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Friday, October 11, 2013
W2W4: Bengals at Bills

By Mike Rodak

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It's not something that has happened often in recent NFL history, but it will take place Sunday.

The Buffalo Bills, losing EJ Manuel to a knee injury for the second time this season, promoted a quarterback off the practice squad to start against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Thad Lewis will be making just his second career start, and if things go right, he could be the Bills' starter until Manuel returns. If they don't, then the Bills will search for other options.

The Bengals haven't allowed a 300-yard passer in 19 consecutive games, so Lewis has a challenge ahead of him.

Here's what to watch for:

1. How do Bills change their offense? The book on Lewis is that he has a strong arm and is intelligent but has physical limitations that might keep him from having a higher ceiling as a prospect. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett raved Friday about Lewis' grasp of the offense. Last Friday, when the Bills were trying to decide who would replace Manuel, Hackett quizzed Lewis about offensive concepts, and the Duke graduate passed with flying colors. Hackett added that the Bills won't change their scheme or approach under Lewis. Expect the no-huddle, fast-faced approach to stay despite Lewis' relative inexperience within the system.

2. What if Johnson doesn't play? Bills top receiver Stevie Johnson arrived back in Buffalo on Friday after spending part of the week in California following a death in the family. Head coach Doug Marrone said he will assess where Johnson is mentally and physically before deciding if he will play. Johnson, who underwent treatment in California for his lower back injury, is a game-time decision. If he can't play, Lewis' chances against a stout Bengals defense will take a hit. But even if Johnson can play, he may be limited, which could mean an increased workload for Chris Hogan, who is challenging T.J. Graham for the third receiver job. It could also mean a bigger role for rookie Marquise Goodwin, who will play for the first time since the season opener. Hackett hinted Friday that Goodwin, whose contributions in the preseason came mostly as a returner, could be part of the offensive game plan Sunday.

3. Potential Gilmore-Green match-up: The Bills don't yet know if Stephon Gilmore will be able to play for the first time since fracturing his wrist in the preseason. Like Johnson, he is a game-time decision. Having Gilmore back would give the Bills their top cornerback to shadow A.J. Green, the Bengals' athletically gifted receiver. But with Gilmore limited all week, the Bills made it a priority in practice to keep track of Green's whereabouts on the field. If Gilmore can't go, that duty could fall to Aaron Williams or Leodis McKelvin. Earlier in the week, Marrone said the Bills were preparing different packages, depending on Gilmore's availability.

4. Byrd sighting: The Bills are expected to have Jairus Byrd back Sunday. The Pro Bowl safety is listed as probable after sitting out the first five games with a foot injury. The question now becomes about how much he will play. Byrd could be part of a safety rotation that may include Da'Norris Searcy, Jim Leonhard, and even Aaron Williams. If Gilmore can't go, the Bills may end up using Byrd more, especially part of three-safety looks. Injuries considered, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's unit has put together a solid season to this point, and Byrd's return should give the back end a boost.