The Buffalo Bills will travel to Arizona for the second time this season for a game, except this time, they’ll be playing the San Francisco 49ers. Due to restrictions in Santa Clara County, where the 49ers play their games at Levi’s Stadium, the team had to move their entire operation through the end of December.
Buffalo is hoping for a better result in their second trip to Arizona than the first time, when DeAndre Hopkins caught a Hail Mary from Kyler Murray with one second left to propel the Arizona Cardinals to a 32-30 victory. In order to secure that victory, the Bills will need plenty of strong performances from their top players.
Which players are we watching this week? Here’s our list.
QB Josh Allen
Buffalo’s MVP candidate had a slow game last week, but that was part of the game plan. Allen averaged 36 attempts per game coming into last week’s victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, and that includes an 18-attempt day against the New England Patriots in horrendous weather. Allen only threw 24 passes against the Chargers, completing 18 of them for 157 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Against a solid 49ers defense that is 11th in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed in spite of missing talented players like Nick Bosa, Jaquiski Tartt, Dee Ford, and Jonathan Cyprien, Allen will have to limit his mistakes. He luckily only threw one interception last week, as he made quite a few poor decisions in the face of pressure. Of his six incomplete passes, at least three bounced off the hands of a defender aside from the one that ended up intercepted. Allen has to pick and choose his aggressive spots a bit more wisely this week against a much better defense.
WR Gabriel Davis
With veteran John Brown on the shelf for at least the next two weeks, the rookie will be asked to step up in Brown’s absence. Last week, Davis made a big impact on the game, quietly leading the team in receiving yards with a three-catch performance, totaling 79 yards and a touchdown—thrown by Cole Beasley—in the process. Davis has caught 22 of his 35 targets this year for 354 yards and a team-leading four touchdowns. Brown’s speed will be missed, but Davis gives the Bills size and blocking ability that no other oft-used wideout on the roster gives them. With teams rolling double coverages towards Stefon Diggs and bracketing Cole Beasley in the middle, young players like Davis and tight end Dawson Knox need to prove their mettle here as the playoff push commences. Davis will likely see the much smaller Jason Verrett in man coverage situations, so he has a chance to use his 6’2” frame to box out the 5’10” Verrett.
TE Lee Smith
The blocking tight end? Yep, I’m watching the big fella after he played more snaps (17) than he had played in any game this season. Smith has only been active for five games this year, and he’s only played on 41 snaps. It’s entirely possible that he’s a healthy scratch and the team goes back to Tyler Kroft this week. I have a hunch that they’ll activate Smith thanks to the boost in the running game we saw last week. As much of a “tell” as it can be having Smith on the field, running play-action with Smith acting as a sixth offensive lineman should open the middle of the field for the deep crossing route that Allen throws so well.
DT Ed Oliver
The 49ers are going to rely heavily on the running game, as Raheem Mostert is finally back healthy. He’s an explosive player, averaging 5.8 yards per rush over his 245 career carries. Oliver will be tasked with collapsing the middle and darting in to control the run before it can even start. The 49ers run plenty of “eye candy” to throw a defense off its keys, but if the defensive line wins its matchups in the trenches, it makes the second-level defenders’ jobs easier regardless of what they see in front of them. Oliver made a big play last week, collecting a sack and a forced fumble just one game after managing a season-high five tackles against the Arizona Cardinals. He had a hot second half last season, so after a quiet first half, perhaps he’s on his way to another fiery finish to the season.
LB A.J. Klein
If you had A.J. Klein in the pool of Bills players to win Defensive Player of the Week honors, you’re either a degenerate gambler or a relative of Klein’s. No matter—the veteran has really come on of late, and he has found his role as the Lorenzo Alexander pressure specialist out of the linebacker group. With the ‘Niners sure to play plenty of run-heavy fronts, this feels like a 4-3 day rather than a nickel day, which means that even if Matt Milano returns from injured reserve, I expect to see plenty of Klein. The man had 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, three tackles-for-loss, and a pass breakup last week. For the year, Klein now has 58 tackles and a team-high five sacks. After a rough start, he’s earned his keep with the Bills. San Francisco will probably try to isolate him in coverage, but if Buffalo can keep using him to pressure the quarterback, then Nick Mullens is in for a rough day.