When the (7-6) Buffalo Bills take on the (8-5) Cleveland Browns, it will be the biggest game in Cleveland Brown Stadium since the Falcons visited in 2002. This is a battle for the final spot in the AFC wildcard race. It is also a battle between two of the coach of the year candidates in Romeo Crennel and the Bills Dick Jauron.
Dick Jauron has been outstanding in not allowing this team to use excuses to fail. With 13 players on injured reserve and injuries to both their starting quarterback and running back, this team could have easily folded but instead they are 5-1 under the leadership of rookie quarterback Trent Edwards and have found themselves with a terrific combination at running back.
The Bills defense is all about quickness to the ball. They do give up some size but they play with a gang mentality on defense. They are a run-to-the-ball defense.
Up front, this is a young but talented defensive line. Kyle Williams and John McCargo are coming along nicely in their 2nd year. This should be an excellent tandem at defensive tackle for years to come. Off the edge, this unit could use another pass rusher to go opposite of defensive end Aaron Schobel. Schobel is explosive getting to the quarterback especially when he gets that inside position.
Linebacker John DiGiorgio is almost like having a big safety playing the linebacker position. The undrafted linebacker out of Saginaw Valley State was more than a long shot to make the team but he has taken full advantage of the opportunity and worked his way into a starting role. John is both deceptive and disruptive in his coverage as he has strong hands to jam the receiver and also solid footwork dropping into space.
Keith Ellison is another second-round linebacker to make the starting roster. Keith is very similar to middle linebacker John DiGiorgio with his speed and coverage ability. Look for the Browns to challenge Ellison with the size and power of running back Jamal Lewis.
The Bills secondary will be giving up a great deal of size to the Browns receiving weapons. Former Buckeye safety Donte Whitner is terrific in his run support but if he is forced to come up and play the run the Browns will look to target that single coverage. Without Ko Simpson in the lineup, the free safety position is extremely vulnerable.
Terrence McGee will be in for an uphill battle all game long. His lack of size should be a problem against the size of Joe Jurevicius and Braylon Edwards. Also Derek Anderson has better accuracy throwing to his left.
The Bills will look to force the Browns to play their style of football. There will be a lot of help deep and they will try to force the Browns to dink and duck their way down the field. This is an area where Derek Anderson is not that comfortable. He wants the mid-to-long range passes.
The Browns will come out looking to run the ball to set up the pass. Jamal Lewis is playing at a very high level. I believe this is due to several factors. Jamal was slowed with the ankle injury but he is now healthy and can drive off of the ankle where as before he really didn't look comfortable planting and making the cut.
The offensive line has gelled together as a complete unit. They have been an excellent pass protecting group but their run blocking has now caught up to their pass blocking. We are seeing the chemistry within this unit manufacture itself into solid production. Lewis was used to a different set of blockers and a different style of blocking. I think we are seeing the results of trust between Lewis and his blockers.
Quarterback Derek Anderson and this impressive receiving corps have contributed largely to Jamal's success. Teams are afraid to stack the box against Lewis due to the big play ability of Anderson, Kellen Winslow, Joe Jurevicius and Braylon Edwards.
Winslow is receiving blanket coverage from opposing defenses. They are throwing a safety over the top and a speedy linebacker underneath but they are also often sliding the nickel over in zone coverage as well.
Derek Anderson must look to get his backs more involved in the passing offense. Fullback Lawrence Vickers can be a huge weapon with the defensive adjustments that have been made. No one is looking to stop the fullback with so many big play threats available. Also Jerome Harrison and Jamal Lewis are valuable weapons in the passing game when given the opportunity. Allow the receivers to block downfield and let the backs run behind them. If the Browns are able to work their short game, it will create mismatches for the vertical stretch offense.
Braylon Edwards has impressive stats as a receiver and will likely see his first Pro Bowl appearance, but something that has gone unnoticed is how terrific his blocking has been. Braylon is becoming one of the best downfield blockers in the league. That ability to block will be used this week as a setup for the play action fake. The Bills are vulnerable to the play action fake due to their aggressiveness in coming up to support the run. Look for Braylon to block hard and release and then it will just be a matter of getting the ball to the stud receiver.
The Bills run a grind-it-out offense with a unique twist. They have a very small offensive line compared to most modern NFL teams. They rely on quickness to seal and trap the opposing defensive linemen. The Bills offensive line is led by former Browns center, Melvin Fowler. Melvin has been a solid contributor since arriving in Buffalo.
The running back combination of Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch is one of the best one two punches in football. Lynch is a pure runner that gets better as the game wears on. He displays excellent vision in recognizing the running lane and the speed to get through that lane. Fred Jackson is a smaller shifty back that can knife his way through the hole but Fred adds another dimension to this offense with his ability to become a receiving threat. He is the safety valve for Quarterback Trent Edwards.
The Bills had what most believed to be their franchise quarterback in JP Losman but when Trent Edwards slid down the draft board he was simply too good for the Bills to pass. This has proven to be a great decision as Edwards has led this Bills team to a 5-1 record while he has been under center.
Edwards is a big strong quarterback with accuracy and a nice tight spiral. He doesn't have great velocity but he throws hard enough. Trent will look to go deep to Lee Evans on occasion but he is a move the chains quarterback. He is learning to trust his line and set his feet. Trent is progressing at a phenomenal rate and giving the Bills coaching staff a lot to think about during the off-season.
Lee Evans has become one of the best homerun hitters in football. He has the speed to blow by most defensive backs and the hands to make the great catch. Look for the Browns to double up on Evans throughout the contest as he is the only big play threat in their receiving corps. Josh Reed is a solid possession type receiver but he would be much better used as the slot receiver but the Bills must look to add another receiver during the off-season.
The Browns defense is a work in progress but progress is the key word. The defense is progressing as the season winds down but there are a lot of questions remaining especially when it comes to the play calling.
I have written about it, screamed about it and thrown things at the TV because of it. For some odd reason, the Cleveland coaching staff does not understand how to maintain a lead. They play aggressive and challenge teams and the defense looks great but they revert to the one thing that has cost them several games and nearly cost them several more and that is the soft zone.
They have drafted and signed players that have an aggressive and attacking mindset. This is a good thing, but it is a bad thing when you ask the same players that have dominated three quarters of a game to sit back and allow the opposition to do whatever they want.
The biggest key for the Browns offense is to stop the run. That should be a bit easier as Orpheus Roye appears to be getting healthy at the right time. He will likely be limited in this one but his presence on first and second down is a must. With Roye in the lineup it allows Shaun Smith to man the nose tackle position. Shaun has exceeded most expectations as he has really emerged as a core player for the defensive line.
The Browns young inside backers are the biggest reason for the Browns improvement on defense. The combination of D'Qwell Jackson and Leon Williams has really made a difference. D'Qwell's ability to slide with the play while maintaining his gap integrity is invaluable in stopping the run. Also Leon Williams is rapidly becoming a force in the middle with his pure intensity and aggression. He is the big intimidating linebacker that the Browns have been looking for.
While outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley, Antwan Peek and Willie McGinest have gotten most of the press, it is Chaun Thompson that could have the biggest impact in this one. His speed to chase down the play from behind will be invaluable.
The return of cornerback Eric Wright will allow for more run support with the linebackers and safeties. Wright can play man coverage on anyone when healthy. Whether or not he will be healthy enough this week remains a question but considering the importance of this game it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup. Also look for fellow rookie corner, Brandon McDonald to possibly take over the nickel corner role full time. Since called in to duty all he has done is play phenomenal. If he continues to shine, he may see himself in a starting role as the season nears its conclusion.
The safety combination of Brodney Pool and Sean Jones is light years ahead of where they were at the beginning of the year. The biggest factor in this improvement is a better understanding of the defense and improved communication. We are now seeing this young secondary talk to each other and they are doing a better job of getting into position to make plays.
The Bills are excellent in special teams coverage and this could provide special teams ace Joshua Cribbs the opportunity to return kicks this week. Teams have been kicking away from him but there is a lot of pride in special teams players and coaches. The Bills should look to test their skills in defending the AFC's best kick returner.