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BUFFALO BILLS (2-2) at CLEVELAND BROWNS (2-2)
Two teams coming off upset wins as home underdogs clash Thursday night when the Bills and Browns meet for the sixth time in seven years.
Buffalo held off the Ravens last week by a 23-20 score, outrushing them by an eye-popping 203 to 24 margin. Cleveland pulled off its second straight upset by frustrating the Bengals in a 17-6 victory. The Browns are 3-2 (SU and ATS) in this series since 2007, but Buffalo won the past two meetings, including a 24-14 victory last year propelled by Tashard Choices 91 rushing yards in relief of injured RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Both Spiller (ankle) and Jackson (knee) are hurt again, but both are expected to play, if only for a limited role, which could make Choice a prominent figure in this contest again too. The Browns are 2-0 (SU and ATS) with 373 total YPG since QB Brian Hoyer has become the starter, while the defense is holding opponents to 4.3 yards per play and 79 rushing YPG this season. Although the Bills are 30-12 ATS (71percent) after a win by three points or since 1992, they are also just 1-9 ATS on the road after playing a home game in the past three seasons. Despite the Browns' winning two in a row, they are just 2-5 ATS (29percent) in their past seven games and 7-18 SU (28percent) in their past 25 contests.
All four of Buffalo's games have been decided by seven points or less this season. The Bills lost by two to the Patriots and by seven to the Jets, while beating the Panthers by one on a last-second touchdown pass and topping the Ravens by three points last week. Despite the injuries to both RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson last week, the team still churned out 203 yards on 55 carries (3.7 YPC) for the game. Although Spiller gets the most carries on his team, he's gained just 3.5 YPC compared to Jackson's excellent 5.3 YPC average. Jackson has also been the more dangerous receiver with 13 catches for 113 yards (8.7 YPC), while Spiller holds a horrific 3.2 yards per catch average with nine grabs for only 29 yards. Buffalo's 152 rushing YPG (2nd in NFL) has taken the pressure off rookie QB EJ Manuel who has been decent so far. He has completed 57percent of his passes for 856 yards (6.6 YPA), 5 TD and 3 INT. The one negative is that Manuel tends to hold onto the football too long, absorbing 11 sacks already. Other than his versatile running backs, Manuel relies mostly on three receivers to catch the football, WR Steve Johnson (35 targets), WR Robert Woods (24 targets) and TE Scott Chandler (21 targets). Johnson had game highs in targets (11), catches (seven) and receiving yards (61) in last year's 24-14 win in Cleveland. Buffalo's defense has done a great job of making plays this season with 11 takeaways in the first four games. DE/LB Mario Williams (5.5 sacks this year) had 1.5 sacks in last season's win over the Browns. Despite the turnovers, the Bills have not really stopped anybody with great consistency. They rank 22nd in the nation in passing defense (272 YPG allowed) and 27th against the run (122 YPG). A big reason the secondary has struggled is because of all the injuries to key players such as S Jarius Byrd (foot), CB Aaron Williams (back) and CB Leodis McKelvin (hamstring). All three defenders are listed as questionable to suit up Thursday.
Browns QB Brian Hoyer has done a tremendous job since taking over for injured starter Brandon Weeden (thumb). In the two starts, Hoyer is 2-0 with a 60percent completion rate for 590 yards (295 YPG), 5 TD and 3 INT. He needs to make sure he's not forcing any throws facing such a turnover-happy defense, and Hoyer also need to make sure he's feeding sudden star TE Jordan Cameron (360 rec yds, 5 TD) and WR Josh Gordon, whom Hoyer has targeted 27 times in Gordon's two games back from suspension. Even since the trade of top RB Trent Richardson to the Colts, this team has done a decent job running the football, gaining 192 yards on 4.1 YPC over the past two games. Veteran RB Willis McGahee is the new top back in town, but he has struggled early on with a mere 55 yards on 23 carries (2.4 YPC). RB Chris Ogbonnaya is the backup with 50 yards on seven carries (7.1 YPC), and he was able to amass 48 total yards and a touchdown last week. Cleveland's run defense has been second-to-none, leading the NFL with 2.9 yards per carry. The Browns also lead the league by allowing a minuscule 4.2 yards per play, and have been able to force five turnovers during the past two games. They did not have the services of DE/LB Jabaal Sheard (knee) last week, and he is questionable for Thursday as well.
NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: Cleveland Browns2013-08-20
Over the past five seasons, Cleveland has shuffled through three head coaches, not once won more than five games and spent the majority of its time toiling at the bottom of the AFC North. Reversing that type of negative momentum in the span of one offseason wont be easy; the Browns are facing a massive uphill climb. Even if they dont make it all the way up, Clevelands 2013 season should be vastly different from the ones that preceded it.
Why? Start with the front office, where Cleveland hired a new chief executive officer (Joe Banner) and vice president of personnel (Mike Lombardi). The Browns also revamped their coaching staff, dismissing Pat Shurmur after an uninspiring two-season tenure, hiring former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as his replacement and tabbing two new, highly-respected coordinators: Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense).
Early training camp reviews have been positive, and the Browns appear to have a more talented roster than the losing groups of recent years. Seeing that talent mesh with the new offensive and defensive schemes installed by Turner and Horton, respectively, will be fascinating. And really, when youve spent the past five seasons (and most of its post-1999 rebirth existence) taking gut punches from Pittsburgh and Baltimore, what more can you ask for?
The Browns may not make a postseason breakthrough this year, but they will be interesting for a number of reasons. After a whirlwind top-down offseason facelift, Cleveland will enter this season with plenty of compelling storylines to track.
Biggest storyline: A defensive transition.
Last seasons Dick Jauron-led defense was conservative and predictable. With Dick LeBeau disciple Ray Horton now in charge, the Browns are embracing a totally new philosophy. Cleveland is going to blitz. A lot. The 3-4 scheme Horton is installing will involve a lot of pre-snap movement, a disparate range of formations and plenty of inventive ways to get after the quarterback. The Browns actually fielded an above-average pass-rush last season, ranking 11th in the league with 38 sacks. The inherent aggressiveness of Hortons scheme should increase that number on its own; throw in the various upgrades Cleveland made to its linebacking corps and defensive line more on them below and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks should be one of Clevelands biggest strengths this season.
Questions still loom regarding a secondary with holes at cornerback and free safety, and its possible the Browns defenders could struggle to grasp Hortons new scheme early in the season. In the long run, an attacking defense with multiple blitz packages, despite the possibility of leaving a below-average secondary without sufficient help from linebackers in coverage, should be a welcome change for a unit that ranked 22nd in defensive DVOA last season, per FootballOutsiders.
An aside: If Horton lives up to his defensive reputation and turns the Browns into one of the leagues stingier units, his name will be near the top of plenty of coaching-replacement short lists this offseason, if it isnt already.
Most intriguing position battle: Quarterback.
Because Chudzinski refuses to name a starting quarterback, the Brandon Weeden-Jason Campbell situation qualifies, in a superficial sense, as a battle. But if were being totally honest, this isnt really a battle at all. Weeden will be leading the first-team offense Week 1, and its not hard to figure out why. For starters, he has outplayed Campbell throughout the preseason, including in Thursday nights 24-6 win over Detroit, in which Weeden completed eight of 12 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns and posted a 137.8 quarterback rating. More importantly, Cleveland needs to use this season to determine whether Weeden is their quarterback of the future or whether his less-than-impressive rookie season exposed the true limits of his potential.
Some will contend Weeden both because of his age (29) and the flaws he revealed last season can never be Clevelands long-term solution at quarterback. That may be true, but Cleveland cant know for sure unless it allows Weeden the opportunity to pilot Turners vertical passing game and prove last seasons hiccups were more a product of Shurmurs misguided West Coast system and less one of his own passing limitations. And if Weeden does struggle again, and Campbell has to take over sometime down the road, the Browns will have a clear mandate heading into this offseason: find a new starting quarterback. Whats more, the 2014 draft class, one of the better prospective groups in recent memory, should offer an instant replacement if Weeden doesnt have Browns brass convinced by seasons end.
Essentially, even if Weeden isnt the guy, the Browns need to make sure. The 2013 season should provide an answer in relatively short order.
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