Was it the injury that knocked rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel out of the game?
Was it the inability to contain punt returner
Or maybe was it a little of both?
Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone seemed to indicate the last one in talking about the reasons why his team lost 37-24 to the Browns on Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Manuel, the Bills’ first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, suffered what Marrone said was a sprained right knee when he was hit and bounced out of bounds by safety
Another rookie, undrafted Jeff Tuel, came in for his first action of the year and finished out a drive that culminated with Fred Jackson’s one-yard touchdown run, putting the Bills ahead, 24-17.
But things went downhill from there. The Bills never scored another point and Tuel provided the Browns with their game-clinching points when his pass intended for wide receiver Robert Woods was intercepted by safety T.J. Ward and returned 44 yards for a touchdown with just 1:44 remaining to make the final score of 37-24.
Trailing, 30-24, the Bills took over at their 20 with 2:19 left. They felt confident.
“We had a chance when we started our two-minute drill,” Marrone said. “They brought the safety down right before the snap, and Jeff didn’t see it. It turned into a pick-six.”
Tuel wasn’t about to make excuses about that, or anything else, as Buffalo dropped to 2-3.
“It was a misread on my part,” said Tuel, who finished 8 of 20 passing for 80 yards and the interception for a quarterback rating of 31.2. “It’s my job to be ready. That’s the job of the backup quarterback.”
Ironically, the Browns also lost their starting quarterback,
“Especially in a short week like this, it’s very difficult to give your backup many reps,” Marrone said. “Did it hurt having to go with Jeff? Yeah, But I suppose they (the Browns) could say the same thing. Their guy, though, had played a lot more before today.”
When Manuel, who completed 11 of 20 passes for 129 yards and no touchdowns with no interceptions for a 74.8 rating, first got hurt, Marrone didn’t think he was done for the night.
“I saw E.J. moving around over there and I was hoping we’d get him back,” the coach said. “Then the doctor shut him down.”
On the play he was injured, should Manuel have gotten out of bounds instead of trying to fight for more yardage?
“The kid wanted to score a touchdown,” Marrone said. “I’m never going to disagree with that. What am I going to say, ‘Don’t scramble, don’t get first downs and don’t get touchdowns.?’”
The Bills also lost their top pass catcher going into the game, wide receiver Stevie Johnson, to a back injury.
“When you lose those two guys, it’s difficult,” Marrone said.
But even if Manuel and Johnson had stayed in the game, the Bills still might not have won because they were having all kinds of problems tackling Benjamin. He set a Cleveland record with 179 yards on seven returns, including a 79-yarder for a touchdown late in the second quarter that gave the Browns a 17-10 halftime lead.
“We knew he was fast and that we couldn’t lose leverage on him,” Marrone said. “With pass plays (the Browns completed 47- and 37-yarders) and the punt returns, we gave up big plays and didn’t get any on offense.
“We put up a lot of total yards (343 to Cleveland’s 290), but we’ve got to score more points than the other team.”
That’s hard for a team to do without its starting quarternack, and without a way to stop the punt returner.