Momentum can shift in an instant in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills are trying to regain theirs following a knee injury to starting quarterback EJ Manuel, who exited last week's loss in Cleveland with a LCL sprain as his Bills were on the verge of taking a 24-17 lead on the road on Thursday Night Football.
The Bills, aided by a Cleveland pass interference call, did take that 24-17 lead. The Browns, however, rattled off 20 straight points thereafter, winning 37-24 and sending the Bills back to Buffalo in search of not just a new starting quarterback, but answers as to how to win on the road.
Buffalo doesn't have to solve the latter of those problems this week, and they've already decided on the best approach to the former: Thaddeus Lewis, freshly signed to the active roster from the practice squad, will replace Manuel in the starting lineup when the Bills take on the Cincinnati Bengals, who are fresh off of their upset win over previously undefeated New England. The game kicks off at 1PM ET tomorrow afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
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Lewis, acquired in a late preseason trade with Detroit, will be the first Bills backup quarterback to start a meaningful regular season football game since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over for the beleaguered Trent Edwards early in the 2010 season. The situations are quite different, of course - Lewis enters duty via injury, while Edwards was benched in favor of Fitzpatrick (and released two weeks later) - but it's nonetheless been quite a while since the backup position was this relevant in Buffalo.
With Manuel out of the lineup for at least a few weeks - but as many as six to eight, per reports - Lewis has been given the biggest opportunity of his career to this point by head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. The Bills spent the early days of their long week investigating quarterback options outside of the organization, courting Josh Freeman and working out Pat White and Dennis Dixon, but ultimately, Marrone believed that Lewis (and not rookie Jeff Tuel) gives the Bills the best chance to win now.
He'll be making his second career start as a pro against a Cincinnati defense that just ended the 52-game touchdown streak of one Tom Brady.
Bills offense vs. Bengals defense
Many have questioned just how much of a drop-off the Bills and, especially, their fans should expect to see offensively with Lewis under center. Working in the new guy's favor is the fact that the Bills' offensive identity is undeniably run-first, and they continue to do so with strong efficiency.
The Bills currently rank third in the NFL averaging 152.6 rushing yards per game (trailing Philadelphia and Seattle in the category), and their 35.6 rushing attempts per game is still the highest average in the league. The 6'1", 215-pound Lewis isn't remotely the physical presence that Manuel is, but offers some of the same read-option and scrambling ability than the man he's replacing. You should not expect Buffalo's run game approach to change with Lewis in the lineup; in his one appearance with the Bills, a bit more than one half in the preseason finale, he carried seven times for 51 yards.
C.J. Spiller (who still isn't 100 percent as he deals with an ankle injury) and Fred Jackson will remain the focus of the offense - in fact, given how much of an unknown Lewis' arm is, they'll probably be an even bigger focus - but it's tough to score in the NFL if you can't throw it. Lewis will need to make plays with his arm, but may find that difficult to pull off if starting receiver Stevie Johnson isn't available (he's a game-time decision after spending the week in Oakland to attend to a death in the family). In short, Buffalo's game plan shouldn't change: establish the run (though they may need to throw early to loosen up Cincinnati's defense), and try to hit big passing plays to the likes of Robert Woods and Scott Chandler.
The philosophy is a good one, but not particularly easy to pull off against Cincinnati: they feature an elite defensive line spearheaded by the incredibly disruptive Geno Atkins and featuring ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson (questionable with concussion symptoms), and Atkins' running mate inside, Domata Peko. Cincinnati ranks No. 10 against the run - it's the fifth straight game that the Bills have faced a Top 10 run defense - and sacked Brady four times in last week's win. That all starts up front, but Mike Zimmer's defense also has talented players in linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Leon Hall (questionable with a hamstring injury) on the back end.
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Bengals offense vs. Bills defense
Cincinnati has a lot of skill talent on offense. A.J. Green is a player that many consider to be one of the two or three best wide receivers in the business, and his running mate, Mohamed Sanu, is no slouch either. At tight end, the Bengals have two long and athletic playmakers in Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert; they'll use both on the field together quite a bit. BenJarvus Green-Ellis gives the team a consistent presence at running back, but rookie Giovani Bernard is the true playmaking threat out of the backfield.
Why, then, does Cincinnati rank a mere 22nd in total offense at this point? It doesn't help that they've played two Top 10 defenses in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and two more highly opportunistic outfits in Chicago and Green Bay, but third-year quarterback Andy Dalton has also been part of the problem. He's turned the football over at least once in four out of five games this season and been sacked four times in two of the last three games, and the Bengals have been held back a bit as a result. Dalton is still more than capable of winning games, to be certain - Bills fans have been aware of that since Week 4 of his rookie season, when he led the Bengals to an upset 23-20 win over a 3-0 Buffalo team - but if that offense has a liability, it's obviously the signal caller.
Buffalo enters this contest with a defense that's probably better than its No. 21 ranking, and it most definitely fits the mold of opportunistic: they rank third in the NFL with 18 sacks through five games (7.5 of those belong to Mario Williams), and are tied for first with nine interceptions, five of which came in a Week 4 home win over Baltimore. With Buffalo's offense now working with Lewis at quarterback, you can bet that Mike Pettine is telling his guys that now, more than ever, the defense needs to create the momentum in Buffalo. They'll try to do what they do best: harass the quarterback with pressure and force him to make mistakes.
All-22 film review
One area in which the Bills have struggled mightily on defense through their first five games is defending the deep ball. Flip through the gallery above for a look at how the Bills tried, and mostly failed, to defend Cleveland's deep passing game in Week 5. There is hope for Buffalo on this front, however: top cornerback Stephon Gilmore returned to practice this week, and even though he's considered a game-time decision with his wrist injury, the thought is that he could be ready to play. The Bills need him, as the aforementioned Green is one of the best deep threats in the business.
Buffalo may not change much offensively with Lewis at the controls, but if they do, a bigger emphasis on the screen pass might be just what the doctor ordered. That play has had some success against Cincinnati's aggressive and athletic defensive front, as seen in the stills above - Cleveland ran a variety of screens with a good deal of success against this Bengals defense. The Bills haven't shown much in the way of the screen pass so far this season, but Week 6 might be a good time to start using it.
Two sleeper Bengals
WR Marvin Jones. As the third receiver in a two-tight end offense, Jones doesn't play as much as many other No. 3 receivers in the league. Nor is he a high-priority target for Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, ranking pretty low in the pecking order for touches. When the ball comes his way, however, the 2012 fifth-round pick has done nice things - he's averaging 13.2 yards per reception this season and had a key touchdown in a Week 3 win over Green Bay, and has also proven adept running the football (22 yards on two rushes). Jones is the type of player where, if the Bills forget about him, he can make them pay dearly.
S/LB Taylor Mays. Cincinnati uses the 6'3", 220-pound Mays in much the same way previous iterations of the Bills used Bryan Scott: as a linebacker/safety hybrid that plays up in the box on passing downs. Scott, as you know, is a player that made a lot of big plays for the Bills, but was also routinely targeted - with a good deal of success - but opposing teams. Mays is a much more explosive athlete than Scott ever was, but presents some of the same liability issues if the Bills choose to spread the field and run at him. Keep an eye on how often the Bills can get Mays onto the field, and if they can take advantage of his presence when he's out there.
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Two sleeper Bills
WR Marquise Goodwin. With Johnson a question mark and the team only able to milk meager production out of T.J. Graham to this point, it's no wonder that Marrone sounded giddy to have Goodwin back in the lineup this week. Buffalo had big plans for the rookie speedster prior to his Week 1 hand injury - and not just as a kick returner, either, where the Bills could use a boost as well. Woods has taken up the mantle as the team's go-to deep threat in recent weeks and done well in the role, but the chances are excellent that Goodwin will see some throws his way down the field in short order. Lewis does have a strong arm, so the vertical element to Buffalo's offense shouldn't disappear, especially with Goodwin back in the fold.
P Brian Moorman. In a move that might've been talked about much more without the current situation at quarterback, the Bills hopefully rectified one of their biggest problem areas by cutting Shawn Powell and re-signing Moorman, the franchise's all-time leading punter, late last week. The frustrating and inconsistent Powell had been ripe for the picking all season and was finally exposed by Cleveland's Travis Benjamin. Moorman, 37, has kicked around the league since the Bills cut him late last September, and he won a tryout to return to Buffalo. The Bills will rely on him to improve their hang time and, by extension, their punt coverage unit that looked terrible a week ago. Cincinnati features a couple of experienced punt returners in Brandon Tate and Adam Jones.
The fact that this game very nearly didn't sell out - it only did so thanks to team owner Ralph Wilson, who bought out the remaining tickets - speaks to the idea that Bills fans may not think the team can compete to win against Cincinnati. Those fans, we believe, are mistaken: the Bills have established identities on both sides of the ball, play well in front of their home crowd, and have shown the ability to exploit weaknesses that Cincinnati has. Unless either team lays an egg (which is certainly possible), this shapes up to be a close game for four quarters - and it is most definitely a winnable game for the home team. That said, there's enough to like about how Cincinnati's defense matches up against Buffalo's offense - and enough that's unknown about Lewis - to very reasonably call the visitors a favorite in this contest. Cincinnati enters this game with more momentum having just beaten the Pats, and their odds of sustaining it are good. Bengals 19, Bills 13