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Bills vs Steelers: Week 5 rookie review

The rookies left their mark on an overwhelmed opponent

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills took care of business against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5, winning 38-3. While we know better with the NFL, it was a game that truly felt over at halftime. The injuries keep piling up for the Bills, and a multitude of key pieces on both sides of the ball were held out of this game. Meanwhile, the return of defensive tackles Ed Oliver and Jordan Phillips to the interior defensive line paid quality dividends.

The Bills are now relying more and more on rookies as the season unfolds. Multiple rookies were key players in Week 5, and a big part of the reason Buffalo won on Sunday. Let’s deep dive into what we saw from the rookies’ performances this past weekend.

CB Kaiir Elam

Elam was a starter for the third straight week on Sunday. After hardly being targeted in his previous two starts, the Steelers clearly made it a point to throw at the young, athletic corner. It didn’t go well for him early on, as fellow SEC rookie receiver George Pickens owned the Florida product throughout the first half. Elam was targeted 13 times and gave up 10 receptions for 126 yards. Just as his brutal first half was coming to a close, Elam grabbed his first NFL interception. He fell back to his spot in his quarter-field zone drop and undercut receiver Diontae Johnson, who was running a vertical route. Despite a disastrous start, Elam kept plugging away and was rewarded for his effort. That’s the culture that head coach Sean McDermott and his staff preach weekly. Further proof to that idea are Elam’s 10 tackles. Elam fulfills every bit of what that manufactured culture entails.

RB James Cook

Cook had a bit of his own coming-out party—at least on one play. He didn’t play a lot of snaps, and he did have a couple of negative plays while the game was still contested. But Cook’s big moment came very early in the fourth quarter when he took a backside cut off of inside zone to accelerate through the hole and sprint past all-world safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to his first NFL touchdown. It hasn’t been the start Cook probably wanted to his NFL career, but he’s showing signs of perseverance and a commitment to getting better. Cook’s vision on his touchdown should provide a huge building block for him as he strives to earn more game-day snaps. Running back Zack Moss has seen his touches decrease, and the running back position is clearly not the offense’s focal point. However, being able to get extra yards from the explosiveness of Cook rather than Singletary or Moss would be a net positive for the Bills.

LB Terrel Bernard

Linebacker Tyrel Dodson received the start in place of injured linebacker Tremaine Edmunds on Sunday afternoon. Dodson received the nod over rookie Bernard and performed admirably—leading the team in tackles and recording a sack. Bernard found his reps later in the game once Dodson and multiple starters were taken out of the game. Bernard quietly recorded six tackles and played 25 snaps. It’s relatively disappointing, considering there was a chance for the young rookie to take a step and make a valuable contribution on defense. Unfortunately, Bernard is well into insurance territory at this point—likely to be called upon if injuries occur for Edmunds or linebacker Matt Milano. Bernard’s the fourth man up in the linebacker room at this time, but he continues to garner special teams snaps.

WR Khalil Shakir

Shakir may be forcing the coaching staff’s hand after being a healthy scratch during the first few weeks of the season. Now, he’s making the most of every opportunity he gets. Shakir did it all on Sunday afternoon, showing off his ability to go up and get the ball in traffic and pull away from defenders in the open field. Sure, he also dropped a pass—but that’s not who Shakir has been through college, and it shouldn’t be considered an alarming trend at this point. Shakir’s proving time and again that his ability to go up and make a play is unique for any slot receiver. Just as he was in college, Shakir boasts a little bit of everything at the position. Quarterback Josh Allen threw a pass behind Shakir on an over route, but he made the catch without issue as he adjusted and reached back through contact to finish the play into the end zone. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder is on injured reserve, and Jake Kumerow continues to nurse a high ankle sprain. Even if (or when) those players come back, it’s going to be difficult to keep Shakir off the field for weeks to come. It remains to be seen if he will be able to unseat veteran wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie for primary slot duties.

CB Christian Benford

Benford remains out with his surgically-reparied hand fracture. A return could be coming soon for him, with two games missed and managing to avoid injured reserve. A huge game with the Kansas City Chiefs looms large, but the Bills may aim to get Benford back after the team’s Week 7 bye. More struggles for Elam could open the door for Benford to get back into the starting lineup upon his return.

LB Baylon Spector

Spector received some playing time on defense late in Sunday’s game. The rookie out of Clemson made a few tackles in his time on the field, but he played the fewest snaps on defense (12) of anyone on the team. Spector continues to play on special teams along with Bernard.