The Buffalo Bills came into their Week-3 showdown against the Cleveland Browns sporting a nasty losing streak on the road. Victories in games against a middling, but scrappy opponent on the road have been rare.
It wasn't a pretty game, but the Bills had a strong showing against the Browns, beating them with the kind of strong play in the trenches that Buffalo, itself, has been the victim of many times in recent years.
When C.J. Spiller left the game with an injury, the Bills faltered, but their strong play along both the defensive and offensive lines kept them in the ball game long enough to execute key scoring drives in the fourth quarter after their 14-0 lead had been cut to a 17-14 advantage.
It was a meeting of sorts with the Bills' past, as Dick Jauron's "bend-but-don't-break" defense reminded Bills fans of what they don't miss.
The win also represents a solid step forward for this season. If two consecutive victories are any indication, Buffalo appears to have recovered from its embarrassing Week-1, 48-28 loss to the New York Jets.
If you asked me before the season who the heart and soul of the Bills team was, I would have answered immediately: Fred Jackson.
But three weeks into the season—with both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller now injured—the heart and soul scale is tipping toward the offensive line. Another game and another Sunday in which Ryan Fitzpatrick is barely touched, and there are holes all over the field for the running backs.
The Bills rushed for 138 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Third-stringer Tashard Choice gashed the Browns for 91 yards. And the Browns' defensive line is fairly respectable (via sbnation.com)
If the Bills push for a playoff spot, credit will need to be awarded to the offensive line. The interior trio of Levitre, Wood, and Urbik are beastly, and they give the Bills offense an aggressive identity it has lacked for years. Rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn hasn't embarrassed himself as of yet; in fact, he looks every bit as solid at the position as GM Buddy Nix expected.
This unit looks like the Bills' best O-line since the team's Super Bowl years, and its stability up front kept Buffalo in a game that prior Bills teams would have likely fallen out of.
8-0, 6-3, 13-6...Bills vs. Browns games over the years haven't exactly been blockbuster entertainment. I wouldn't want to call it "good old-fashioned, smash-mouth football" either, because I think that would be an insult to teams like the Steelers and the Ravens.
Today's games had flashes of past Bills vs. Browns skirmishes. There were 14 punts and 16 penalties in the game. But long-tortured fans of both teams might take comfort in that the futures of the two franchises might have been foreshadowed in this game, too.
Both teams may be slowly emerging from the deep pit of NFL mediocrity.
Into the fourth quarter, when the game really started to slip away from the Browns, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jauron's Bills. A team that was always able to keep a game close only to watch it slip its hands due to wacky plays, penalties and wimpy play-calling.
Sal Maiorana of Rochester, New York's Democrat and Chronicle hit the same note in this tweet:
Much of what the Browns have done today—the killer mistakes—is what the Bills have done for a long time. Hopefully those days are over— Sal Maiorana (@salmaiorana) September 23, 2012
Aaron Williams bats away a would-be big-play reception.
One of the Buffalo Bills' key areas of concern is their inexperienced but promising defensive backfield.
Aside from covering tight ends, the secondary's biggest weakness in recent memory has been its inability to make a play on a ball in the air. Case in point, the Jets' first touchdown pass against the Bills in Week 1 of the season. Slot corner Leodis McKelvin held perfect coverage on the play and was in position to make a play but inexplicably missed the ball.
So seeing Aaron Williams look back and make a play on two well-thrown Brandon Weeden passes to Mohammed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin on the outside was very encouraging. Williams was beaten by a step or so on both plays but was able to recover in time and knock the ball away.
To put an exclamation point on the secondary's improved play in this game, McKelvin—who has since been replaced in most situations by Justin Rogers—made a nice interception in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
Choice had a gutsy effort.
There were a few moments in the game where previous versions of the Bills would have folded under pressure.
When Spiller was carted off towards the end of the first quarter, the team was so disoriented that Coach Chan Gailey burned a timeout in efforts to refocus his group. But the cloud hung over the team well into the second half, and Cleveland came within three points of the Bills.
On the Bills' second possession of the second half, Fitzpatrick fired an errant pass into Tashard Choice's back on a 3rd-and-3 play. Of course, Choice should have felt the blitz and kept an eye towards his quarterback, but that just might be what happens when third string running back is thrust into the top spot.
More concerning to me than the Bills' sudden inability to convert a third down in the middle of the game, was Ryan Fitzpatrick's body language after the play.
Frustration, depression, anger, confusion...whatever you want to call it, Fitzpatrick facial expressions sometimes mirrors those of Johnny Six-Pack Bills fan, and that's not always a good thing.
Surely, losing their second marquee running back in their young season was a blow from which earlier incarnations of the Bills (ahem, Jauron) might have not have recovered.
Give credit, of course, to the Bills defense, which bent, broke and then stiffened exactly when they needed to snuff out any lingering hope that Pat Shurmur and Jauron's squad might have had.
As bad as Fitzpatrick's body language can be at times, he's still the key figure in the Bills' collective hope. At least the Bills have proven, if nothing else, that they'll never stop coming after it.
Because of injury, the Bills have been cut down to their third- and fourth-string running backs in the backfield.
Given this injury issue, it may be a bad time to pick on a running game that may need the added dimension the Wildcat offense can bring.
But screw it. The NFL has outlived the Wildcat's usefulness.
Brad Smith rushed for six yards on two carries, If the Bills have a healthy Spiller or Fred Jackson, or even a Tashard Choice available, why would they run Wildcat plays? Sometimes the league's coaches outthink themselves and become enamored of their own creativity for creativity's sake.
This is all to say that the Wildcat is silly, and Brad Smith is taking up a roster spot.
OK, first let me say that there were moments in the game, as the Browns climbed back into contention, when I was watching Mario Williams and starting to feel some level of disappointment in his play.
He just doesn't always look that special out there.
There's some well-deserved expectation that goes along with being the former No. 1 overall pick and the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. And let's just say that Mario Williams is no Bruce Smith or Reggie White.
And then as soon as I began to write some notes to this effect, Williams broke through and got a sack. So he's off the schneid, for now.
However, there's a very good chance that Mario Williams is only the third-best player on his own line; Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are a wrecking crew. Watching those guys penetrate the backfield and push people around is an absolute delight.
Trent Richardson showed he has elite speed and power as a running back, and he showed it on a nice six-yard touchdown run. But that was pretty much it for Richardson, as He finished with just 27 yards on 12 carries, and the entire Browns' team was held to 33 yards on the ground.
And the Bills defense sacked Brandon Weeden four times.
Angst about Mario Williams aside, the Bills' defensive line dominated the game. And as the Bills have learned from being on the losing end for many years, you have a much better chance at winning when you control the trenches.
There's a lot of blue jerseys back there...
The Bills raised more than a few eyebrows when they moved up in the third round of the 2012 draft to snag T.J. Graham from NC State. Graham possesses speed, but other areas of his game were said to be raw, underdeveloped.
And that's pretty much exactly how Graham could be characterized in his short tenure with the Bills: fast but raw.
He's so raw, in fact, that he didn't even dress for the Bills' first game against the Jets and might have still found himself on the sidelines in street clothes if not for the season-ending injury to David Nelson.
That's why Graham's modest box score of three catches for 24 yards and a touchdown is a good sign. Graham's touchdown came on beautifully executed red zone play where Fitzpatrick spread the offense out and Graham lined up in the slot, coming completely free in the middle of the field for an easy-looking score.
Another catch came on the Bills' key fourth-quarter scoring drive on 3rd-and-9. Fitzpatrick hit Graham on a bubble screen, and Graham got the first down with his feet.
There's only a small body of work from which to analyze Graham, but soon we'll be able to add "good hands" to "speed" on his scouting report.
Though this game might be remembered more for an early injury that knocked running back C.J. Spiller out of the game, I'll remember it as the day that I became sure that C.J. Spiller was one of the league's special playmakers, the kind of guy who is capable of busting a big play every time he touches the ball.
Already this season, Spiller has five plays for 25 yards or more, including a 56-yard touchdown run (Week 1), a 42-yard screen pass for a score (week 3) and a 38-yard run (Week 2). He's building an impressive track record for himself in this young season.
Early reports indicate that Spiller's injury may not be as serious as his carting off from the field suggested. Coach Gailey sounded optimistic in postgame comments, hinting Spiller might only miss one week's worth of action.
The Bills are improved over recent years but they still, like most NFL teams, have a lot of holes. And C.J. Spiller's continued production can go a long way in masking those holes.
If healthy, he's a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
With C.J. Spiller sidelined indefinitely and Fred Jackson already out, the Bills' depth chart is slowly starting to crunch down on several positions, including wide receiver and safety.
You probably already know that if it were up to me, gadget-whatever-he-is Brad Smith would be my prime candidate for the waiver wire, but we can't overlook John Potter's spot.
And, I wouldn't even bring it up here if Potter had struggled only today, which could be forgiven considering the wind and rain in Cleveland. Only two of his five kickoffs to the league's most dangerous return man, Joshua Cribbs, resulted in touchbacks.
But the previous week, in sunny Orchard Park, four of Potter's six kickoffs were touchbacks. And in Week 1 against the Jets in the Meadowlands, he went four of five. So he's getting touchbacks on 63 percent of his kickoffs, which I'm willing to wager is lower than what the team brass had in mind when it carved for him a seat on the bench for the other 59 minutes of the game.
It doesn't matter where the Bills play, every stadium outside the confines of Ralph Wilson Stadium has been a house of horrors for Buffalo.
Even their second home in Toronto has seen them go 1-3 in the four years that Buffalo has played there.
Good teams find a way to win on the road. The host Browns came into the game hungry, having lost two close games in previous weeks and staring down the barrel of a tough schedule.
There were many moments in the second and third quarters when those previous Bills teams might have just quit. But the way Buffalo persevered and survived a key injury to the second-coming of Emmitt Smith and some sloppy moments from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick hopefully says a lot about where this season is headed.