This week, the Buffalo Bills in a game that features several rivalry-related storylines, including SS Donte Whitner facing his former team, head coach Mike Pettine going up against the team he was the defensive coordinator of last year, the Browns owning Buffalo's first round pick in 2015, and the fact that both teams are in the AFC playoff race. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.take on the
Browns: Except for his last-minute drive, Brian Hoyer is coming off of a forgetful game against the Falcons: one that included three interceptions that missed wide open receivers, amidst other missed throws. With the Browns still coming out on top, Hoyer has basically assured himself being the starter the rest of the regular season, but he needs to deliver a much more competent performance against the team he suffered a torn ACL against in 2013.
: I think the Bills absolutely made the right decision to go with Kyle Orton to replace E.J. Manuel earlier this season. They are 4-3 with him as the starter, and he's done exactly what he's been called upon for: let the defense do the dirty work, and then manage the game well enough to put the team in position to win late. He is probably the very definition of a good short-term starter / long-term backup quarterback in the NFL, but he also has a role that Hoyer does not want to be pigeon-holed with.
Browns: The two-back system worked wonders for the Browns last week: Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West both received 12-14 carries, which were enough for them to each get comfortable and record runs of 20+ yards. That was against a Falcons defense that had trouble penetrating into the backfield.
Now, they will be going up against a Bills front four that has helped Buffalo be ranked 8th in the NFL against the run. With Cleveland's running game, if the offensive line can prevent teams from penetrating into the backfield, the baby backs can take over from there.
: Every year, Buffalo looks to be in good shape at running back with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Unfortunately, the duo never seems to pan out due to injuries, and this year is no different. Spiller has been on injured reserve, and Jackson has battled injuries to the point where he only has 68 carries for 281 yards rushing. Jackson seems to be healthy again now, but he won't get a full workload in carries. He'll still be productive as a receiver, where he has 40 catches for 313 yards.
With Spiller gone, Boobie Dixon (formerly known as Anthony Dixon from his 49ers days) will see about half of the carries. He is a very pedestrian back at best and isn't known as being a receiving back. Bryce Brown, who the team gave up a fourth round pick for this offseason, has been getting intermittent, but not consistent reps. He has a lot of explosiveness but the coaching staff has held the reigns back on him for whatever reason.
Browns: Cleveland's receiving unit came as effective as advertised with Josh Gordon's return to the field last week. Andrew Hawkins had some more advantageous match-ups, Miles Austin continued making some clutch catches.
Taylor Gabriel's reps were lessened the most, but he and Travis Benjamin will likely continue to have 25% of the snaps per game each to keep defenses on high alert against a diverse skill set of receivers. Jordan Cameron has been ruled out again with a concussion, meaning Gordon will remain the lone guy who Hoyer knows he can lob the ball up to in certain situations as a last resort.
: The Bills gave Cleveland a lot to be able to draft Sammy Watkins this past May. He had an impressive October, posting 21 catches for 393 yards and 3 touchdowns in four games. In three games in November, though, Watkins has just 10 catches for 94 yards, a span in which the Bills have gone 1-2.
Robert Woods, the team's second round pick in 2013, is Buffalo's second-leading receiver and is coming off a big week against the Jets. Scott Chandler is an opportunistic receiver at tight end. There will be stretches in which he isn't involved, and then he'll have two big catches on the same drive.
Chris Hogan, an undrafted free agent receiver in 2013, has become the team's third receiver. Mike Williams, the team's big-ticket free agent receiver, has basically been blackballed from playing time. One Buffalo report said that his role in practice this week resorted to him representing Josh Gorodn on the scout team.
Browns: Although incremental progress can still be made, the offensive line (with Nick McDonald) has now played long enough to where the chemistry issues should be out of the window. Our sample size is relatively small, but the Browns have struggled with their run blocking against good defensive fronts, which obviously trickles down to effect the use of the playaction pass.
: Our Bills affiliate gave us a quick assessment of each of their starting give offensive linemen: "Cordy Glenn, the left tackle, is still the best lineman on the team, though he is not playing as well as he did in 2013.
Ever since the team put veteran Kraig Urbik back into the starting lineup at left guard, the unit has been far more consistent in pass protection, and they have been slightly more efficient running the ball of late, as well. But when you get right down to it, this line is not at all great; Eric Wood is having a down year at center, rookie right tackle Seantrel Henderson is still inconsistent, and right guard Erik Pears (a converted tackle) is the weakest link of all."
My assessment is that the Bills have the very definition of an average offensive line with Cleveland having the edge in pass protection.
Browns: Nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin is listed as questionable as he deals with a back injury, this coming after he had been dealing with a knee injury for several weeks. Cleveland can't afford to have any more of their defensive linemen drop. Desmond Bryant continues to act as the work horse of the group, while Billy Winn seems to be getting a bit of a second wind lately.
: If I could add a "x2" (or even a "x3" or "x4") to signify just how definitive of an advantage the defensive line is for the Bills, I would. They have the best front four in the NFL, and this is a case where stats really do tell the truth.
The defensive ends, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, have 12 and 9.5 sacks, respectively. The defensive tackles, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, have 10 and 4 sacks, respectively. Those 35.5 sacks are more than the Browns have as an entire team (23 sacks). Because of how good the front four is, Buffalo doesn't have to blitz very often, which helps their linebackers and defensive backs focus on pass coverage.
Browns: Cleveland will be without Karlos Dansby for the second straight week with Craig Robertson filling in. PFF continues to give props to Barkevious Mingo for his efforts at stopping the run, saying he is the 2nd most effective run-stopping outside linebacker in the NFL. Kyle Orton has been sacked 21 times in 7 starts, so Paul Kruger should have some opportunities to add to his team-high sack total. Jabaal Sheard did not practice all week but could still see a rotational role this week.
: Buffalo certainly knows how to find those gem-type linebackers. Preston Brown, a third-round pick, starts at one of the outside linebacker positions in the Bills' 4-3 defense and has been a superb tackler. At middle linebacker, Brandon Spikes has historically been effective at stopping the run. At the other outside linebacker position, Nigel Bradham has been very effective as well.
Browns: This is where having a deep secondary will hopefully pay off. Free safety Tashaun Gipson suffered a knee injury last week and is out indefinitely. Jim Leonhard is expected to get the start in his place with Jordan Poyer getting some reps there as well, but I still wouldn't be surprised if K'Waun Williams sees a little bit of action there as well.
Joe Haden is expected to shadow rookie receiver Sammy Watkins with Buster Skrine on Robert Woods. The Bills don't go to many four receiver sets, so if Williams doesn't play any safety, Justin Gilbert might not see the field. The presence of Donte Whitner could no doubt stir some things up, especially if he delivers a big hit to a receiver or a late hit to running back Fred Jackson.
: The Bills rank fifth in the NFL in pass coverage. While the secondary deserves some credit for that ranking, I find the Browns' secondary, even without Gipson in the lineup, to be more talented. In other words, the luxury of Buffalo's great front four allows them to have more guys in coverage on receivers. They've only allowed one receiver, Golden Tate, to have over 100 yards receiving in a single game all year.
Corey Graham and Stephon Gilmore are currently the team's starting cornerbacks, with Aaron Williams at strong safety and Da'Norris Searcy at free safety. Leodis McKelvin, the team's top cornerback, is on injured reserve.
Browns: After a couple of misses in back-to-back weeks, Billy Cundiff came up big for the Browns last week, connecting on all four field goals besides the ridiculous 60-yard attempt. With Marlon Moore out, the Browns will likely utilize Taylor Gabriel on kick returns again. Travis Benjamin had an unbelievable day returning punts against the Bills last year, but Buffalo is right up there with the Browns this year as the best overall team in covering kickoffs and punts.
Spencer Lanning, both of whom are in the bottom half of the NFL.: Dan Carpenter has connected on 23-of-26 field goals this season and is good from beyond 50 yards, hitting 4-of-5 from that range this year. Colton Schmidt, who once had a brief stint with the Browns in the offseason, is the Bills' punter. He has just about the same productivity as
The Bills utilize a roster spot for a kickoff specialist, Jordan Gay, who is in the upper half of the league in getting touchbacks. C.J. Spiller and Leodis McKelvin were the Bills' return specialists, but both are out for the year. Bryce Brown looks to be doing kickoffs, with either Robert Woods or Fred Jackson handling punts.
This is a really tough call. At first, I wanted to recognize the fact that Jacksonville, Houston, and Buffalo all have good defensive fronts that present a matchup problem and pick that as the reason that the Bills would come out on top this week. Is that who the Browns are, though? Is Cleveland really just a team that can't beat a good defensive front?
Here is why it could be different, though: unlike a team like Houston, the Bills don't run the ball very well, meaning Cleveland's defense should be able to keep the game very much within reach from start to finish. Also, I think the Jaguars and the Texans kind of caught the Browns off guard. With Buffalo, everyone league wide knows that they are a match-up problem for any team.
I expect the Browns' running game to have a tough time getting going, putting them in some tough third-and-long situations for QB Brian Hoyer in which he won't have a lot of time to throw. As the game goes on, though, I see WR Josh Gordon becoming more of the focal point offensively and the hurry-up approach allowing Cleveland to pick up some yards on the ground -- Buffalo has struggled to contain the run a bit over their past several games. The Browns were very much in position to "snap out of it" in the fourth quarter to beat the Jaguars and the Texans. This time, facing a similar situation, Gordon proves just how much of an asset he is as the Browns set up another last-second drive for a field goal.
Cleveland Browns 20, Buffalo Bills 17
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