Hoyer, defense will be tested tonight

CLEVELAND – The challenge couldn’t be any clearer.

The Browns will likely win tonight’s game against the Buffalo Bills at First Energy Stadium if quarterback Brian Hoyer continues to play well and the run defense can slow the Bills’ potent ground attack.

Since taking control after Brandon Weeden sprained his right thumb against the Baltimore Ravens, Hoyer has sparked back-to-back wins over the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals. He’s shown an ability to lift the performance level of players around him and play at his best when it’s most needed.

As for the run defense, it can’t get much better. The Browns are allowing 79 rushing yards a game, which is fourth best in the NFL.

That dominance will be tested against the Bills, one of the rare NFL teams that highlight their rushing attack. It’s a two-pronged manner of approaching defenses, with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller sharing the load.

The Bills are second in the NFL with an average of 152 rushing yards a game. Jackson has 256 yards and two touchdowns on 48 carries, and Spiller is at 230 yards on 66 carries.

“We’re building a foundation of the defense that we’re playing,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “The guys are playing relentless football, and that’s what you want to see from that standpoint. We’ll continue to take it step by step in terms of getting different things in from a game-plan standpoint.”

The Browns (2-2) could catch a break due to injuries that Jackson and Spiller suffered last Sunday in a win over the Ravens that evened the Bills’ record at 2-2. Jackson sprained the MCL in a knee, and Spiller hurt an ankle. Bills coach Doug Marrone believes both will be able to play, but it’s now known how well each can be expected to perform.

“Obviously I’m the coach, so I’m looking forward to them playing,” Marrone said. “It’s day-to-day. We’ll see how they are.”

Marrone might have to worry more about Hoyer and a Browns’ offense that discovered signs of life the last two weeks. Hoyer’s presence has been important, as has been the play of receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron.

Hoyer will have to be wary of a defense that intercepted Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco five times last Sunday. Hoyer was intercepted three times by the Vikings but managed to avoid throwing an interception against the Bengals.

“They are a complicated defense,” Hoyer said. “They try to confuse you. You have to be ready for what they throw at you and get your pre-snap read and confirm it on your post snap. There are definitely guys around the ball.”

Chudzinski won’t say it, but it appears that Hoyer will remain at quarterback for the long haul. Weeden has been cleared to play, but Chudzinski wouldn’t commit to Weeden as Hoyer’s backup.

Manuel, a rookie from Florida State, will be making his fifth career start. He’s connected on 56.9 percent of his passes for 856 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.

The plan in Buffalo is like it is with most rookie quarterbacks, which means easing Manuel into a prominent role while allowing players around him to shoulder much of the work load. That’s why it will be important for Spiller and Jackson to be healthy enough to do what they do best.

“Once we get our running game going it opens up a lot of other things for us,” Manuel said. “Give our offensive line credit for opening holes for those guys to run through.”

The Browns had a three-game winning streak late last season wins over the Steelers, Raiders and Chiefs but it’s been a rare happening here. They’ve won three straight twice since their return to the NFL in 1999 (2007 and last year). In 2009 the Browns won their final four games.

Not many people thought there would be talk of a possible three-game winning streak when Trent Richardson was traded two weeks ago.

“I don’t think we ever lost confidence,” Hoyer said. “Obviously it’s tough when you lose two close games that could have gone either way, but you keep battling. The character of this team is to battle through adversity and keep going until that final whistle blows.”