Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns
Last week the Bills took on a Ravens team that turned the ball over 5 times and still only won 23-20 to an offense that is trying to figure itself out right now. The Bills fumbled the ball 4 times (lost 1) and rookie QB EJ Manuel threw 2 picks of his own. It was a sloppy game to say the least, but there is something to be said for the way the Bills toughed out a win against a Ravens team that is still solid. However, the Bills are working on a short week and that tends to increase the chances of sloppy play.
On the opposite side, the Browns gritted out a win over the favored Bengals’ team that couldn’t do much at all against an impressive Browns’ defense. Joe Haden shut down AJ Green for the most part and newly installed starter, Brian Hoyer, did a good job in controlling the game with moxie from the pocket. The Bengals are 2-2 now but they are a very good team and that’s a major win for the Browns.
Thursday night is an interesting matchup because both of these teams are managing their QBs in ways that give them more of a chance to be successful. Both teams have very good front sevens and play and attacking style of defense. There’s a lot of scheming that could go into the game tonight that will dictate how this game goes.
One of the things I like to do when projecting games is review film of a team that is similar to the opponent that team will be facing. The Ravens run a slightly similar style of defense as the Ravens – 3-4 with a good amount of talent in the front seven that gets pressure and alleviates some concerns on the back end. I went back and watched the Bills approach to attacking the Ravens defense last week to try to discern how they might approach the defense of the Browns.
The Bills opened their first offensive series with 3 straight runs. They were fairly effective and the first pass came on 3rd and 2, but was a very short crossing route by the TE Scott Chandler. The Bills clearly wanted to use the run as the basis of their offense and throw short, controlled passes to the middle of the field to get what was there. This is something that they will likely want to do against the Browns as well.
EJ Manuel looked a lot better in his first 2 games than he has in his last 2 in terms of throwing the football. He’s not a natural thrower and his accuracy is highly inconsistent. He leaves too many throws on the field. An increase of interior pressure hasn’t been great for his development. It’s easy to forget that Manuel is a rookie and his draft position probably puts expectations out of whack with where they should be for a QB like Manuel. He has a lot of growing to do as a rookie going into week 5 of the NFL will.
For the jaw-dropping runs that we see out of CJ Spiller, unfortunately he’s not the type of back that can be featured in an offense. Fred Jackson will always have a role in this offense because Spiller simply is a pound-it-between-the-tackles runner. The offensive line hasn’t been phenomenal in run blocking either. LT Cordy Glenn has looked great but the rest of the offensive line has been average. They really seem to go as C Eric Wood does.
Against the Browns, I anticipate this offensive line to have lots of problems with the multiple looks and movements that Ray Horton will present to them. The defensive line combination of Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor, and Ahtyba Rubin is hard to deal with for just about any team. Add in Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger, and Keke Mingo and it’s damn near impossible to get a hat on a hat and block them all up 1-on-1. Kruger has done a fantastic job of setting the edge against the run but Mingo can be run at. Mingo is still developing but has shown he’s a bull to deal with when rushing the QB. The Bills will likely leave Cordy Glenn on an island tonight and that will prove a crucial matchup.
ILBs D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson are good at clogging the holes and not allowing space up the middle which is a great defense against Spiller (who may not play due to injury). If it’s Fred Jackson, they’ll need to play a little more physical in the hole as the Bills generally operate out of 21 and 12 personnel.
At wide receiver, Stevie Johnson will see a lot of Joe Haden tonight. Haden shut down AJ Green last week who is one of the best receivers in the league, but I think that was due in large part to a lack of Andy Dalton’s ability to get the ball to Green in good situations. Manuel is better at that but I’m not sure Manuel has the accuracy to consistently win. Manuel could get himself into trouble if he decides to test Haden too much. He may be better served just going at Buster Skrine (who also played well last week) who will see a lot of Robert Woods. Woods was one of my favorite receivers in the 2013 draft and had a huge game statistically last week. Safeties Tashaun Gipson and TJ Ward had one of their better games together last week. If they continue to progress and this defense continues to find chemistry in Ray Horton’s system, they’ll be one of the top 5 defenses in the league by year’s end.
The Bills made a concerted effort to attack the middle of the Ravens’ defense last week. I wouldn’t advise that against Craig Robertson this week. Robertson is fast and smooth in coverage and will most certainly come up with an interception of Manuel. Against an athletic QB like Manuel who can take off and run, it’s advisable for defenses to run primarily zone to keep defenders’ eyes in the backfield in case he decides to take off. I think the Browns will do a good job of mixing zone and man tonight to confuse the rookie QB. ILBs Jackson and Robertson are both good enough to spy on Manuel and if Manuel isn’t careful, one of them might grab one of those spy INTs that ILBs get because they follow the QB’s eyes and slip underneath a slant or crossing route without the QB ever seeing them.
The Browns entire premise with Hoyer at QB mirrors the Chiefs’ philosophy with Alex Smith. They want to rely on their defenses to dictate the game and then feed off of a controlled offense that moves the chains and doesn’t turn the ball over. Hoyer does a good job of getting the ball out quickly and pulling the trigger. He’s an incredibly intelligent QB that only takes calculated risks and uses good accuracy to put risky throws where only his receiver can get them or no one does. He’s not great with his deep ball and it showed on his deep shot to Josh Gordon last week. He threw a deep shot to Gordon who had a step on his defender but had to slow down to catch a ball that lost its juice at the end. If Hoyer could have thrown it out in front it would have been an easy touchdown.
In very little preseason work, I said Josh Gordon is a number one receiver in the NFL and he’s proven to live up to that after coming off suspension. He adds a different element to this offense and gives Davone Bess and Greg Little much better chances to get open. Fantasy God TE Jordan Cameron wants to get rid of his “basketball” tag as a TE but I don’t think he realizes that’s a major compliment about his athleticism. Cameron provides similar matchup issues as Jimmy Graham – linebackers can’t keep up with him while safeties and cornerbacks can’t match his size or leaping abilities. He’s a weapon in all areas of the field but especially in the red zone. Eventually teams will start double or triple teaming him near the end zone which will leave opportunities for Gordon, Little, and Bess.
The issue with the Browns has been guard play. Tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz have played well. I’ve seen good reviews about C Alex Mack but he’s been inconsistent to me, especially in run blocking. Hoyer’s ability to understand the presnap phase allows him to get the ball out fast and that has really helped keep this offense on schedule even with a lacking running game. To be cliché, the short passes are just long handoffs and they’re doing a good job of using them in that fashion.
The Bills’ front seven has been great so far and Kyle Williams has been tremendous. These guys have to get a pass rush or else I don’t think a beat up secondary (no Stephon Gilmore or Jairus Byrd last week) can’t survive. Byrd is questionable this week while Gilmore is out. Leodis McKelvin is also a little banged up. Rookie LB Kiko Alonso has an interception in every game so far but provides very little in pass rush ability in the middle, so the Bills will have to rely solely on Marcell Dareus and scheme to get pressure up the middle.
In looking at the matchups, I don’t see a whole lot that the Bills win. The DBs will have trouble containing the receivers and unless Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine can confuse Hoyer (which is possible but harder than it seems) then the Browns will continue to win by dinking and dunking down the field. If the Bills challenge the Browns with an excess of blitz packages then Little and Bess become incredibly important. Hoyer could take some sacks but the Browns will counter with some max protection shot plays to Gordon and Cameron that the Bills are likely to lose.
Of offense, Manuel will have trouble deciphering all of the different looks that the Browns will give him. I also think the offensive line won’t give him sufficient time to get the ball downfield like they will want to try to do a lot. This could be a game where Manuel starts pulling the ball down too early and misses reads while looking like a great runner. If the Browns can’t contain his running then they’ll find themselves playing from behind.
I don’t think the Browns run away with it but I do think it’s their game to lose. It should be a defensive struggle but Manuel is the type of QB who is streaky enough that if he gets hot he’s hard to stop from throwing or running. The Browns haven’t had to play from behind yet with Hoyer and that could be their kryptonite, much like the 49ers were with Alex Smith in the first part of last season.
I’ll take the Browns in a low scoring game because I just don’t trust Manuel to be hot on a short week of work and against a defense like Ray Horton’s. If Manuel and the Bills start piling up turnovers then the Browns could pile up the points. And the more I think about it, the more likely that seems.by