NFL Preview - Cleveland (0-4) at Buffalo (1-3)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Though neither the Buffalo Bills nor Cleveland Browns would appear to be going anywhere that would involve a championship in 2009, the battle between the teams at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday should be plenty intense.
Such is the desperation for a win present in both organizations at the moment.
The Bills are one week removed from being blown off the field, 38-10, by the previously winless Miami Dolphins, and whispers about the employment status of Dick Jauron have been water-cooler talk throughout western New York.
The struggles of the Buffalo offense were evident against the Dolphins. Quarterback Trent Edwards (17-of-26, 192 yards, 1 TD) was sacked six times and threw three interceptions, and the running game was a non-factor during a contest in which the Bills played from behind nearly throughout. Marshawn Lynch had just four yards on eight carries in his return from an NFL suspension, though he did catch a team-best five balls totaling 43 yards.
On the other side, Buffalo had major trouble getting the Miami offense - led by first-time starting quarterback Chad Henne - off the field. The Dolphins carried the ball 45 times for a whopping 250 yards, including a combined 200 yards and three scores from Ronnie Brown (20 carries, 115 yards, 2 TD) and Ricky Williams (16 carries, 85 yards, 1 TD). Henne (14-of-22, 115 yards, 1 TD) managed the game well enough to earn his first NFL win.
It could soon be Waterloo for Jauron, who needs to start pulling the Bills out of their 1-3 rut this week, at the start of an upcoming five-game stretch that also includes matchups against the currently winless Panthers (10/25) and Titans (11/15).
Meanwhile, though moral victories don't show up in the won-loss column, it appeared that the clouds began to part a bit for the Browns in their overtime loss to the Bengals last week.
Making his first start of the year, Derek Anderson looked much better-equipped to run the offense than did predecessor Brady Quinn, completing 26-of-48 passes for 269 yards with a touchdown and an interception on the day.
Anderson found a new favorite target in rookie second-rounder Mohamed Massaquoi, who burst onto the scene with eight catches for 148 yards after hauling in a grand total of two passes in the team's first three games.
Additional pressure will be on Massaquoi following Wednesday's trade that sent former Pro Bowl receiver Braylon Edwards to the Jets in exchange for a package including draft picks, wide receiver Chansi Stuckey, and linebacker Jason Trusnik.
Running back Jerome Harrison, making his second start in place of the injured Jamal Lewis, delivered on the prior promise he had shown by carrying 29 times for 121 yards and adding five catches out of the backfield against Cincinnati.
Even a defense that had been largely run over through the first three weeks showed up, forcing a couple of turnovers and holding the Bengals to 5-of-18 on third-down conversions.
In addition to trying to notch its first win of the Eric Mangini era, the Browns will on Sunday be attempting to end a 10-game losing streak that followed a 29-27 win at Buffalo last November.
Cleveland has averaged just eight points per game in its 10 losses since its last trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Cleveland holds a 9-5 advantage in its all-time regular season series with Buffalo, including the aforementioned 29-27 road win in a Thursday night affair in Week 11 of last season. As mentioned, that game ranks as the Browns' most recent victory. The Bills are 0-2 against the Browns since notching a 37-7 home win over them in 2004.
In addition to their regular-season history, the franchises met in a 1989 AFC Divisional Playoff, won by Cleveland at home by a 34-30 count.
Jauron is 1-2 in his career against the Browns, with the win coming for his Bears team in 2001. The Browns' Mangini was 3-3 against the Bills during his tenure with the Jets (2006-08), and also 3-3 head-to-head against Jauron.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Browns enter Week 5 ranked just 29th in NFL total offense (262.2 yards per game), but as mentioned, showed some progress in that regard last Sunday. Anderson (361 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 INT) spread the football around to seven different targets in the loss, most notably Massaquoi (10 receptions) and tight end Steve Heiden (7 receptions, 1 TD), who finished with five catches for 33 yards and caught his quarterback's first touchdown pass of the year. Mike Furrey (13 receptions) also chipped in with four grabs for 37 yards. Stuckey (11 receptions, 120 yards, 1 TD with the Jets) will add another aerial threat for the Browns this week. Harrison (181 rushing yards, 14 receptions) finally looked comfortable as the lead back in the Cleveland running game, and even if Lewis (95 rushing yards) is healthy this week, stands to see a majority of the early carries. Paramount to the continuing the evolution of the Browns offense will be the work of the offensive line, which has allowed a bloated 13 sacks through the season's first four weeks.
Cleveland will likely seek to run the football against a Bills defense that had little clue against the Miami run last week. dropping to 27th in the league in rushing defense (150.5 yards per game) following the ground assault. The team's ability to slow the run will start up front with tackles Marcus Stroud (18 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kyle Williams (17 tackles), with linebackers Kawika Mitchell (24 tackles) and Marcus Buggs (19 tackles) among those trying to make more of an impact behind them. The Buffalo pass rush was a rare strength in the loss to the Dolphins, notching six sacks of Chad Henne, including two for safety George Wilson (11 tackles, 2 sacks) and a team-leading third of the year for end Aaron Schobel (10 tackles, 1 INT). The Bills will need more of the same given the state of a secondary that will be without safety Donte Whitner (thumb) for a second straight game, lost cornerback Leodis McKelvin (knee) for the season prior to last week's contest, and could also be minus safeties Bryan Scott (ankle) and Jairus Byrd (hip) on Sunday. Cornerback Terrence McGee (22 tackles) is now the obvious leader of a secondary that has notched three interceptions on the season.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
If you're looking for a culprit in the fact that the Bills rank a disappointing 26th in NFL total offense (290.8 yards per game) as Week 5 begins, look no further than a young offensive line that has seen its top two tackles beset by injury problems. Opening day right tackle Brad Butler is already out for the year with a knee injury, and promising left tackle Demetrius Bell could miss his second straight game with a groin problem. That situation will make things tough for both the running game, which saw Lynch (4 rushing yards, 5 receptions) and Fred Jackson (333 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 1 TD) combine for just 46 yards on 17 total carries last week, and for Trent Edwards (790 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) and the passing attack. Terrell Owens (8 receptions, 1 TD) and Lee Evans (10 receptions, 1 TD) both had 60 receiving yards against the Dolphins, but accounted for just five combined catches on the day. Josh Reed (11 receptions, 1 TD) scored Buffalo's only touchdown of the day on a 3-yard catch in the fourth quarter. The Bills offensive line has surrendered a whopping 16 sacks on the season to date, though the team is averaging a healthy 4.8 yards per running play.
If Buffalo can't move the football against a banged-up Cleveland defense that ranks last in the league in yards allowed (403.2 yards per game), then all hope might be lost for Edwards and company. Heading into Week 5, the Browns list three starting linebackers - Kamerion Wimbley (shoulder), D'Qwell Jackson (hamstring), and David Bowens (knee) - on the injury report, as well as Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers (foot). Wimbley (21 tackles, 3 sacks) and defensive tackle Corey Williams (7 tackles, 1 sack) had the team's only two sacks of the less-than-mobile Carson Palmer last week. On the back end, safety Brodney Pool (18 tackles, 1 sack) had a huge game, notching the club's first interception of the year and breaking up four passes on the day. Cornerbacks Eric Wright (9 tackles) and Brandon McDonald (19 tackles) will be asked to handle Evans and Owens on Sunday. In the run-stopping game, Rogers (15 tackles, 1 sack) will be joined if healthy by inside linebacker Eric Barton (30 tackles), who posted nine tackles last week, and possibly Jackson (39 tackles), who notched a game-high 14 stops.
The Browns were invisible to fantasy owners prior to last week, when Cleveland's offensive renaissance allowed the likes of Anderson, Harrison, Heiden, and especially Massaquoi to cross owners' radar. None of the above are likely to be consistent fantasy plays, but against a struggling Bills defense, you might want to consider each, especially if you are dealing with bye weeks elsewhere on your roster. Definitely worthwhile to monitor the injury report in regard to Jamal Lewis, though it's hard to imagine Harrison taking a seat behind the declining veteran after his strong outing against the Bengals.
The Bills have few attractive plays, though you're likely to see at least a small spike in production from the team's offensive principles versus a nondescript Cleveland "D". Evans and Owens, who have had trouble getting downfield thanks to the struggles of the Buffalo o-line, should find things a bit easier this week given the Browns' probable inability to pressure Edwards. Lynch also looks like a decent play, though it is worth noting that the Bills' next rushing touchdown will be their first of the 2009 season. Buffalo kicker Rian Lindell is also a better start than usual, as is the Bills defense.
All of the promise offered by the Bills' strong performance against the Patriots in Week 1 has been swept away by a deluge of injuries, underlining just how thin the Buffalo roster was to begin the year. Unless they get healthier soon, the Bills aren't going to have much hope against good teams, though there is certainly enough in place for them to compete against the Buccaneers and Browns of the world. The key to their winning performance on Sunday will likely come on offense, where the team should be able to withstand their weaknesses on the offensive line against a Cleveland defense ill-equipped to expose them. It still won't be easy, as the Browns have tapped into something by putting Anderson and Harrison in the lineup, but the Bills will be focused enough to pick up a much-needed win in front of the home fans.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 20, Browns 16
10/08 13:57:04 ET