BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The Buffalo Bills shocked much of the football world last week by controlling a game against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens for a 23-20 victory. Although the Bills didn’t put away the game when they had chances to extend the lead in the fourth quarter, the young team held strong and achieved a win that will do wonders for the morale of an injury-laden squad.
The real test for how close the Bills are to becoming a contending team is to see if they can capitalize and seize some potential momentum Thursday versus the 2-2 Cleveland Browns. Although the Browns are 2-0 since trading Trent Richardson, they lack the type of offensive weapons to take over a game; they make their success on defense. In what is likely to be a close, potentially ugly football game, the Bills’ ability to keep their heads, avoid dumb penalties and force mistakes might be the difference between a winning record and going back to a losing one.
Can the Bills keep the running game successful through injuries?
After having a hard time getting their running game on track during the first three weeks of the season, the Bills found success against a tough Ravens defense Sunday. The offensive line seemed to play more aggressively, opening up enough holes to allow the Bills to run for 203 yards on 55 carries. It may have only been 3.7 yards per carry, but the Bills were able to keep the Ravens defense on its toes and the chains moving, holding the ball for 36:26 of the game clock.
That said, the Bills came out of the game even more banged up. Both C.J. Spiller (ankle) and Fred Jackson (MCL sprain) were forced out of the game at different times. Spiller missed two days of practice this week and is listed as questionable, while Fred Jackson is listed as probable on the team’s injury report. It’s not a good sign for either that practice squad running back Ronnie Wingo will be brought to Cleveland, according to ESPN’s Mike Rodak, in case both running backs can’t go and the Bills are left with only Tashard Choice.
It’s not the week for the Bills to come in with a banged-up offense. The Browns have the NFL’s third-ranked defense in total yardage allowed and first-ranked run defense, allowing only 2.9 yards per carry. If the Bills are going to pull out a win, they need to find a way to make a dent in the Cleveland front seven.
Can the Bills’ secondary receivers continue to make plays?
If the Bills have trouble running the ball, the task will not get any easier for whatever wide receiver draws Joe Haden in coverage. The Browns have been using their top corner to shadow the opposing team’s best wide receiver, and it has been working incredibly effectively. That means the Bills are going to have to be creative with how they line up and deploy No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson. It also means that secondary targets like Robert Woods, Scott Chandler and T.J. Graham are going to need to make plays in order to keep the Browns from stacking eight men in the box.
Woods and Chandler have been getting increasing targets from Manuel, with Woods pulling in a touchdown last week (almost two) on a four-reception, 80-yard performance, but consistency from the other targets is key for the Bills to create a versatile offense.
Can the beat-up secondary limit big plays?
The Bills secondary responded to a huge test last week against the defending Super Bowl champions. With their top three cornerbacks and free safety out due to injury, the Bills defense was still able to pick Joe Flacco off five times, including two from Aaron Williams, who was moved from strong safety back to cornerback due to injuries. Williams left the game early with a back injury, however, and has been unable to get in a full practice this week.
The secondary would have already had a tough time duplicating last week’s performance, but if Williams misses Thursday’s game, the task will be even harder. Brian Hoyer is not a world-beater at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, but he’s been efficient since taking over for Brandon Weeden and has proven that he can get the ball to his playmakers, tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Free safety Jairus Byrd, who was finally a full participant in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, is listed as questionable for Thursday’s game, while starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin is considered a “game-time decision”, according to Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone, for the second straight week. Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks remain listed as out.
The long list of injuries put added pressure on the likes of Justin Rogers and Brandon Burton at cornerback, but if the secondary can continue to limit big plays, they can allow the Bills talented front seven to force the Browns into some mistakes.
Jordan Cameron vs. Kiko Alonso
Cameron, a 6’5″ tight end for the Browns with college basketball roots, is among the NFL’s leading receivers at tight end with 360 receiving yards and five touchdowns through Cleveland’s first four games.
The Bills have been bad in recent years at covering the tight end, but the arrival of rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso seems to be changing that. Alonso has been stout for the Bills against the run and pass, notching 32 total tackles, one sack and four interceptions through Buffalo’s first four games.
Alonso and the rest of the linebacking corps will really need to take Cameron, who has become a focal point of the Browns’ offensive attack, out of the passing offense for the Bills defense to be able to force the Browns offense off the field.
Stevie Johnson vs. Joe Haden
The aforementioned dominance of Browns cornerback Joe Haden makes this the matchup to watch when the Bills are on offense.
Haden’s dominance so far this season has been impressive. In Week 1, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace caught one pass for 15 yards. In Week 2, Baltimore Ravens Torrey Smith hauled in seven passes for 87 yards, but only four receptions for 46 yards came when he was lined up against Haden according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings to three catches for 43 yards in Week 3, and Haden got the better of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who was held to 51 yards on seven catches Sunday.
That said, Stevie Johnson is an unorthodox route runner who has been tough for even the NFL’s most elite cornerbacks to completely shut out. Johnson is coming off of a bad performance Sunday versus the Ravens, however, in which he was held to one catch for a loss of one yard. A proud competitor, Johnson will take Haden on as a personal challenge, but he will likely need to make a few key catches to keep chains moving, and that could be easier said than done given Haden’s dominance early this season.
None of this year’s Thursday Night Football games have been particularly compelling, and it’s hard to believe that the banged-up Bills and physical Browns will provide much better on a short week. In the NFL, however, it’s not always about how you get wins but rather that you simply get them.
Both teams’ defensive front sevens have shown flashes of dominance, but the Bills have more experience to lead their team through the struggle of playing in prime time off a short week. Both defenses have put heavy pressure on the quarterback and neither offense is likely to light up the scoreboard, so this game is liable to come down to a couple key plays. The Bills lead the NFL in passes defensed and interceptions, so if they are able to continue their trend of causing turnovers, it could be enough to secure the win.
Bills 20, Browns 17