First Downs and Flags: Post-Mortem of Buffalo Bills’ Loss to Cleveland Browns

Even in a tough loss Thursday, Buffalo Bills rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso continued to shine. (Photo: Ron Schwane — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Glenn Gifford

Thursday night should be looked at as a lost opportunity for the Buffalo Bills. A streaky game that started with promise ended with the Bills dropping a 37-24 decision to the Cleveland Browns.

The game was there for the taking for the banged-up Bills, who struggled all night to stay healthy and maintain consistency on offense. The game will be remembered by EJ Manuel’s fight to gain some extra yards on a scramble deep in Cleveland territory in the third quarter, which ultimately resulted in Manuel taking a hit and sustaining a sprained knee that will keep him out for “a few weeks.”

As Bills nation collectively gasped with horror when Manuel was injured, Buffalo was left with little offensive talent. Although the Bills finished that drive with a 1-yard Fred Jackson touchdown to take a 24-17 lead, the offense was unable to produce once Jeff Tuel took Manuel’s place in the game at quarterback.

Yet even with a tough loss and the injuries piling up, there were still some positives to take from Thursday’s game.

First Downs

Kiko Alonso

With each passing week I feel more excited about the Buffalo Bills’ second-round selection of Kiko Alonso. The middle linebacker has been a key piece to the Bills defense in every game this year. On Thursday, his 12 total tackles (four solo) demonstrated his ability to get to the football.

He made an exceptional play on a goal-line tackle for loss in the second quarter that was very reminiscent of Troy Polamalu. Alonso timed the snap perfectly and jumped over the offensive line, then immediately hit Willis McGahee to stop him short of the end zone. Shortly after that play, my Twitter feed was lighting up with positive commentary about Alonso’s game.

He has clearly won the hearts and minds of the Bills fan base. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for his quality play through the first four weeks of the season, and he continued his strong play Thursday. In just more than one month, he appears to have cemented himself as a Bills fan favorite.

Mario Williams

Defensive end Mario Williams is on pace to set record-breaking sack numbers for the Buffalo Bills. Williams registered two sacks Thursday, continuing his solid play this year. While many Bills fans may never feel Williams will live up to his contract, his play when healthy has been very good.

Williams started off a little shaky last year, but put up very solid numbers once he was deemed healed from a torn wrist ligament. A healthy Mario Williams makes the Bills a better team. He has not yet shown up big against a high-quality opponent, but with 7.5 sacks already this season, he has been a strong contributor and is deserving of a first down.

Manny Lawson

Free-agent acquisition Manny Lawson is having himself a productive year as an outside linebacker setting the edge for the Bills defense. He had a nice day on Thursday with some impressive play versus the Browns.

Lawson tallied seven total tackles (four solo), but much of his hard work does not end up on the stat sheet. He is very versatile which he demonstrates with his coverage responsibilities.

Lawson provides solid pass coverage and is an effective edge-setter. He should receive a fair portion of the credit for a rather unsuccessful day for the Cleveland rushing attack. He is proving to be a nice fit in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.

Robert Woods

I think Robert Woods will eventually take over as the Buffalo Bills most valuable and dependable receiver, including Stevie Johnson.

Robert Woods, the Bills’ leading receiver with 16 receptions for 265 yards and two touchdowns, has flat out played better than Johnson this year. Woods seems to have chemistry with EJ Manuel. His numbers on Thursday — five receptions for 64 yards — topped the stats page for Bills receivers for the second consecutive game.

Woods’ route-running is extremely polished, and like fellow second-round pick rookie Kiko Alonso, he may be another Bills player who quickly gains reputation and respect.

Keep an eye on Robert Woods, Stevie Johnson: he’s coming for you and your passing statistics. Woods seems more concerned about making plays, and less concerned over what he wears or what his current swag level is, than Johnson.

Flags

Punting

The Buffalo Bills’ special teams punt unit was abysmal on Thursday. Their play cost Buffalo the game as Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin returned seven punts for 179 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown.

Punter Shawn Powell received a Flag last week for his horribly inconsistent play versus the Baltimore Ravens. After following up with another poor performance Thursday, he is in the unemployment line after being released by the Bills.

While Powell shoulders the load as a scapegoat for bad special teams play, there were many on the field who whiffed tackle attempts on Benjamin. Arthur Moats was among those who failed opportunities on punt returns to make tackles.

I expressed concern early in training camp over Buffalo special teams coach Danny Crossman. His numbers, both this season and in previous years with the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers, speak for themselves.

Thursday’s poor special teams play should give Bills fans an idea as to where Crossman-led special teams units tend to end up.

In an effort to start fixing their punting unit, the Bills signed veteran punter Brian Moorman, who previously played for the Bills from 2001 until he was cut in early 2012, on Sunday.

Starting at cornerback for a second consecutive game, Aaron Williams struggled mightily Thursday versus the Cleveland Browns. (Photo: Andrew Weber — USA Today Sports)

Aaron Williams

Williams was in line for a halo last week after he registered two interceptions of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in his first game back starting at his original cornerback position due to injuries at the position. He remained at the position against the Browns, however, who burned Williams repeatedly on the outside. Williams should now be in line for honorary goat horns.

After watching Williams get torched repeatedly, I found myself rewinding game film to be sure I was not in fact watching Justin Rogers. I was watching Williams, sadly, and his play left me wondering when he will return to safety, where he was playing well before injuries forced his move back outside to cornerback.

T.J. Graham

Wide receiver T.J. Graham has been about as useful to the Buffalo Bills offense this season as an ashtray on a motorcycle. He has been a nonfactor who contributes very little to the Bills offense.

He was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft (ahead of Russell Wilson) to bring speed to a Bills lineup that was lacking it. In Graham’s first year, he could not take advantage of his speed as the Bills did not have a quarterback who could throw deep. The Bills do have a quarterback who can throw deep this season in EJ Manuel, but Graham is still not producing because he is not running routes properly.

Graham should spend some time with Robert Woods, who is already a precise route runner, and work on his craft. Graham looks like he is playing Twister when trying to find the football. He looks like a wasted draft pick thus far, and he may not be on the team in two years.

Colin Brown

Left guard Colin Brown was a hot mess on Thursday.

When I was a teacher, I used to send students back to their seats to correct answers on tests from time to time. It was my not-so-subtle way of letting them know they did not have the correct answers. The Bills have been sent back to their desks for five weeks as Colin Brown has struggled in every game thus far, but they keep coming back with the same answer as Andy Levitre’s replacement at left guard.

At 6’7″ and 326 pounds, Brown is built like a starting left guard. He has the size but clearly lacks the strength and the fundamentals to be effective at the professional level. Brown looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane.

Bills coach Doug Marrone said Monday that there is now an open competition at the left guard position between Brown and Doug Legursky, who returned Thursday after missing the first four weeks of the season with a knee injury.

Summary

The Bills were once again competitive in their primetime defeat last Thursday. The young team, however, has suffered some pretty critical injuries that appear to be limiting their chances to be successful.

Buffalo struggled to manufacture offensive chances most of the evening, and fell to 2-3 as a result. The Bills may not end up as a contender this season, but they did make some moves this offseason that look good long-term, including the addition of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator and the second-round draft selections of Kiko Alonso and Robert Woods.

Buffalo has some choppy waters coming up. Quarterback EJ Manuel is among the multiple key players injured on their roster, although some of those players, including free safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, are expected to return for the Bills’ next game versus the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Bills’ lack of a solid starting quarterback combined with a difficult schedule, however, could safely put the Bills in position to end up in the top 10 of the 2014 NFL draft.

Tags: Aaron Williams, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Colin Brown, First Downs and Flags, Game Review, Kiko Alonso, Manny Lawson, Mario Williams, Postgame Takeaways, Robert Woods, Shawn Powell, T.J. Graham, Thursday Night Football, Week 5

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