That was a competitive and entertaining game for once between Buffalo and Cleveland. And like every other game this season, it was again a winnable one for us in the fourth quarter. It would have been interesting to see E.J. Manuel in there rather than Jeff Tuel – I think it would have been a W then.
Rush defense. Once again, the defensive line stood tall, allowing less than three yards/carry. Admittedly, it was a senior citizen in the backfield, but we can’t argue with the results. Marcell Dareus continues to show signs of emerging – that spin move and stuff was a thing of beauty. Manny Lawson also continues to be reliable setting the edge, and a more versatile linebacker than I imagined.
Pass rush. Five sacks is good production any day of the week. Mario Williams is showing more energy more consistently, and got rewarded for it. In fact, the d-line seems to be feeding off of each other – something that Mario said they were trying to do a couple of weeks ago. Jerry Hughes also got his first sack (and a half) of the season, and showed more diversity in his pass-rushing moves. His production officially moves him out of the "Aaron Maybin" category – now he needs to show he can do it more consistently.
Kiko Alonso. The Legend grows. Kiko Alonso was once again all over the field, and showing improved instincts in the run game. His imitation of a flying squirrel on the goal line, like his pick last week, once again demonstrated his elite instincts and athleticism.
The rushing attack. Our numbers were deceiving – while we gained 155 yards of rushing (again, against a very tough rush defense), if you subtract C.J. Spiller’s 54 yard scamper, we only averaged 3.3 yards/carry. Even so, 155 yards is a solid day, and bodes well when we run against a lesser defense.
Dan Carpenter. The 52 yarder was made with authority, and his kickoffs are deep enough. He didn’t get more opportunities, but given his performance year-to-date, he’s proven he should be locked in for the rest of the year, and Dustin Hopkins should be IR’ed.
The punt coverage. I was hoping to single out Marcus Easley for his stick on the first kickoff, which is becoming a pattern. But then the punt coverage team, him included, proceeded to give up seven returns for 179 yards, a gaudy 25.6 yard average, and a TD. Combined with Shaun Powell’s second consecutive erratic week, this proved to be a backbreaker. We have to seriously reconsider our punter at this point. Who’s out there?
The safeties. Jairus Byrd, calling Jairus Byrd. Every deep ball allowed was man coverage with no help over the top, or even in sight. Our lack of a true free safety showed today, and it cost us.
The offensive playcalling. The game opened up well, and again Nathaniel Hackett continued to show more of the playbook: a pass by a wideout (who knew TJ had an arm?), a flea flicker, a couple of well-timed halfback screens. I can even forgive the last minute in the second quarter – I think Doug Marrone wanted to get his team in the locker room and settled down. What I cannot forgive is the playcalling on first down starting in the second quarter: for 8 drives in a row, there were 8 rushes that gained a total of 12 yards. Most of them were right up the middle. I went back and checked last week – there were 6 drives in a row that started with rushes, also starting around the second quarter. Once he gets into the middle of the game, Hackett has developed a bad habit to rush on first down, and he needs to break it. If we know what’s going to happen, chances are opposing defenses do too.
The injuries. Everybody say a prayer for E.J. Because without him, we are lost. Stevie looked like he had back spasms or something – he’s a gamer so I’m optimistic.
The bottom line: the team continues to show promising development from young players – the front seven on defense is coming together as a pass rushing and rush defending force, Robert Woods is the real deal, and we had fewer penalties. But we have known weaknesses and as we play more games, they are beginning to show: lack of a ballhawking free safety, a creative but too often predictable offensive coordinator, a dinged up team that consistently loses multiple starters for significant portions of each game, and a punter who is consistently inconsistent. The team must continue to really hammer on the weaknesses, including making tough choices where necessary.