After the Bills yielded 470 yards on the ground to the Saints and Dolphins the past two weeks, Kawika Mitchell replaced Marcus Buggs in the middle hoping to shore up the run defense. If a 6-3 loss to the winless Browns wasn't disappointing enough, both players were carted off the field with serious knee injuries—only adding to the problems of an already depleted defensive unit.
Although the injury details for each player are unknown, Dick Jauron didn't have a positive outlook after the game.
"Both Kawika (Mitchell) and Marcus (Buggs) are knees and we'll know more obviously once they get checked," Jauron said. "We'll find out (Monday). I'm not optimistic about those injuries so we'll find out more (Monday) and clearly we'll have to do something if those turn out to be serious."
With Mitchell moving to the middle and rookie Ashlee Palmer making his first NFL start at Mitchell's outside spot looked promising until the veteran linebacker went down on the first play of the second quarter. Racing to beat Browns running back Jerome Harrison to the corner, Mitchell was knocked over by two offensive linemen and his leg was twisted awkwardly in the pileup.
Buggs, who started the last three games in place of injured Paul Posluszny (broken left arm), returned to duty until he had to leave the field with four minutes remaining in third quarter. While covering a punt return deep in Cleveland territory, Buggs was chipped by a passing blocker and his foot appeared to get stuck in the turf buckling his knee.
Keith Ellison was at a loss for words explaining the significance of his teammate's injuries. He said its difficult losing any player on the roster, especially Mitchell whose veteran leadership and knowledge of the system anchored the defense.
"It's a tremendous loss, both of them mean so much to us. Kawika's our captain and seeing him go down—that hurt. It's tough right now, especially with the loss," Ellison said. "It's a big blow because he's one of our leaders on defense. We made him captain for a reason, so when he went out it's tough and losing Buggs too. It's hard to see guys go down on the field."
Jon Corto, who manned the outside spot when Ellison shifted to the middle in place of Buggs, said losing an accomplished player like Mitchell is difficult but other players need to take advantage of the opportunity.
"Kawika's a big loss, he's our captain and a leader on this team. So hopefully the injury's not too severe and we can get him back," Corto said. "If not, the younger guys like myself fill the role."
In the event one or both players are lost for an extended period of time, a significant shortage at linebacker will exist. The good news is Posluszny's return from injury is on schedule, but at best he's two weeks away. Decisions will need to be made quickly so a lineup can get enough preparation for Sunday in New York.
The first move for the Bills coaching staff will be to re-assign rookie Nic Harris back to the linebacker position, where he lined up originally. The past two weeks, Harris has taken reps at the safety position to provide depth in the wake of the injuries to Donte Whitner and Bryan Scott.
If necessary, the team could activate linebacker Marcus Freeman from the practice squad, who signed with the Bills on Sept. 22. The Ohio State product has good size (6-1, 239) and could provide some bulk in defending the run.
There are available players from outside the organization as well in veteran free agents Derrick Brooks and Marcus Washington. However, as Jauron noted, the Bills will wait to make a move until the severity of the injuries are known.
Ellison said he is confident in taking over the middle, no matter what changes are made this week. In Perry Fewell's defensive system Ellison has been required to know the responsibilities of the 'mike' linebacker position in addition to his primary duties on the outside. That's why Ellison wore the radio helmet on defense after Mitchell's exit.
Ellison was generally pleased with the performance of Palmer and Corto under the circumstances.
"Both of them did well. I thought they came in and made some mistakes, but that's expected for somebody their first time out there," he said. "They stepped up when their number was called and you have to give them a lot of credit to prepare for it. I have nothing but good things to say about their performance."
Corto's primary role is on special teams, so the extent of his time at linebacker is during practice. But getting pressed into duty Sunday and the status of injuries unknown, it will be important to keep the right mindset.
"I haven't got much time at the position in a while, but I try to get the mental reps in case something like this happens," Corto said. "There are some plays I'd like back and some I did OK on. Just build from here and get ready for next week. I don't know what's going to happen, but we'll be ready."