PITONIAK: Mounting injuries of grave concern

-                 The most distressing thing about the Bills season so far isn’t the 2-3 record or the inconsistent play. That was to be expected, given all the personnel changes and lack of experience at One Bills Drive.

                No, the real disturbing development has been the rash of injuries. Citizens of Bills Nation have to hope that the injury rookie quarterback EJ Manuel suffered in Thursday night’s 37-24 loss in Cleveland is nothing more than a minor knee sprain. If it’s something more serious, Buffalo is in a whole heap of trouble because, as we saw, Jeff Tuel is not ready to carry the load.

                No. 1 wideout Stevie Johnson left the game with a back injury. He’s a talented receiver, as evidenced by his three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but he’s also been injury prone. Should he be lost for an extended period of time that will further hamstring the offense, and put even more stress on whoever is at quarterback and on young receivers Robert Woods and T.J. Graham.

                The good news is that the Bills have nine days before their next game – an October 13 home contest vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. So, guys with nagging injuries, like running backs Fred Jackson (sprained knee) and C.J. Spiller (ankle), will have some time to heal. One would hope that cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd also will be able to make their 2013 regular-season debuts that day.

                Byrd’s decision to blow off most of the preseason in a snit over being given the franchise tag along with his recurring feet problems that have sidelined him the first five games have rankled Bills fans. They see Jackson and Spiller along with defensive end Mario Williams play at less than peak efficiency because of injuries, and they can’t help but wonder why Byrd isn’t doing the same.

                With Gilmore and Byrd back in the lineup, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be able to do even more with blitzes because he’ll have more dependable coverage in the secondary.

                Again, the biggest injury issue is Manuel. He’s done a decent job so far in his rookie season, and it’s imperative for his development and the development of this team that he be out there.

                The Bills are about to embark on an extremely challenging stretch. After the Bengals game, they have road contests in New Orleans and Miami, before returning home to play Kansas City. If Manuel is lost for a long period, the Bills may have to look for a caretaker veteran to tide them over because to place the load on Tuel, who at best is a long-term project, would be disastrous. Josh Freeman’s name already has popped up. I would only look at that option if Manuel is out for an extended time and I would only sign Freeman to a one-year deal.

                OFFENSE: The Bills actually did a pretty good job before EJ Manuel’s injury, putting up 24 points. Kudos to Fred Jackson (17 carries, 53 yards, 2 TDs) and C.J. Spiller (8 carries, 66 and 1 TD on a 54-yard burst) for playing hurt. Jeff Tuel performed like the undrafted rookie quarterback that he is, completing just 8-of-20 for 80 yards. The pick-six he threw with the Bills trailing 30-24 was the final dagger. GRADE: C
                DEFENSE: Kiko Alonso was omnipresent again and Mario Williams added two sacks to give him a league-leading 7 ½, but the bottom line is that Bills couldn’t seal the deal, even after knocking starting quarterback Brian Hoyer out of the game early on. Of course, the lion’s share of the blame belongs to the special teams. GRADE: C
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Travis Benjamin was a one-man wrecking crew with a team-record 179 yards on punt returns. He went the distance with a 79-yard return and set up a field goal with a 57-yarder. GRADE: F
                OVERVIEW: As I said, getting healthy is the Bills top priority. They have to hope that Manuel’s injury is minor and that Stevie Johnson, Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore are ready to go full-throttle because the toughest stretch of the schedule awaits. GRADE: D

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