Cleveland Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson proclaimed after his team’s season-opener: “No one can run on us.”
Through four games, Jackson and his teammates are living by the Muhammad Ali motto: “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”
The Browns’ defense is allowing an NFL-low 2.9 yards per carry entering tonight’s game against the Buffalo Bills.
Something will have to give when the two teams meet in the nationally televised game at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Buffalo has the most rushing attempts in the NFL – 36 a game – and ranks second in the league in rushing yards, at 152 a game.
“Up front they’re stout,” said Bills center Eric Wood. “They have good linebackers who play downhill. They’re pretty instinctive. They pull their safeties down in the box and they really aid in the run-stuffing.
“Their safeties are sitting at 9 yards a lot of the time – two of ’em, as opposed to only just one,” Wood said. “Some fronts almost seem like a nine-man front. You’ve got to complete some balls and get ’em out of there and the wide receivers have to get into the mix blocking-wise.”
How depleted will the Bills’ backfield be and how much of a burden will rookie quarterback EJ Manuel have to carry? Those were the questions the Bills faced as they prepared Monday and Tuesday.
It’s expected No. 3 running back Tashard Choice will carry a greater part of the load tonight due to injuries. Choice, a sixth-year veteran, has just five carries this season. No. 2 back Fred Jackson will play despite a sprained knee but whether he can be as effective as he was Sunday against Baltimore is questionable. Jackson rushed for 87 yards against the Ravens.
No. 1 back C.J. Spiller is nursing a sprained ankle and will test it in pregame warm-ups to see if he can play.
The Browns’ defensive front three is the biggest the Bills will face this season. Nose tackle Phil Taylor, a No. 1 pick in 2011, is 335 pounds. End Ahtyba Rubin is listed at 330 but easily could pass for 350. End Desmond Bryant is 310.
The backups are behemoths, too. John Hughes is 320, and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen is 330.
Cleveland has switched to a 3-4 defense this year under new coordinator Ray Horton, who interviewed for the Bills’ head-coaching job. Two of the Browns’ starting linebackers are super-sized – Paul Kruger (270) and Quentin Groves (265). The other two are elite “chasers” – Jackson (240) and Jabaal Sheard (255). The Browns bring first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo off the bench in pass-rush situations. He has three sacks.
It all adds up to a fierce front seven.
“They’re big, physical guys, very active with their hands,” said Bills guard Colin Brown. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
This is the Bills’ third straight game against a 3-4 front.
“They’re similar to the Ravens last week,” guard Kraig Urbik said. “They have big guys, very talented players. It’s going to be tough. Their backups are big, too. They spent a lot of money in free agency, and they drafted Mingo.”
“The Jets were more all over the place,” Brown said. “These guys are a bit more like Baltimore: big, trying to take up space, trying to not letting you run the football.”
A repeat of the Bills’ 203-yard rushing total against Baltimore is highly unlikely tonight. Nevertheless, the Bills’ blocking cohesiveness was a good sign.
“The fact we were able to run for 200 against them spoke volumes for everybody – wide receivers getting blocks to spring some runs over 10 yards, running backs doing a great job of hitting the holes,” Wood said. “We did a good job of keeping things tight against them and understanding where we might be out-leveraged maybe give a hand here or there.”
“And we did a better job of blocking on the linebackers last week, which we had done a terrible job of the previous couple weeks,” Wood said.