The Buffalo Bills might not have played Sunday after their 37-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns last Thursday, but it was still a busy weekend for the Bills (2-3), who sit at the bottom of the AFC East.
With EJ Manuel out several weeks with a knee injury, head coach Doug Marrone made the decision early Monday morning to sign Thad Lewis off the practice squad and start him Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
It won't be an easy task for Lewis, who will be making his second career start. The Bengals (3-2) are coming off a rain-soaked home win over the New England Patriots. They'll now look for their first road win of the season.
ESPN.com Bills team reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN.com Bengals team reporter Coley Harvey break down the matchup:
Mike Rodak: Coley, we saw something Sunday that we haven't seen in more than three seasons: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did not throw a touchdown pass, the product of a stingy Bengals defense that held the Patriots to just six points. While they might have received some help from a timely late-game monsoon, it was an impressive showing by Cincinnati despite injuries to some key starters on defense. Is this unit the strength of the Bengals this season, and are they licking their chops to play against a Lewis-led Bills offense this Sunday?
Coley Harvey: I don’t know about licking their chops, Mike. Two weeks ago in Cleveland, the defense was in a similar situation when Brian Hoyer received his second straight start in place of Brandon Weeden. All week, the talk was about the big, bad Bengals defense and the fact that it was going up against a longtime backup quarterback in Hoyer. Well, so much for that talk. Hoyer led the Browns to a pair of 90-yard drives for touchdowns en route to their 17-6 win.
Still, Cincinnati is very pleased with its defense this season. After the way the unit manhandled Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New England, and, to a lesser extent, Chicago, it’s safe to say it is the strength of this team. That might remain the case through Week 17 (and perhaps beyond). The Bengals should get back at least one of those injured starters -- cornerback Leon Hall -- this week. In all honesty, though, like you mentioned, the Bengals haven’t missed him much. Adam Jones and Chris Crocker have done a better-than-admirable job filling Hall’s shoes.
Speaking of injuries, we have to ask about the big one on the Bills’ roster. With Manuel out for the foreseeable future, how confident is Buffalo’s coaching staff that Lewis is the man for the interim quarterback job?
Rodak: I don't think they are very confident, Coley. Marrone said Monday they'll look at the position on a week-to-week basis, hardly a vote of confidence that Lewis will be their quarterback beyond Sunday. I think the Bills simply explored all options and felt Lewis was their best option, but that might not be saying much. Rarely do you see a team promote a quarterback from the practice squad and start him that very next weekend.
The expectation is that Manuel will miss several weeks, perhaps more than a month, with this injury. If he can come back a little sooner than expected, the Bills don't have to worry as much about who their Plan B is after Lewis if he struggles. But if Manuel has any setbacks (would they consider shutting him down for the season if it gets too late and they're out of the hunt?), they will be in a tight spot.
Harvey: The whole injury situation is a bummer for Manuel. I guess for me, too. Before starting this beat, I covered football at Florida State. I got to know EJ, Dustin Hopkins, Shawn Powell and Nigel Bradham very well over the years. All good dudes. When the season started, part of me was really looking forward to seeing how each of them played at the professional level. Guess it’s all on Nigel now!
When it comes to Cincinnati’s ground game, it looks like we’re finally starting to see that perfect balance between the two rushers. All season, the media has been asking coach Marvin Lewis about giving more carries to Bernard. The rookie has shown every game since Week 2 that he has big-play potential. Against New England on Sunday, he ripped off a key 28-yard run late in the game. Green-Ellis finally appears to be showing up on the stat sheet. After some dismal performances early in the season, the veteran rushed 19 times for 67 yards and the game’s only touchdown last week against the Patriots. Bernard wasn’t so bad, either, rushing 13 times for 62 yards. I’d expect to see a lot of both this weekend as the Bengals continue to try to better balance their offense.
That seems like a perfect segue into a question about Buffalo’s rushing attack. How exactly does the Bills’ three-man running back rotation work? Obviously, Fred Jackson gets the bulk of the carries, but how complementary will the other two be now that C.J. Spiller is back?
Rodak: Coley, I think the Bills would ideally still like to give more carries to Spiller. He is the more explosive back and is also significantly younger than Jackson. The problem is twofold. First, Spiller can't stay healthy. He said his frustration level is sky-high, and rightfully so. He's been injured twice in the past three games and has struggled with negative runs at points this season. Credit to him, though, for toughing it out last Thursday night and limping his way to a 54-yard touchdown. Second, Jackson has been one of the NFL's best all-around running backs this season. He is 12th in the NFL with 4.75 yards per carry and second in the league (behind only Ben Tate) in yards after contact with 2.40 per carry. He is also a factor in the passing game, ranking 15th in the NFL in total offensive yards.
Going forward, I think Spiller's contributions will depend mostly on his health. If he can get back to full strength, then the Bills probably want to ease Jackson's workload down the stretch. If he can't, then it's almost a lost season for the former first-round pick.
Coley, what's going on with A.J. Green? He has 31 catches for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns through five games. Those are numbers that a lot of receivers would like to put up, but Green isn't just any receiver. He is supposed to be one of the best in the NFL. He ranks 76th in the NFL in yards per reception. What's going wrong?
Harvey: It’s a mix of things, really. For starters, Green and quarterback Andy Dalton haven’t been on the same page for part of the season. There have been a few instances when Dalton expected Green to cut short a route and, instead, he went long. There have been moments when Dalton has had Green wide open and he’s overthrown or underthrown him trying to be too fine with the football. If the pair could just get in sync -- you’d imagine that after three years together they finally would be -- then they have a chance to be a much better duo.
In addition to all of that, the Bengals have started realizing they have several other weapons in addition to Green. There’s Green-Ellis, who became a factor last week; Bernard who, like we mentioned before, has been good in space; and there’s the tight end tandem of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham. Add all of those guys with Green and the rest of the receivers and you have the perfect scenario in which the Bengals could decide to pass to anyone but him. Still, you’re right. Green has to be more productive with the passes he does catch. Once he figures a way past the double-teams he’s been getting, and once teams start paying more attention to the other playmakers, he’ll come along.
Last question, Mike. The Bills were torched a few times by Travis Benjamin in the punt return game last week. How do you think they plan to stop Jones, a similarly dynamic returner?
Rodak: Well, the Bills made a change at punter this week, bringing back Brian Moorman, who played his first 12 seasons in Buffalo and holds several franchise records. They also made some changes on the back end of their roster, swapping special-teams contributors Marcus Dowtin and Johnny Adams for two others, Ty Powell and Brandon Smith. The Bills were upset with Shawn Powell's hang time in recent weeks and waived him last Friday, so their hope, obviously, is that Moorman can do better in that area.