Thursday, October 3, 2013
W2W4: Bills at Browns
By Mike Rodak
CLEVELAND -- Two weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills had to be feeling pretty good about traveling to face the Cleveland Browns, even on a short week.
The Browns had just traded running back Trent Richardson and their starting quarterback entering the season, Brandon Weeden, was hurt. In what could be a tough month of October for Buffalo, this was a road win the Bills could steal.
But things can change quickly in the NFL. In Week 3, Brian Hoyer became the first Browns quarterback since Otto Graham to throw at least three touchdown passes in his first game with Cleveland. Led by Hoyer and a stingy defense, the Browns now sit at 2-2, tied atop the AFC North.
The Bills, meanwhile, are coming off a high of their own. Knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens at home last Sunday, they also sit at 2-2 with a chance to gain momentum Thursday night in Cleveland.
Here's what to watch for:
1. Is Tashard the Bills' 'Choice?' In the hours leading up to the game, all eyes will be on running back C.J. Spiller and his availability. He said he will arrive at FirstEnergy Stadium early to test his injury, but even if he is active, it's hard to imagine him receiving anything near a full workload. The same goes for Fred Jackson, who is probable with a sprained MCL in his left knee. The Bills may lean heavily on Tashard Choice, a veteran backup who had his best game of last season against the Browns. The Bills may also choose to promote undrafted rookie Ronnie Wingo from the practice squad. He made the trip to Cleveland on Wednesday, per a source. The Browns rank fourth in the NFL against the run, allowing 79 rushing yards per game, so running may be a challenge for Buffalo.
With injuries at running back, the Bills may need to rely more on EJ Manuel, whose rating has dropped each game this season.
2. How does Manuel compensate? One way or the other, rookie quarterback EJ Manuel won't have his normal rushing attack behind him Thursday night. The ground game has been the strength of the Bills' offense in their two wins this season, including a 55-carry performance last week against the Ravens. Manuel's passing numbers have dropped off considerably in the past two games, with his completion percentages near the bottom of the league for those weeks (45 percent in Weeks 3 and 4). This could be a game where he has to step up and make some plays through the air, with Spiller and Jackson hobbled.
3. Johnson-Haden matchup: When the Bills defeated the Browns last season, Cleveland was without cornerback Joe Haden, who is becoming one of the best in the NFL at his position. Johnson had seven catches in that game, second-most on the season. Even if Haden is not covering Johnson the entire game, this will still be a matchup to watch. Johnson had just one catch last week for minus-1 yard, and talked this week about the need for the offense to get on the same page in order to sustain drives. Doing so may be tough on Thursday night, as the Browns' defense is stout against the pass. They allow 229 passing yards per game, ninth-best in the NFL.
4. Does Byrd play? Another week, another Jairus Byrd watch. The best bet for this week is that Byrd won't play. He was upgraded to full participation for Tuesday's practice, but head coach Doug Marrone hinted after practice that Byrd may have a better chance to play in Week 6 against Cincinnati, following a long week of rest for players. The Bills should have Aaron Williams ready to play in their secondary; he was listed as probable on Wednesday's final injury report. If Leodis McKelvin can't suit up -- and the odds are against that, as well -- then look for Williams and Justin Rogers to start at cornerback for a second consecutive week.