The Buffalo Bills open the 2021 NFL season at home versus the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in what should be the first full-capacity crowd in Orchard Park since the 2019 season. With a new season comes new expectations, and for the Bills, those expectations are certainly great to begin.
Thankfully, we’ll have no discussion of Miss Havisham in our players to watch this year, but I do want to make a note about another player whose name will be largely absent from this space. Last year, a commenter suggested leaving Josh Allen out of our weekly updates because, let’s face it, we’re watching him closely every week. Rather than spend 17 weeks plus a postseason writing largely the same thing, Allen won’t appear here as a player in his own right. We’ll instead discuss him through the lens of his teammates.
And with that, here are the five players I’m looking forward to watching this weekend.
RB Devin Singletary
Fantasy football pundits have been down on Motor and high on his teammate, second-year man Zack Moss. But, after a dominant preseason, I’m all-in on Singletary’s breakout potential in year three. The Bills are going to be a pass-first team, but Singletary’s ability to make defenders miss in space combined with his newfound decisiveness make for a dangerous player. I expect Singletary to look more like the player he was in 2019 when he averaged 5.4 yards per touch. With the Steelers sure to game plan around stopping Buffalo’s potent passing attack, unleashing Singletary for 12-15 carries will give the Bills the balance they need.
WR Emmanuel Sanders
The newest toy in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s playroom looked unguardable in the team’s preseason finale. Sanders is a great route runner with excellent short-area quickness and sure hands. He’s the perfect bridge between top targets Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley, as he is just as comfortable operating outside as he is in the slot. I’m interested to see if Allen treats Sanders more as the second option or the third option in Week 1, although I’m sure coverage will dictate that to an extent. I expect Sanders to be targeted at least eight times and, if that’s the case, he’ll turn in a solid day keeping the sticks moving.
DE Greg Rousseau
The rangy rookie looked like a legitimate problem during the preseason, which was encouraging given that he took the entire 2020 NCAA season off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rousseau showed excellent strength and solid burst in harassing opposing quarterbacks in exhibition contests. While he probably won’t play much more than 35-40 percent of the snaps, if he can bother veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into making throws before he’s ready, the Steelers will be in for a long day. Rousseau is one the biggest keys to Buffalo’s revamped pass rush, which in turn makes him one of the season’s greatest “X-Factors” for the team.
DT Ed Oliver
With teammate Star Lotulelei hampered by a calf injury, some questions linger about who will line up in what role along the defensive front. If Lotulelei can play, will we see Oliver finally live up to his potential as a disruptive force from the three-tech spot on a consistent basis? If Lotulelei can’t go, will Oliver be forced to man the one-tech spot like he often was last year? Will teams double-team Oliver knowing that Vernon Butler is less of a threat to their plans? With Pittsburgh sure to utilize rookie running back Najee Harris to take pressure off the veteran Roethlisberger, a sound middle is essential to success on Sunday. Oliver will be a big part of the game.
CB Levi Wallace
The man across from Tre’Davious White is always going to be a focal point for opposing offenses. The coaching staff and general manager Brandon Beane have shown tons of faith in Wallace, as they didn’t even bring in the customary veteran challenger for his job this summer. Wallace and second-year man Dane Jackson are set to man the CB2 spot, though we assume it will be Wallace taking the bulk of the reps. Pittsburgh has a strong receiver group, with Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington making up a solid top four (old friend Ray-Ray McCloud III is fifth). If Wallace can handle his side of the field, the Bills will have the look of a lock-down defense in Week 1.