Do you remember what Doug Marrone said before his first game as Bills head coach, that he likes to have adversity early in a season to see how people respond? Well, the current crisis should fit the bill.
This afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Marrone will send out Thad Lewis, who was on the practice squad just 10 days ago, to play quarterback against a Bengals defense that a week ago held Tom Brady and the Patriots to their lowest point total in 117 games.
Marrone has yanked the car keys away from poor Jeff Tuel and handed them to Lewis with the Bills facing their most daunting month of the season. Starting today, their next four games will be against teams with a combined record of 16-4 (Cincinnati, at Miami, at New Orleans, Kansas City).
A little early adversity? Yeah, and President Obama had a tiny bit of fiscal adversity when he took over. After five games, Marrone is down to his fourth quarterback. Lord help him if Lewis falls on his face the way Tuel did in Cleveland. Dennis Dixon, anyone?
They’ve had 10 days to prepare since the Thursday loss to the Browns. It seems like a month. How thoughtful of the Sabres to lose five in a row during the interim, spreading out the civic gloom.
I’ve heard all the hopeful rationalizing: How Lewis isn’t much of a dropoff from EJ Manuel, a raw rookie; how his skills are well-suited for the Bills’ read-option attack; how he graduated from Duke, so he has to be smart, like the old QB from Harvard; how he might be a budding star in need of an opportunity, like Kurt Warner.
Lewis has played in one NFL game. He started for the Browns in the season finale at Pittsburgh last year, completing 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards. It’s chic to say the Bills would take that stat line. But Cleveland lost, 24-10. Lewis completed one pass that traveled more than 15 yards in the air.
There’s a reason the guy has been with four teams in four years. It’s hard to see Lewis thriving against a Bengals defense that has beaten three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger) this season, holding them to 54 percent passing and an average QB rating of 63.
You know what Lewis needs? He needs his defense to carry the day, to be the best unit on the field. The Bills’ improved but the inconsistent defense has to rise up in a moment of crisis. That’s what the good defenses do. They ease the burden for a beleaguered offense; they allow it to be average.
“You don’t want to fall into that trap, thinking that we have to play exceptionally well,” said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. “I mean, defensively we have a lot of confidence in Thad. He’s been the scout team quarterback for a while and we’ve seen what he can do.”
Lewis doesn’t have to be the difference against Cincinnati, any more than Manuel needed to be against the Ravens. He has to be efficient and make fewer game-changing blunders than the Bengals’ quarterback, Andy Dalton.
There’s no reason for the Bills to fear Dalton, who has been criticized for failing to lift his performance in the playoffs. The Bengals have scored one TD in their last two games and are winless in two games on the road. Dalton’s passing numbers are similar to Manuel’s this season.
The Bills’ D has unsettled opposing quarterbacks all year at home. They had Tom Brady off his game in the opener. They’ve won two straight at home, holding Cam Newton and Joe Flacco to a combined 52 percent passing and 10 sacks. They picked off Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, five times.
Dalton does have better weapons in the passing game than the Pats, Panthers and Ravens brought to Buffalo. He has an elite wideout in A.J. Green, two dangerous tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert, and a gifted two-way running back in rookie Giovani Bernard.
The Bills’ linebackers should have their biggest test to date in coverage. The secondary is expected to get a boost from the return of safety Jairus Byrd. Stephon Gilmore, who has been out all season with a broken wrist, will be a game-time decision.
It could be a long day for the Bengals if they can’t establish the running game. The Bills held the Panthers and Ravens to 3.8 yards a carry and allowed just one run of longer than 10 yards in those two games.
“One of our biggest mantras is do your job and good things will happen,” Pettine said. Marrone “is always hitting us with the phrase just control what you have control over. We’re going to go out there. Our goal is not to give up a yard or give up a point, and that hasn’t changed.”
Pettine had high expectations for his defense this season. It wasn’t enough to be simply average after last year’s debacle. They have been very good at times, soft at others. Kiko Alonso has been a revelation. But they’re still only 21st in the NFL in defense, and 21st on third downs.
Every defense the Bills have faced this season is currently ranked in the top half of the league. The Jets are second, the Panthers third, the Browns fourth. The Bengals are ranked eighth. Cinci’s front four, none of whom was drafted in the first round, could be the best in the NFL.
At times, the Bills have every bit the equal of those squads. But they’ve been just good enough to be 2-3. They need to take it up a notch. A defensive line with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus should be talked about as one of the best in the game.
“You want to be the best defense,” Kyle Williams said. “There is a little bit of talk about that. But most of the time when you hit the field, it’s about being the best you can be.”
A crisis demands that they be at their very best now. Over this grueling four-game stretch, the defense can make a statement that it’s a different unit this season, one that can make a difference and carry a team in difficult times.
It starts today.