An offense that has simply looked pathetic under head coach Pat Shurmur suddenly came to life in Paul Brown Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. However, the usually reliable defense—particularly the secondary—was spottier than usual.
A home tilt against a Buffalo team fresh off a 35-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs will give more of an indication as to where the Browns stand in 2012.
Fun fact: Cleveland will only start six of the same players on offense and defense since its last meeting with Buffalo, which was in 2010. LT Joe Thomas, C Alex Mack, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, DT Ahtyba Rubin, LB Scott Fujita and S T.J. Ward.
Here are the key battles to watch for in Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Browns offensive line vs. Bills defensive line
Compared to the disastrous season opener, the offense was light years better against the Bengals. It started up front.
Brandon Weeden had plenty of time to set his feet and deliver several beautiful rockets down the field. Trent Richardson acclimated himself after showing some rust in Week 1, and showed why he was the No. 3 overall pick.
Any concern about chemistry issues were put to rest, as the Browns had their highest total offensive output in the Pat Shurmur era.
Buffalo provides what will prove to be one of the fiercest tests to the newly sewn unit. Mario Williams leads the way, and is often labeled "Super". Those were the thoughts Buffalo had when they forked over nine-figure bills to the 2006 No. 1 pick this past offseason.
Also in the fold is unrelated Kyle Williams, Mark Anderson, and last year's top-three pick Marcell Dareus. Unfortunately, Dareus had to attend his brother's funeral and miss Wednesday's practice, but he will be on the field on Sunday.
The knock on Weeden—from scouting reports, studio analysis, color commentary, you name it—has been that he can't deliver the ball accurately when he's knocked off his spot. You wouldn't believe that in watching the Cincinnati game tape, though.
He is bound to face more pressure this week, and the Browns must establish a strong running game with Richardson to help combat that.
Much of the game's outcome will be determined by this battle in the trenches.
Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine vs. Stevie Johnson
Whew! All hope looked lost in the Cleveland secondary last week, as Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton exploded for 318 passing yards.
The opening exclamatory, designed to show relief, was used because help is on the way for the Browns. Veteran corner Sheldon Brown will be heavily involved against the Bills after playing just one snap in the year's first AFC North tilt with a neck stinger.
This is where it gets interesting, though: according to Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com, Brown may be used predominantly at nickelback:
Sounds from Pat Shurmur like #Browns CB Sheldon Brown might be moving to nickel back. Wouldn't say exactly, but ...— Tony Grossi (@TonyGrossi) September 19, 2012
That would leave Patterson and Skrine to cover one of the best, most talented young receivers in the league in Johnson. Patterson struggled at times against Cincinnati—no easy assignment locked up against A.J. Green—while Skrine's inexperience was more noticeable against lesser receivers.
Whomever is lined up opposite the Bills' Johnson, he must be contained.
New starting free safety Eric Hagg has had a rough go at it the first two games, and he must not let Buffalo's go-to guy in the passing game to get behind him. Any help he can provide to Patterson or Skrine over the top would be invaluable.
Cleveland's front seven vs. C.J. Spiller
Before getting to Mr. Spiller and his all-world speed, let's backtrack a bit.
Speaking of defensive lines, what a turnaround by Cleveland's unit, which was expected to be hurt by a freakish injury to 2011 first-round defensive tackle Phil Taylor. Now, it's scary to imagine what the Browns could accomplish with the big fella in the lineup.
I was thinking who best to compare Spiller to as he's begun 2012 on a tear, leading the league in rushing. I couldn't help thinking about LeSean McCoy. Keep in mind this is the potential that Spiller has, not the to-date accomplishments nor consistent production.
Think about it: a shifty, quick running back with great speed and exceptional receiving ability. That pretty much describes Shady in a nutshell. Here's the obvious kicker: as the video evidence above indicates, Spiller is even faster than the Philadelphia Eagles star.
It's unlikely that Spiller will continue at this staggering, 100 yards per game rate, and he may not even be the starter when Fred Jackson returns from injury.
McCoy's stellar Week 1 outing in Cleveland was probably more attributable to the defense being on the field for so long than anything. That, along with forcing so many turnovers that the offense failed to capitalize on.
The matchup is still a scary one for the Browns, though. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has himself been playing lights out to start 2012, and he will need to be on top of his game to stop Spiller.
If Scott Fujita or Kaluka Maiava draw Buffalo's speedster running back in man coverage, well, good luck.
According to a report by the Associated Press writer John Wawrow, Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey is determined to mold his offense into more of a run-dominant attack.
We'd rather be a physical run team that throws it when we have to, or throws it on surprise situations. So we'll continue to work down this path as much as we can.
What that probably means for this week is that there will be a heavy dose of Spiller. It's up to the Browns to maintain their gaps and stay disciplined in their pursuit angles against such a dynamic, versatile back.
Brandon Weeden vs. Jairus Byrd and Delano Howell
There will be an interesting game of chess going on between the Bills' last line of defense and Weeden.
A lot of throws down the field were available, and Weeden hit them in throwing for a Browns rookie-record 322 yards in Cincinnati. One exciting aspect about that game: zero turnovers for the first-round signal-caller, who fluttered four picks in his NFL debut.
Byrd, a notorious ball hawk and sure target of bad puns to convey that fact, may not be available because of a foot injury, which would leave the undrafted free agent Howell to fill in.
The first-year player out of Stanford is no slouch in his own right. Howell began his tenure as a three-year starting Cardinal safety under former head coach Jim Harbaugh, now of the San Francisco 49ers. As a senior, Howell won the Jack Huston Award, according to a report by Stanford Magazine.
Not to be confusedly associated with the actor from Boardwalk Empire, the award itself recognizes "the player who best exemplifies aggressiveness, exceptional performance and unheralded efforts."
Maybe his odds were initially long to even make an NFL roster, but that seems appropriate for someone who won an award involving "unheralded efforts". All 32 teams passed him by in the draft, but Howell may find himself starting his first NFL game this weekend.
Weeden will surely have to contend with a ferocious pass rush, but he will need to be wise beyond his years and look off whoever is playing center field. Doing that effectively increases the likelihood that the offense will build on its recent success in the vertical passing game.