By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Browns vs. Buffalo Bills
Thursday, 8:29 p.m., in FirstEnergy Stadium
Last game: Beat Baltimore Ravens, 23-20, Sept. 29, in Orchard Park, NY.
Coach: Doug Marrone, 2-2, first year.
Series record: Browns lead, 11-7, counting postseason.
Last meeting: Bills won, 24-14, Sept. 23, 2012, in Cleveland.
League rankings: Offense is 16th overall (second rushing, 28th passing), defense is 27th overall (27th rushing, 22nd passing) and turnover differential is plus-4.
Offensive overview: Marrone and coordinator Nathaniel Hackett brought over the offense they ran at Syracuse in their final year there. It’s no-huddle, mostly shotgun, but it’s not always up-tempo. They’ve done some read-option, but it’s shown primarily to keep defenses honest. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel has the physical tools for this offense. He’s big (6-4 and 237 pounds), with a big arm and also very nimble on the move. So far, Manuel’s accuracy is less than ideal (56.9 completion rate) and the offense has leaned on running the ball. The problem with that is their top two backs, C.J. Spiller (ankle) and Fred Jackson (knee), are hurting and likely will be limited, if they play at all. Those injuries will elevate Tashard Choice to feature back role on Thursday. If Manuel has to throw, he has capable receiving targets in wideouts Stevie Johnson, T.J. Graham and rookie Robert Woods, plus tight end Scott Chandler.
Defensive overview: Coordinator Mike Pettine, formerly of the Jets and Ravens, operates a hybrid, “attacking” defense similar to the Browns. Although they show a 4-3 look, they like to confuse QBs with pressure originating from unpredictable angles. They always show blitz, though they seldom rush more than five. End Mario Williams can line up anywhere on the front. They are getting outstanding play from rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, who never leaves the field, even in their dime (two extra DBs) sub defense. The secondary is banged up. Both starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (wrist) and Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) may miss this game and free safety Jairus Byrd (foot) has yet to play a game this year.
Special teams overview: One of the most dynamic kicking units over the last dozen years is going through transition. They’re forced to carry two kickers because rookie Dustin Hopkins (groin) hasn’t played yet. Replacement Dan Carpenter is 10 of 11 on field goals with a long of 55 yards. Punter Shawn Powell is 14th in gross average (46.3 yards) and 24th in net (38.8). With return specialist Leodis McKelvin down, the return game has been negligible with Jim Leonhard filling in. Coverage teams are fair.
Players to watch:
1. QB EJ Manuel: The 16th overall selection of the 2013 draft last week became the first QB in NFL history to post a win over the defending Super Bowl championsin his rookie season when he defeated Baltimore. Five INTs from his defense helped, as Manuel threw for only 167 yards and was intercepted twice.
2. DE Mario Williams: His 5.5 sacks rank third in the NFL – 4.5 came in their second game against Carolina – and give him 69 in 102 career games. Unlike in Buffalo’s previous scheme, he is not restricted to the right end spot and can line up anywhere.
3. LB Kiko Alonso: A second-round pick from Oregon, he has made plays all over the field. He has sparkled in pass coverage and co-leads the NFL with four interceptions after picking off Joe Flacco twice on Sunday.
Injury report: FS Jairus Byrd (foot), PK Dustin Hopkins (groin), CB Stephon Gilmore (wrist), CB Ron Brooks (foot), WR-KR Marquise Goodwin (hand) are out. RB C.J. Spiller (ankle), RB Fred Jackson (knee), CB Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) are limited.
Small world: Offensive line coach Pat Morris is a Cleveland native.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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