ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Here are my five thoughts on the Buffalo Bills’ game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit:
1. One of the more bizarre stretches in memory continues for the Bills.
Last week brought “Elbowgate,” with the team turning Josh Allen’s elbow injury into far more drama than it was worth. After a week in which he barely practiced and mysteriously kept away from typically full pregame warmups, he started against the Minnesota Vikings and showed no signs of physical duress despite his three turnovers. One was a fumble, while taking a snap near the Bills’ goal line for a forward plunge that would have sealed a victory, that the Vikings recovered for a touchdown to help set the stage for their win.
This week brought the “Lake Effect,” with a snowstorm forcing Sunday’s “Battle of Lake Erie” with the Browns to be moved from Highmark Stadium to Ford Field. Yes, the same Ford Field where the Bills are also scheduled to face the Lions on Thanksgiving.
With the Bills’ practice week already disrupted by a breakout of an illness that resulted in abbreviated work on Wednesday, it received another preparation setback when Friday’s practice was canceled due to the storm.
The heavy support of a home crowd would figure to be at least somewhat compromised by the late move of the game, but on the plus side, the Bills’ passing offense should thrive while playing indoors. I fully expect Allen to put up big numbers against the NFL’s 19th-ranked pass defense, which is dealing with injuries.
2. When will Josh Allen find his way out of his slump?
There’s every reason to expect that to happen Sunday against the lowly Browns. Still, seeing is believing and what we’ve seen of late has been ugly. Allen leads the NFL with 10 interceptions and has thrown six in the last three games, including four in the red zone. He has appeared to be out of sorts for the better part of 10 quarters, dating back to the second half of the Bills’ Oct. 30 victory against the Green Bay Packers.
In some situations, particularly in the red zone, Allen’s decision-making has been horrendous. He’s forcing throws, showing far too much confidence in his ultra-talented passing arm.
Allen seems to have reverted to the hero-ball form that frequently caused him problems through his first two seasons in the NFL. He’s turning down chances to check down to the flat, where there have been open targets. What’s strange about that is he spent the better part of the first six games this year showing good patience while looking for more short and intermediate completions rather than constantly seeking to hit deeper routes.
When the Bills struggle in tight games, as has been the case the past two weeks, Allen tends to put more pressure on himself, thus triggering mistakes.
Here’s the key stat to remember about the Bills: Since 2020, they are 14-0 in games where they win the turnover battle. With 18 giveaways, they’re tied for second-most in the NFL.
3. This would be a good time for the Bills’ run defense to show at least a modicum of resistance.
That hasn’t been the case for most of the past three games, during which the Bills have allowed an average of 176.3 yards per game rushing. The Bills were trampled by the ground attacks of the Packers and Jets. They started out strong against the Vikings, but then gave up an 81-yard touchdown run by Dalvin Cook that caused a huge momentum shift.
Since Week 8, the Bills have allowed three running backs with 12-plus carries to average more than six yards per rush: Cook with 119 yards on 14 carries, the Jets’ Michael Carter with 76 yards on 12 carries, and the Packers’ Aaron Jones with 143 yards on 20 carries). According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Bills allowed an average of 3.4 yards per rush outside the tackles through their first seven games but have given up 6.6 in the last two. They also allowed six runs of 10 yards or longer in the first seven games, while permitting 13 in the last two.
The Browns rank fifth in the league in rushing offense. They are certain to give the Bills a heavy dose of Nick Chubb, who is third in the league with 904 rushing yards. His 5.7 yards-per-carry average is first in the NFL among 16 running backs with 125 or more caries. He also leads the league with 11 rushing touchdowns. The chore of stopping/containing Chubb won’t be any easier with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds out of action with groin and heel injuries.
4. The Bills need to find some sustainability within their rushing attack.
Their ground game, outside of Allen, looked promising at the start of last Sunday’s game. Then, it disappeared.
The Bills’ running backs are averaging only 73.1 rushing yards per game, which is the fourth fewest in the NFL. Here’s another dubious stat: With 92 carries, Devin Singletary is the only running back in the league to start in eight-plus games this season and not surpass 100-plus attempts.
That, at least in part, points to a lack of commitment in the running game by offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. It makes perfect sense for Dorsey to follow the lead of his predecessor, Brian Daboll, and rely heavily on Allen’s passing arm while selectively inserting run plays.
However, the Bills’ lack of offensive balance isn’t doing Allen any favors when it comes to his turnovers. It also is a factor in the Bills’ failure to score a second-half touchdown in the last three games.
Something must change. If the Browns can set the tempo Sunday with their power-oriented offense, the Bills need to counter with an approach that challenges Cleveland’s defense on the ground as well as through the air.
5. Under the best of circumstances, the Bills would face a difficult chore with a quick turnaround before facing the Lions.
Given all the issues caused by a second November storm causing them to move a game to Detroit in a decade, one must wonder just how ready the Bills will be to play on Thanksgiving.
The Lions have a short turnaround as well. They’re one of the worst teams in the league, so the Bills might simply be able to show up and emerge with a win.
Nevertheless, these next two games against inferior opponents might not be as easy for the Bills as the won-loss records would suggest. The Bills can’t afford to treat them way, either.