The Buffalo Bills don't have long to enjoy their win over the Baltimore Ravens as they have a short week and a matchup with the suddenly hot Cleveland Browns Thursday night. The Browns have won two in a row with wins over Minnesota and Cincinnati. These wins came after trading their star running back Trent Richardson and benching Brandon Weeden for Brian Hoyer as their starting quarterback.
This is Buffalo's only prime-time game on the schedule right now and will be a good opportunity for rookies EJ Manuel and Kiko Alonso to showcase their talents in front of a national audience. It is also an important game for both teams as 3-2 sounds much better than 2-3. Head coach Doug Marrone and his staff have their work cut out for them coming up with a game plan, but this is what I expect Buffalo to do when they head into Cleveland.
Offensive Game Plan
There has been a noticeable change in Buffalo's game plan the past two weeks as the team has given EJ Manuel more opportunities to go vertical. He connected on one of these throws midway through the second quarter to fellow rookie Robert Woods. The play was set up by play action when the Ravens' defense was clearly focused on Tashard Choice coming out of the backfield. This allowed Robert Woods to get the initial separation off the line from his defender.
The play action put the linebackers out of position, but the route by Stevie Johnson was the reason Robert Woods was as open as he was. Johnson ran a crossing route which forced the Ravens' safety to make the decision to play him or the deep route run by Robert Woods.
After Manuel released the ball, three Ravens closed in on Johnson which opened up an easy deep ball to Woods for the touchdown.
The play was run to perfection and this showed Buffalo's potential for explosive plays. The reason the play action call was so successful, though, was because the Bills made a point to establish the run. The team ran the ball 55 times for a total of 203 yards, but it was Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller who did most of the damage.
The two running backs combined for 164 of those yards, however, both of them left Sunday evening banged up with Spiller spraining his left ankle and Jackson spraining his left knee during the game.
According to Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News, Jackson has stated that he "is definitely playing," while Spiller will be a game-time decision. If both running backs are able to play, it will not be an easy game as Cleveland is only giving up 79 yards per game on the ground. The team is very stout defensively and does not give up many easy yards.
One area Buffalo needs to continue to focus on is limiting turnovers. Cleveland's defense has been opportunistic in this area the last two games and has forced five turnovers in said games. If Buffalo hopes to win, Manuel needs to protect the ball when he is holding it in the pocket and make smart throws.
Defensive Game Plan
On the defensive side of the ball, Buffalo will need to try and neutralize Cleveland's biggest weapon in tight end Jordan Cameron. This will not be an easy task as he is off to a great start to this season and no defense has been able to stop him, yet.
Cameron has been averaging 7.5 receptions, 90 yards and 1.25 touchdowns per game over the first four games. He has been the perfect target for Brian Hoyer and has fit into this offense very well.
The X-factor in Cleveland's offense is wide receiver Josh Gordon. He missed the first two games of the season due to a suspension but didn't waste any time making his presence felt. In his first game back against Minnesota he had 10 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown.
He was slowed a bit against Cincinnati with four receptions for 71 yards but the Bengals have a solid secondary. The concern with Gordon is he has the speed to exploit a depleted Bills' secondary. If he is able to get into a rhythm, it could be a long day for the secondary.
If the Browns are going to win this game it will come through the air, as their running game has been non-existent the last two weeks. When they traded away Trent Richardson, they also traded away pretty much any running game they had.
Over the last two games they have only run the ball 17 and 30 times, respectively, and have been fairly one-dimensional over that span. The addition of Alan Branch to the defensive line, along with starters Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, seemed to improve Buffalo's run defense as they did an excellent job of shutting out Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce last week.
There is no reason to think this week won't have the same results and Buffalo's focus should be to limit Cleveland's passing game. They should be able to do that with good pressure on Hoyer and capitalizing on turnovers when the opportunity presents itself. Buffalo did a great job of this last week when they intercepted Joe Flacco five times.
One of the reasons Buffalo forced as many interceptions as they did was because of the pressure they got on Joe Flacco with four sacks and 12 QB hits. If they can get this kind of pressure on Hoyer and force him into quick decisions they should be able to continue to generate turnovers.
The challenge for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, though, is if he can draw up a blitz that can get to Hoyer quick enough, who has found success with short passes. He is only averaging 6.41 yards per attempt, which is sixth worst in the NFL, and is only .41 yards better than Brandon Weeden. Buffalo's defense needs to recognize this and know that if they can't get to the quarterback in time they need to get their hands up and disrupt any potential passing windows.
Buffalo has a great chance to be 3-2 when they head home to face Cincinnati. It will not be easy and will be most likely a low scoring battle that will come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes. If Buffalo can limit their turnovers and get the ground game going like they did against Baltimore, while limiting Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon, they should be able to get their first road win of the season.