Mike Pettine received the opportunity to coach the Cleveland Browns after one successful season running the Buffalo Bills’ defense.
Thanks to an expedited snow thaw, Pettine returns to suburban Buffalo for the first time Sunday as the Browns and Bills each try to improve their playoff chances.
After more than 6 feet of snow fell on the Buffalo area and forced the Bills to play last Sunday’s scheduled home game a day later some 270 miles west in Detroit, Ralph Wilson Stadium is expected to be operational enough to host these surprising AFC playoff contenders.
”I’m just happy we’re home,” Bills president Russ Brandon said after the team returned from Monday’s 38-3 victory over the New York Jets.
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Pettine, who after four seasons as Rex Ryan’s defensive coordinator with the Jets held the same role in Buffalo in 2013. Under Pettine’s guidance, the Bills ranked 10th by allowing 333.4 yards per game – 29.5 yards fewer and 12 spots higher than 2012.
"He did an excellent job of improving our defense," current Buffalo coach Doug Marrone told the team’s official website.
While Pettine’s Browns rank 20th in total defense this season (367.1 ypg), the Bills under defensive coordinator and former Detroit coach Jim Schwartz are fourth (312.2).
Cleveland (7-4), however, is one game ahead of the Bills (6-5), though both remain outside of playoff position.
"The bottom line is that you’ve got to keep winning," Pettine said. "Each week presents a new week of challenges."
The Browns’ defense took a big hit during last Sunday’s 26-24 victory at Atlanta when safety Tashaun Gipson suffered a knee sprain that could end his season. He leads the NFL with six interceptions.
While Gipson’s season might have ended at Georgia Dome, Josh Gordon’s began as he caught eight passes for 120 yards in his first appearance after serving a 10-game league suspension for violating the drug policy.
Gordon, who led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013, will continue to get his looks from Brian Hoyer.
The sixth-year quarterback remains the starter despite throwing two of his three interceptions in the fourth quarter last Sunday. Hoyer’s final pick led to a field goal that gave Atlanta a one-point lead with 44 seconds left.
However, Hoyer completed four passes on the next drive to help set up a 37-yard Billy Cundiff field goal that sent Cleveland to its sixth win in eight contests.
With 322 yards, Hoyer has thrown for at least 300 in three of the last four games but also has six INTs with three TDs during that span. Hoyer’s teammates, though, remain committed to him as their starter.
”I’ve said it before: I don’t think there’s ever a time during a game when we think we’re out of it because we have No. 6 running the show,” said Andrew Hawkins, who had five catches for 93 yards at Atlanta. ”It’s not just him. The guys around him are all busting their butts."
Pettine said he never thought about pulling Hoyer in favor of rookie Johnny Manziel, who garnered some off-field attention after a Browns fan claimed he was struck by a member of the quarterback’s entourage at a downtown Cleveland hotel early Saturday morning.
Hoyer, who was hard on himself during the post-game press conference, should be eager to bounce back and play the same opponent he faced while suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Browns’ 37-24 victory over the visiting Bills on Oct. 3 of last year.
He was injured on a hit by Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso while sliding at the end of an 11-yard run. Alonso, ironically, hasn’t played this season after suffering a severe knee injury over the summer.
Hoyer can stay healthy by handing off to rookie Isaiah Crowell, who rushed for 88 yards and two TDs on 12 carries against the Falcons. With 149 yards in the last two contests and Ben Tate gone, Crowell appears to be Cleveland’s main option ahead of fellow rookie Terrance West.
The Bills allowed an NFL-low average of 2.79 yards per rush through their first six games but have surrendered a league-worst 5.25 per carry in their last five.
Buffalo allowed a season-low 218 total yards against the Jets, though, and increased its NFL-leading sack total to 46 with seven during its most-lopsided victory since a 38-0 rout of Indianapolis on Sept. 20, 1992.
”It was just a busy, hectic week. And really this win was for the city of Buffalo, giving back for everything that they’ve been through,” said second-year receiver Robert Woods, who set career highs with nine catches and 118 yards while also scoring the game’s first TD.
”It feels good, especially after a win. Now we’ve just got to get another one.”
Buffalo has a winning record after 11 games for the first time since 2008 and only the third time since last reaching the playoffs in 1999.
Kyle Orton, who went 24 of 32 for 230 yards with two touchdowns Monday, has seven TDs and no INTs in his last four games.
Gordon had four receptions for 86 yards and a TD against the Bills last season. Buffalo’s Fred Jackson totaled 93 yards and ran for two scores in that contest.