage. Donald Jones has been relatively non-existent, David Nelson is hurt, and TJ Graham was used mainly as a decoy last week. In order for the offense to hit their stride and be as effective as possible, they are going to need to work towards becoming a balanced attack and get their wide receivers into the offense.
Question Four: Can the defense rattle the Browns rookies?
The Browns offense is lead by two high profile first-round picks: Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. After a disastrous first game, both rookies rebounded last week against the Bengals, showing real NFL skill sets. Confidence and rhythm is important for any rookie, so the more the Bills let these two offensive stars feel realxed, the more they’re likely to find success. If the Bills can shut down Richardson early, or build up a big lead, and force the Browns to throw, their defensive line can pin their ears back and try to get after Weeden. At 28 years old, he has a bit more poise than your average rookie quarterback, but his week one performance showed that he can still get rattled easily, which forces bad passes and turnovers.
Question Five: Will the position rotations help or hurt the Bills?
Chan Gailey came out this week and stated that he plans to keep using the timeshares that he’s installed at right tackle and cornerback. Most NFL teams decide their position battles after training camp and have the winner play the vast majority of the snaps each week. It allows the player to get comfortable, find his rhythm, and continue to grow and improve. However, Gailey has continued to rotate Chris Hairston and Erik Pears at right tackle, Aaron Williams and Terrence McGee at left cornerback, and Justin Rodgers and Leodis Mckelvin in the slot. The split has been helpful for Pears and McGee, who are coming off of injury, but Rodgers has severely outplayed McKelvin. If Pears and McGee get healthy, or if one player in each competition starts to distance himself, it’s going to be interesting to see what Gailey does. He claims that he likes keeping his back-ups fresh, but if the consistency isn’t there, it could do more harm than good.
Question Six: Can Fitzpatrick gain some confidence back?
As mentioned earlier, Fitzpatrick has really struggled in the first two games. He’s always been known to force passes into tight coverage, but this year his passes have fluttered more than usual, and he seems to lack confidence in himself. He’s shown “happy feet” in the pocket, and his facial expressions after poor passes seem to reflect the feeling that he knows he’s not at the top of his game. The Bills were able to get by last week without Fitz being a factor, but in order to keep up with some of the higher scoring offenses Fitz is going to need to step up. At the very worst, he needs to make the easy third and four or five conversions that keep the offense on the field and the time of possession in the Bills favor. If he can get some rhythm working against the Browns secondary it might carry over into the game against the Patriots.
Question Seven: Will the secondary struggle without Jairus Byrd?
With Byrd likely to miss the game due to injury, the secondary will be without its leader and biggest playmaker. After two games of failing to make any big plays, the secondary needs to start to find its confidence. That’s going to be harder without Byrd. Da’Norris Searcy has played well in spots this season, but he’s more of a run stuffer than a pass defender. Without Byrd back as the last line of defense, it’s going to put more pressure on the Bills young corners to hold up in man-to-man coverage. If they respond, the defense will continue to grow, but if there are too many lapses this Sunday, it might do serious damage to their confidence.
Prediction: Bills 31 Browns 10
These are the games that scare me because the Bills haven’t exactly shown the ability to close out games, or seasons, the way they are capable. However, I just don’t think the Browns have enough talent to hang in this game. The Bills run defense should keep Richardson in check, and if the Browns have to rely on Weeden to bring them back into the game, the rookie could struggle under that pressure. The Bills defensive line should be able to put pressure on him and force some turnovers that will help extend the lead. It’s an important game for the Bills to play strong start to finish so that they can carry momentum into the showdown with New England.