CLEVELAND – The Buffalo Bills showed their star power goes deeper than their two elite running backs Sunday.
The Bills were in need of some prime-time plays after running back C.J. Spiller joined Fred Jackson on the injury shelf late in the first quarter against the Cleveland Browns.
They got them from each member of their defensive front four, their passing combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Stevie Johnson and from unheralded backup Tashard Choice.
It all added up to a workmanlike, 24-14 victory that improved the Bills to 2-1.
"You've got to be able to come back from ups and downs," said defensive end Mario Williams. "For us to go out and play ball with adversity striking, whether it is injuries or them scoring, you still got to be able to put your foot down, especially when it really counts."
The injury to Spiller was the kind of adversity the Bills didn't need. Their speedy back had staked them to a 14-0 lead with a touchdown catch 9:56 into the game. But two minutes later he went to the locker room for good with a shoulder injury after getting tackled hard to the ground.
With Jackson already down with a sprained knee suffered in the season opener, the Bills turned to Choice, the fifth-year pro who played for Gailey at Georgia Tech.
Choice can't replicate Spiller's breakaway speed and he's not as physical as Jackson. But he's a smart, assignment-sound back with some quickness. He rushed for 91 yards on 20 carries – a healthy 4.6-yard average – and allowed the Bills to keep balance in their offense.
That proved critical with the Bills clinging to a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Fitzpatrick drove the Bills 68 yards in 10 plays to a touchdown that put Buffalo in command.
"We knew we had to put our foot on the gas," Fitzpatrick said. "There was a lot of energy in the huddle. The guys were really revved up and ready to go. Our offensive line wanted us to get after those guys a little bit, run the ball and mix it up, and we did."
Choice started the march with a 22-yard run off left guard, following a big lead block by Kraig Urbik on middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson to get to the Browns' 46.
Eight plays later, Fitzpatrick had the Bills on the Cleveland 9 and went to his favorite target.
"Fitz said in the huddle, ‘Alright Stevie, if it's Cover 1 or Cover 0, you get open,' " Johnson said, referring to man-to-man coverages with either one safety over the top or none.
The Bills lined up with an empty backfield, with Johnson inside of Donald Jones on the right side of the formation. Jones ran to the corner of the end zone, which left Johnson to work the middle of the field against cornerback Dimitri Patterson. Johnson gave him a shimmy-shake move to the outside and cut wide open over the middle to catch an easy scoring pass.
"It was 100 percent Stevie," Fitzpatrick said. "That's why Stevie makes the big bucks. We count on him to do things like that in a game. To beat the guy like he did, that's special. We think Stevie's a special receiver, and that play shows why. … We had a good feeling that's the defense they were gonna be in, and we knew Stevie'd be able to beat him."
The Bills' offense put a lot of pressure on a Browns secondary that was missing its best player, Joe Haden, by frequently using bunch formations with their wideouts.
Buffalo's first touchdown resulted from a traffic problem on a play from the Browns' 9. Tight end Scott Chandler and rookie T.J. Graham were lined up to the right. At the snap, Spiller broke out of the backfield to the right flat, while Chandler cut toward the right sideline. Graham ran a post pattern to the middle of the field, but his defender, cornerback Buster Skrine, ran smack into Jackson, who was running over to cover Spiller.
"It was a good play for the defense we were in," Skrine said. "We all got picked. One of my teammates picked me."
"We got 'em outflanked out there at times," Chandler said. "We were able to bring Donald in and run out of (the formation). You can't say enough about our coaches. They had us prepared."
The Bills' second drive ended with a perfectly executed screen pass to Spiller, who took it 32 yards for a score. Buffalo caught the Browns in a blitz, and the coverage was man-to-man across the field with one safety deep. Chandler sensed a big play was about to happen.
"I was to the slot side all by myself over there and I'm just running to go block the deep safety," he said. "So I thought if C.J.'s guy gets caught up, it's gonna be a touchdown. The guy guarding me was the only guy, and that's what it ended up being. The O-line did a great job getting out on that."
The Bills' defense closed out the victory with two interceptions and a sack in the final nine minutes.
Leodis McKelvin and Bryan Scott got the pickoffs. Each of Buffalo's starting defensive linemen, Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson, were involved in a sack.
But the most impressive aspect of the Bills' defense was the run front. Buffalo held Cleveland's main weapon, rookie running back Trent Richardson, to 51 yards on 18 touches, including just 2.3 yards per rushing attempt.
"That sounds like a good day," said Bills middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. "It started up front. I give most of the credit to the defensive line. They really controlled the line of scrimmage today and it made it easy for the 'backers to scrape and make tackles."
"You don't want him getting north and south," Sheppard said of Richardson. "You fill the gaps and build what we call the gate and make him go east and west."
A crowd of 69,353, which included thousands of Bills fans, saw the Browns fall to 0-3.
The Bills set their sights on next week's home game against New England. They won't have Spiller (he's out a week or several) and might not have Jackson.
Asked about the Pats, Gailey said: "Let me enjoy this for 24 hours."