The Browns defense faces an offense that appears to play into their strengths. The Bills are second in the league in rushing at 152 yards per game while only throwing for 198 yards per game through the air. The potential problem that the Bills’ offense presents is their quarterback and his ability to run the football. Nevertheless, the Browns run has been incredibly effective through the first month after the season and Ray Horton has to be excited at the prospect of sending any number of different blitzes at rookie E.J. Manuel. The Bills have a few talented backs and an enormous offensive line, so the Browns are going to be forced to show once again they can stop the run, put the Bills in obvious passing situations and go get Manuel.
E.J. Manuel has perhaps gotten more credit than he should have in his first four weeks as a quarterback. As a passer, he came out and had success completing nearly two thirds of his passes but was not for much yardage against the Patriots in week one. Manuel’s most productive day in terms of raw numbers was in week two against the Carolina Panthers where he completed 27 of his 39 passes for 296 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
The somewhat precarious trend for the Bills has been the past two weeks. Combined, Manuel has completed just 45.3% of his passes along with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. They were able to split those two games. Much of the reason they were able to beat the Ravens was their overwhelming success in the running game.
Their running backs combined to run the ball 39 times for 156 yards and a touchdown at an average of 4.2 yards per carry. While C.J. Spiller is dangerous because of his athletic ability, their most effective back has been Fred Jackson. The fact that both do different things well gives them options. It is that much more dangerous when Manuel is able to help them with legs. In two different games, Manuel has had a run for 19 yards and while the Bills certainly do not want to risk injury by running him into the ground, he can be a weapon.
This presents a potential problem for the Browns if they play the Bills like they played the Vikings. Quarterback Christian Ponder had 5 carries for 46 yards and two touchdowns with a combination of designed runs and scrambles. If the Browns cannot take that option away from Manuel, it could really open up opportunities for him to throw the ball.
While Manuel’s numbers have not been pretty, he does have some talented weapons. In addition to Spiller and Jackson, who have both shown to be weapons as receivers with 22 receptions between them, the Bills also have Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods on the outside as their wide receivers. Neither has great size but they both know how to get open and can make plays after the catch. Woods has been a nice addition as a rookie and been able to make a quick adjustment to the NFL because of how well he can plant his foot in the ground to get open.
Joe Haden is a terrific corner coming off of a great game against A.J. Green, but it would be a mistake to assume he will automatically shut down Johnson. Johnson is a player who seems to really get motivated to play against big time competition and has had a knack for doing damage against Darrelle Revis so while the Browns will love that matchup, Johnson is a good player.
Buster Skrine is coming off of his best game this year and will have another opportunity to step up in playing against Johnson as well as Woods. It can be easier to defend against bigger, broad receivers because they are usually more predictable rather than small, quick receivers who can be so quick, but that is what the Bills specialize in with their receivers.
That leaves the Browns defense trying to stop another talented tight end in Scott Chandler. Much like Jordan Cameron, he has worked his way into be an effective tight end but unlike Cameron, Chandler is 6’7” 260lbs which is incredibly difficult to defend. The Browns appeared to do a solid job against Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, so hopefully they can contain Chandler.
Horton loves to send pressure no matter the opponent, but that will likely be turned up that much more with Manuel behind center, especially if the Browns do a good job against the run and put the Bills in obvious pass situations. They are likely to try to disguise coverages a little bit to make Manuel hesitate on his reads and allow the likes of Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant to get pressure on him.
The Bills have a couple of talented offensive linemen such as Cordy Glenn, who is a house at left tackle and Eric Wood, their center. Glenn may be better suited to play on the right side but has been impressive in his short career on the blind side. A pure speed threat like Mingo could make it difficult for a battleship like Glenn. The rest of the line, partly because of the loss of Andy Levitre to the Titans in free agency, is being pieced together. Colin Brown, their left guard is similar to Glenn in terms of his size which gives the Bills close to 700lbs on the left side of the line. The relatively shrimp on the offensive line is their right tackle, Erik Pears who is 6’7” but only 305lbs. The next smallest player on the line is Wood at 315lbs. Everyone else is in excess of 320lbs.
Fortunately, the Browns have the power up the middle with Phil Taylor and an end like Athyba Rubin who are equipped to push the opponent back and help set up the linebackers to play the run. This is a matchup of strengths with the second rated run offense in the league going up against the fourth rated run defense in the league. It stands to reason that the Bills are going to do everything in their power to get the run going or die trying, but when the Browns can get them into obvious pass situations, they can bring the house.
Manuel is a rookie with talent, but a rookie nonetheless. Based on experience and his recent run of play, the Bills would definitely to prefer not to have to put the game in the hands of their quarterback. Meanwhile, the Browns are going to do everything in their power to make Manuel beat them and make him make the plays to move the ball down the field and set up points.
If the Bills are able to run the football, it opens up the rest of their offense and allows them to force to react to what they are doing rather than dictate it. The focus for the Browns will be to do everything in their power to shut down the run and it might come in the form of heavy blitzes to attack run holes. The Bills may show some early play action or some screens on the edge to try to force the defense to play more honestly. They may even take a shot or two deep early to try to force the safeties to play deep and give them what they hope is some space in the running game.
The challenge for the Browns defense is to be able to counter a huge offensive line up front and find ways to stop the Bills from running the ball. Every time they can put the Bills in third and long, they will consider it a win and take their chances with the Bills beating them with the pass. Still, the Bills do have weapons and if Manuel can consistently get them the football, they can make plays down the field. Right now, the Bills are trying to do everything they can to establish a running game to take pressure off of Manuel and allow him some throws into a defense that is unaware of what is coming. There is no reason to expect that will be different this game even if they come out with a few early aggressive plays in the passing game. Ultimately, they are who they are just as the Browns defense is going to be aggressive and try to dictate the action, so the Bills are going to run the football and the Browns are going to tasked with stopping it in order to win.