After a string of disappointing games the last half of a decade, the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns actually put together a pretty solid game on Sunday.
Though most will probably only hear that the NFL's leading rusher, CJ Spiller, was temporary lost to a shoulder injury early in the game, there were several points of interest throughout. For two teams who have spent recent memory as ignored losers in the NFL (both Buffalo and Cleveland have each had only two winning seasons since 1999), this one turned out to be worthy of little more attention than normal.
A potential blowout for Buffalo one minute, the Spiller injury got the game close, forcing the Bills to instead look to their front defensive four and franchise quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to secure their 24-14 victory. Sure, mature rookie QB Brandon Weeden almost willed the Browns to catch up late in the third, but there was just too much youth error in Cleveland, too many drops (both offensive and defensive), and, in the end, Cleveland still couldn't rise out of their muck of ineptitude.
This game served to shed some light on two teams who may be trending towards a winning season in the near future, so we'll take this opportunity to examine five things we learned about Cleveland and Buffalo following their battle at Browns Stadium.
1 - Buffalo's offensive line may be their strongest position.
There's no arguing that the loss (albeit temporary) of both Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller before the end of the ninth quarter of NFL play in 2012 was a major blow to Buffalo's season, but third stringer Tashard Choice managed to end up with 91 yards, fourth stringer Johnny White had 15, and even Fitzpatrick ended up scrambling for 10.
Add to that, the Bills haven't allowed one sack this season (though the NFL seems to think Fitzpatrick's phantom fumble in this one counts) and you start to realize that while it definitely helps to have talented playmakers, there is nothing like a good offensive line.
Center Eric Wood and guard Andy Levitre led the charge Sunday, though all five (even rookie Cordy Glenn)were essential in giving Fitzpatrick more than ample time to find receivers (though with admittedly questionable accuracy at times), while also opening up gaping holes for whoever happened to be taking handoffs. When it was all said and done, the 138 net rushing and 206 net passing Sunday can be largely attributed to the Bills' offensive line, who have been doing the heavy lifting all season (for 2012, Buffalo has 396 total rushing yards, and have scored on seven red zone trips). Big ups to the big men.
2 - Trent Richardson isn't quite there yet.
This week, Browns' potential franchise runner Trent Richardson looked less like his 109 yard performance week two against the Bengals and a lot more like he did when he laid a 39 yard egg week one.
The Alabama alum was smothered all day by the Bills, just couldn't find any room to make plays, and apart from a brilliant bounce out play for his sole touchdown, didn't look much like a third overall pick and future star in Cleveland.
Sunday he had 27 yards on 12 carries, caught six for 24 yards, and, though he did get the Browns' scoring train rolling in the second, his inability to get yardage combined with Buffalo's early lead too often forced QB Weeden to try and win the game through the air (which he indeed flirted with doing).
With former Cleveland great Jim Brown in the house, Richardson didn't do much to disprove the label of "ordinary" the Hall of Famer applied to the rookie back in May. Whether the statement was meant as motivation or hard criticism, it didn't do much for Richardson's game on Sunday, showing the rookie to be still just a rookie regardless of his coming out game last week.
3 - The Bills' defensive front four are getting scary.
It all starts with Mario Williams, Buffalo's $100 million man, who started making a noticeable mark on the stat board in week three after playing more of a background disruption his first two games. Williams had his first sack and a half with Buffalo, had four total tackles on the day (one for loss), and was just a matchup nightmare for the Browns (he was definitely more than rookie tackle Mitchell Schwartz could handle alone).
Due to the behemoth's chaotic effect on the Browns' offensive line, Mario's fellow linemates all found themselves in the Cleveland backfield at one time or another, often in groups meeting at Weeden and Richardson.
Fellow Bills newcomer Mark Anderson ended the day with two tackles (one for loss) and a sack. Kyle Williams, who is perhaps the most complete and strongest lineman of the four, had three tackles (two for loss) and added a sack of his own. Second year tackle Marcel Dareus may have been last on the board with a tackle and half a sack, but he was also essential in almost every drop for a loss and every sack gotten.
The new look Bills defensive line is a combined 1181 pounds of muscle, mass, and talent in 2012. They are more and more impressive each week and are quickly making complaints of Buffalo's invisible pass rush last season simply disappear. Look at it this way, after three games last year, when Buffalo got out to a 3-0 running start, the defense had a paltry two sacks, so the upgrade is obvious when you consider the nine through the same period in 2012. Add to that the lock down job they did on Richardson and the running game Sunday and you've got to believe this was money well spent for Buffalo.
That being said, you still have to reserve judgement of their progress until after they welcome the Patriots next week, as it has always seemed an unspoken fact that Williams and Anderson were brought in to Buffalo largely to bag Brady and make his life a living hell. If the Bills get a performance next week similar to the one the line put up this week, Buffalo may find themselves with wins in back-to-back years against their dreaded rivals to the east.
Especially without CJ in the backfield, Buffalo needs its defense to play even stronger if they hope to beat New England.
4 - Brandon Weeden can't quite do it alone.
The Browns fell behind by two scores quickly in this one, but Weeden almost singlehandedly brought them back on two very polished drives.
However, the rest of the team spent so much time shooting themselves in the foot that QB never really had a chance in the end. I mean, Cleveland started with back-to-back-to-back three-and-outs on their first three possessions, while Buffalo scored on their first two.
Receivers were dropping balls all day (most weren't the quarterback's fault), Richardson just wasn't getting any sort of running room, and though Weeden's age may give him some added patience and experience over other rookies, he just wasn't able to get a consistent thing going.
Brandon finished 27 for 43 (way too many attempts), got 237 yards, and though he had a touchdown, his two interceptions late were forced throws that showed that Weeden is still just a college guy playing pro ball right now. It also doesn't help when your protection crumbles often throughout the day and you're sacked four times for 30 yards and are hit a total of five on the day. Tough day to be an older rookie on a bad team.
5 - There is a deep pool of backups and role players in Buffalo this year.
While the defensive line for the Bills will be getting a large amount of press after this win and many will give love to Stevie Johnson and TJ Graham's touchdowns on the day, there were background players who made those performances much more possible.
Look at linebacker Arthur Moats, who seemed to be near the play every down he was on the field, finishing with six tackles on the day, second most behind veteran Nick Barnett, and corralling runners and receivers all day for others.
Or Donald Jones, who's strong first half (4 catches, 35 yards... 55 if not for an offensive pass interference) got him more attention from coverage, leading directly to the other receivers getting free for scores.
Even when Spiller went down, though the Bills lost that explosive aspect to their run game, the backup tandem of Choice and White still combined for 114 total yards, alleviating serious concerns.
The 2012 Bills may not be as injury-proof as fans would have liked in Western New York, but there is enough talent on both sides of the ball to ensure that the bumps and bruises that go along with any NFL season won't lead to disaster. Meanwhile, the role players are both making plays and drawing attention from stars so they can make plays of their own, so maybe the expectations for another terrible season in Buffalo can now look a little less certain than they did following their week one disappointment in New Jersey.
(Oh, and we also learned the Buffalo rookie TJ Graham needs some touchdown dance lessons ASAP... Damn, that was awkward.)