THURSDAY NIGHT PREVIEW
Browns offense vs. Bills defense
After getting torched deep by the New York Jets in Week 3, Buffalo’s secondary—which has been without top three corners Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, as well as franchise safety Jairus Byrd—rebounded with stifling man coverage against Baltimore’s downfield play-action game in Week 4. Safety Aaron Williams, starting at his former cornerback spot, had one of the best individual performances of any player this season.
Williams and his colleagues can expect to be attacked deep for a third straight game Thursday night. Since Josh Gordon’s return from suspension, the Browns have been more comfortable with the vertically stretched passing designs in Norv Turner’s system. Brian Hoyer has been very stellar staying in the pocket and efficiently working through progressions. He has benefited from tremendous pass-blocking, particularly by left tackle Joe Thomas, who has been almost flawless playing on an island.
Despite what Mario Williams’ sack numbers suggest, the Bills don’t have a prominent pass-rusher to challenge Thomas. They do, however, have an excellent interior blitzing threat in supple rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, and they have a schemer in coordinator Mike Pettine who does great work with hybrid fronts and disguises. The Browns’ rushing attack last week looked the best it has all season, so Cleveland would be wise to stay true to the run and make this Bills front seven prove that its stellar gap discipline against the Ravens was not an aberration.
Bills offense vs. Browns defense
Speaking of running the ball, that’s what the Bills did last Sunday. Fifty-five times. Fullback Frank Summers played 42 of the offense’s 84 snaps, performing admirably as a classic black-and-blue lead-blocker. It was a great strategic adjustment by Doug Marrone, who likely realized after losing to the Jets that EJ Manuel isn’t ready to have so much on his plate just yet. By going back to basics —like two-back or two-tight end personnel and a between-the-tackles rushing attack—Marrone was able to create a defined, one-read passing game for his rookie quarterback, leaning heavily on play-action.
Interestingly, most of those one-man reads were directed for rookie wideout Robert Woods, not sixth-year star Stevie Johnson. Don’t be surprised if Woods fully supplants Johnson atop the pecking order. He has better speed and quickness than Johnson and is virtually the same size (6-1 or 6-2, 200 or so pounds). We’ll know which receiver Cleveland believes is Buffalo’s No. 1 by who Joe Haden defends. The fourth-year pro has been a shutdown corner through four games.
Against A.J. Green and the Bengals last week, the Browns predominantly used matchup zone concepts out of two-deep coverages. Safeties T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson gave outstanding help downfield. This week, the Browns likely will play more man-to-man, with one of the safeties dropping into the box. They’ll want to make the Bills reluctant to run.
The Bills will have to rediscover their passing attack. It’s not just that eight-man boxes are tough to run against; Cleveland’s front seven is fairly stingy, featuring two good playside run stoppers in Paul Kruger and the so-far-dominant Desmond Bryant. What’s more, C.J. Spiller is battling a bad ankle. Thirty-two-year-old Fred Jackson, though still patient and crafty enough to burn you, is not an ideal candidate for 25 carries on a short week.