The Buffalo Bills travel just down I-79 this week, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football. The Bills haven’t played a prime-time game on a Sunday night since 2007, when they were memorably dismantled by the undefeated New England Patriots, losing 56-10. For the Steelers, this will be the third time just this year that they’ve appeared on Sunday Night Football, and their sixth prime-time game overall.
With a win, the Bills would clinch a playoff berth, moving to 10-4 and guaranteeing themselves at least the fifth seed in the AFC. With a loss, the Steelers would take control of the five seed, moving Buffalo down to the sixth seed heading into a Week 16 showdown with the New England Patriots.
After playing the Baltimore Ravens tough at home last week in a 24-17 loss, the Bills will need to take a big leap forward this week—especially on offense—in order to avoid their first two-game losing streak of the 2019 season. In order to win, the Bills will need some big performances from their top players. Here’s who we’ll be watching this week.
QB Josh Allen
Obviously, everything on offense starts and ends with the quarterback, and Buffalo needs Allen to step up this week. After showing his flaws last week against a relentless Ravens pass rush, he’ll face a Pittsburgh defense that is currently first in the league in sacks with 48. Pittsburgh’s pass defense allows only 209 yards per game, good for fifth in the league overall. Allen should expect a heavy dose of the Cover-0 pressures used by Baltimore last week once again in this match-up, as his struggles against the blitz provide an obvious blueprint for slowing him and the Bills’ passing attack. With a heightened emphasis on tight man coverage, Allen has been asked to beat the defense over the top more often of late, something he has routinely struggled to do in 2019. If the Bills are going clinch a trip tot he playoffs at Heinz Field, Allen will need to do two things: beat the blitz and prevent turnovers. If he can do those two things, Buffalo should win the game. If he can’t, then I can’t see a scenario in which the Bills come out on top. This is easily the biggest game of Allen’s career to date.
WR Cole Beasley
Man-coverage beaters—that’s what Buffalo needs against Cover-0, and they have no finer option on their current roster than Beasley. It’s no surprise that, as teams have clamped down on John Brown outside, Beasley has thrived over the last month. He scored another touchdown last week—his sixth of the season—off a beautifully designed pick play on third-and-goal from the two. He came open on the final play of the game, beating Marlon Humphery in coverage on a fourth down where Allen chose to throw to Brown, who had a step on Marcus Peters. The veteran corner ultimately made a great play on a well-thrown ball to seal the victory. Beasley is someone who Allen should look to as his first read against the Cover-0 looks defenses keep giving him. Perhaps offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can add some checks this week to ensure that Beasley has a chance to make plays in space against man coverage early and often.
TE Dawson Knox
Part of beating the blitz and tight man coverage involves receivers winning one-on-one match-ups. with most of Buffalo’s receivers giving up plenty of ground in both height and weight to NFL corners, this means that the team’s tight ends will have to win some contested catches for their quarterback. Enter Knox, who has really struggled with consistency catching the football as a rookie. For every great catch and run that he makes, it seems that he drops two passes that hit him right in the bread basket. Knox is athletic enough to cause problems for most defenses, and while Pittsburgh has been mostly solid against tight ends this season, they have allowed big numbers to some players with similar athletic profiles to Knox. Will Dissly of the Seattle Seahawks caught five passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns in Week 2, George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers caught six passes for 57 yards in Week 3, Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers caught eight passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns in Week 6, and Gerald Everett of the Los Angeles Rams caught eight passes for 68 yards in Week 10. All of those players are big, fast tight ends who have the ability to create yards after the catch. Knox has that ability, as well—if he can catch the ball first. He’ll be an important factor in the game.
DE Jerry Hughes
Buffalo’s top pass rusher had arguably his best game of the season against Baltimore. He notched a sack and two quarterback hits to go with two tackles on the day. One of his two hits was a huge shot on Lamar Jackson as the quarterback uncorked a 61-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hayden Hurst. Sure, if Hughes were a hair quicker, the touchdown may not have happened; however, the coverage busting on the back end certainly didn’t help matters. If Hughes can string together some more disruptive days, it would be nice. Notching a sack or two on Sunday would help the Bills keep Devlin “Duck” Hodges off track.
LB Tremaine Edmunds
What’s cooler than playing in a professional game in prime time against your brothers? Well, winning against them would be the icing on the cake. Buffalo’s Edmunds will face off against brothers Trey Edmunds and Terrell Edmunds on Sunday. Tremaine had one of his better games this week, helping to contain Baltimore’s league-best rushing attack. With James Conner expected back for Pittsburgh, the Steelers will probably lean heavily on their top rusher in order to keep the pressure off of their rookie quarterback. Edmunds will need to hit his gaps quickly and confidently on Sunday.