The Cleveland Browns are in prime time tonight for Thursday Night Football! Will they shine in the spotlight against the surging Buffalo Bills, or will Brian Hoyer's winning streak since taking over at quarterback come to an end? One of the factors not being mentioned so much is the fact that scattered thunderstorms and a 60% chance of rain is in the forecast, which could affect the game considerably. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
I mean no disrespect to E.J. Manuel when I rank this position as "even." Yes, this is a first-round pick going up against a written-off backup as of a few weeks ago, but the fact is we have a limited sample size of tape on both of these guys. Both players have given hope to their respective franchises during that stretch.
Brian Hoyer has passed numerous tests already: leading a game-winning drive, winning on the road, winning in front of his home fans, and beating the best team in the division. Being on prime time shouldn't phase him, although he needs to be careful against a Bills defense that had five interceptions last week.
The Bills feature two running backs who split time but could be labeled as starters: C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller has a bad ankle and Jackson has a knee sprain. Both guys could end up playing tonight, but Spiller's status is more in doubt. If Spiller sits, we could see Tashard Choice get a lot of reps.
The Browns finally got the running game going late in the fourth quarter last week with Willis McGahee, as the Browns did some nice pulling guard runs. Can they continue that momentum this week? They might need to if this game becomes a rainy slopfest. Chris Ogbonnaya could see a lot more work as a blocking back if that is the case.
The Browns want to find the right mix of getting Travis Benjamin some reps where he can make a play in the open field, but without overusing him since he has trouble getting off the jam. Because of that, Cleveland's best bet remains going with Josh Gordon or Jordan Cameron, and then finding Davone Bess on third down. Greg Little is still seeing reps as a blocking receiver, but is being targeted much less.
Bills fans really tried to pump up Stevie Johnson this week. I agree that he is a very nice receiver to have, but the Bills' offense sometimes has trouble working him in enough, and we've also seen Johnson make a few big drops in the past. Second-round pick Robert Woods poses more of a concern to me this week, simply because he'll be facing cornerbacks not named Joe Haden. Tight end Scott Chandler can make those catches over the middle that Cleveland's defense has been vulnerable against.
Uh-oh, am I tempting fate by giving the Browns an advantage at the offensive line position? Cleveland's pass protection has improved steadily over the past two weeks, but the biggest thing for me was the fact that Mitchell Schwartz looked like the impressive player he was last year against Cincinnati. Once a guy like Schwartz snaps out of it, I don't think he'll slip right back into that funk. Even Cousins has gotten a little bit better.
The Bills' offensive line is generally average, although they get more productivity in their run blocking than Cleveland's line does. The big loss this offseason was having to say goodbye to offensive guard Andy Levitre. Center Eric Wood is the best player on the line, and Cordy Glenn has been adequate at left tackle. The line can have some breakdowns in protection, and that's not a good sign against hungry pass rushers like Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo.
The Browns will be without Billy Winn again on a short week. It was interesting to see Phil Taylor's reps cut down a little bit against the Bengals last week; in hindsight, you have to wonder if that was by design to ensure he was still fresh for the Thursday game. Either way, what more could you ask for from guys like Taylor, Desmond Bryant, and even John Hughes? Heck, Ahtyba Rubin was supposed to be the best player out of this group, and he's like an afterthought now (but not in a bad way).
Buffalo features some stout talent of their own in Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams. A lot of their success depends on Williams having a big day. I don't know if he'll have that against Joe Thomas, but the Bills might flex him over to the other side this week, given that he had 1.5 sacks against Mitchell Schwartz last season.
One of the things I really haven't mentioned leading up to this game is how terrible the Bills' run defense is. They give up 122.3 yards per game, ranking them 27th in the league against the run. Per our Bills affiliate, the Bills "don't play consistently well at the point of attack, which leads to some occasional gashes up the middle; they're also prone to making mistakes in contain; they allow too many runs to get outside, and they'll overrun cutback lanes and give up additional yardage, as well."
There is one star-in-the-making at linebacker for Buffalo, though: Second-round pick Kiko Alonso, the team's middle linebacker, is off to a great start to the year (rookie of the year potential). He has 32 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery.
Cleveland has been getting very efficient play from all four of their linebackers. Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, D'Qwell Jackson, and Craig Robertson all played 100 percent of the snaps last week, though, and the depth at outside linebacker is still low with Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves out. Hopefully the starters this week can stay healthy and then relax for this next stretch of 10 games.
If the Bills were at full strength in the secondary, I'd probably rank these units as even. The Bills have a lot of question marks in the injury department, though. Safety Jarius Byrd might make his season debut today after dealing with a foot injury, but he's questionable. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin is trying to come back from a hamstring injury, but he might wait another week. Stephon Gilmore won't play with a wrist injury. The substitutes haven't done very well in their place.
The Browns didn't allow a touchdown against a potent Bengals offense last week. Joe Haden continued to shut down opposing team's top receivers, Buster Skrine continued showing his improved skills from a year ago, and Chris Owens even looked a little more confident in his reps. That doesn't mention the fact that Tashaun Gipson has been getting good reads and hits in coverage to knock passes away or force receivers to drop the ball.
Billy Cundiff still has a thigh injury for the Browns, but he was able to kick a 51-yarder last week. He might not handle touchbacks again, and Spencer Lanning can't get the same type of depth on his kickoffs. The Browns reach "even" status here because of Travis Benjamin's return ability, and the fact that Lanning has shown marked improvement on his punts. Fozzy Whittaker is expected to be the Browns' new kick returner this week.
I think we saw Brian Hoyer could be an effective and calm game manager last week, and it was important that the running game got going in the fourth quarter. If Willis McGahee finds his groove, he could have a surprise breakout game against the 27th-ranked run defense in the league. The Bills aren't going to be loading the box either, given that Hoyer has shown the ability to move the ball through the air with quick passes.
If this is an ugly weather game tonight (which I am projecting), you have to like the Browns' run defense taking away the Bills' running game, and Cleveland doing enough to pull out a similar win as this past Sunday.
Cleveland Browns 20, Buffalo Bills 13
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