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Bills 38, Steelers 3: revisiting five Buffalo players to watch

That was a flat-out whoopin’

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills struck early against the Pittsburgh Steelers, scoring on a 98-yard pass by quarterback Josh Allen to wide recevier Gabe Davis on the third play from scrimmage. The Bills kept piling on throughout the first half, eventually resting their starting group and running away with a 38-3 victory.

Of our players to watch this week, most performed quite well, and they all had some sort of impact on the game. Even though we left the aforementioned duo of Allen (424 passing yards, four touchdowns) and Davis (three catches, 171 yards, two touchdowns) off our list, there were enough stars to go around in what was a complete domination for Buffalo.

Here’s how our five players to watch fared this week.

RB Devin Singletary

So much for that “hand it off more” talk. Singletary led the Bills in rushes with six carries. He tied Allen for the team lead in rushing yards, gaining 42 on the day. Singletary broke one big play, netting 23 yards on one of his carries. He was targeted just twice in the passing game, and he caught one of those targets for four yards. In a game where the Steelers dared Allen to throw long—and he obliged, repeatedly and successfully—the running game just never materialized into a need. Singletary is still without a touchdown, though rookie running back James Cook scored his first career touchdown on a 24-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. That was the first touchdown that Allen wasn’t involved in for the year. Singletary continues to be the clear RB1, as he played the vast majority of the snaps in the early going, and he continues to be effective when given some chances.

WR Khalil Shakir

Find a way for this man to play more often, even when the receiver room is a little healthier. Shakir stepped into a much larger role on Sunday, returning kicks and serving as the primary slot receiver on the day. He responded with a 33-yard kickoff return, three receptions on five targets, 75 receiving yards, and his first career receiving touchdown. Shakir’s first grab was a seam-ball that he secured in between three Pittsburgh defenders. The touchdown catch came on an underthrown ball from Allen, as Shakir had torched his man in coverage and had plenty of separation over the top. The rookie wideout showed that he has what it takes to contribute right now, and with wide receiver Jamison Crowder out for the foreseeable future, he’ll have some chances to shine even when wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie is back.

G Ryan Bates

If there was one thing that wasn’t pretty at times on Sunday, it was the protection up front, especially in the interior of the offensive line. Defensive tackle Cam Heyward wreaked havoc on the Bills, though not to the extent that he did in last season’s opener. Bates killed Buffalo’s second drive with a holding penalty, negating a first down at the 11-yard line on a nice run from Singletary. It hasn’t been a great start to the year for either Bates or fellow lineman Rodger Saffold, and while the good news is that Buffalo has played teams with excellent interior defensive linemen to start the 2022 season, the bad news is that the Bills haven’t been great in keeping those linemen at bay. Bates’ job isn’t in jeopardy, but he needs to play better.

CB Kaiir Elam

Pittsburgh’s game plan was pretty obvious in the early going: give rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett some easy reads, move the pocket, and find the receiver that Elam was covering. In all, Pickett targeted Elam 13 times, completing 10 of those passes for 126 yards. In the first half, especially, Pickett picked on Elam by targeting wide recceiver George Pickens. Elam was able to pick Pickett at the end of the first half, though he wasn’t targeting Pickens on that throw—it was wide receiver Diontae Johnson instead. On the plus side, we predicted that Elam interception. On the negative side, Elam was thoroughly abused throughout the game. I’m not terribly worried, though. In 2017, Bills rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White was tasked with guarding wide receiver A.J. Green, who gave the rookie fits all day. Green caught seven passes for 189 yards and a score that day, but White learned from that experience. The same thing is going to happen with Elam, who was much better in the second half than he was in the first half even as the Bills played a softer defense given the score.

S Damar Hamlin

A few of you (rightly) called me out for spotlighting Hamlin and not safety Jaquan Johnson, who was in line to play once safety Jordan Poyer was ruled out with a rib injury. Given the uncertainty surrounding Poyer’s status on Thursday night, I went with Hamlin instead of the guy who would only be a factor if Poyer were ruled out for the game. Given that both Hamlin and Johnson played together for the second time this season, we can safely say that the duo was much better this time around than they were against quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins. Johnson, for his part, had eight tackles on the day. Hamlin has shown that he can hang in the starting lineup, and he was good again, notching eight tackles and one tackle for a loss. He also hit a sliding Pickett, which touched off the first of two fracases when Pittsburgh guard James Daniels leveled Hamlin after the whistle. I think most of us expected a flag on Hamlin, but there was little the safety could have done to avoid his former college teammate given how late Pickett began his slide. When you make national highlight reels for faking a slide and then scoring a touchdown, it puts defenders in a position where they are going to come through you. Hamlin and Pickett both seemed completely fine after the game, as there obviously was no ill intent on the part of the Buffalo safety.