The Buffalo Bills were not going to let the Pittsburgh Steelers spoil another afternoon in Orchard Park, NY like they did for last season’s home opener. Buffalo left no doubt in their trampling of the Steelers, handing the Steelers their worst lost since a 51-0 shellacking by the Cleveland Browns 33 seasons ago in the 1989 season opener. Quarterback Josh Allen continued his MVP candidacy by throwing for a career high in yardage, the injury riddled defense continued smothering opponents, and the team proved again they are a force to be reckoned with each week. The win marked Buffalo’s sixth victory by at least 30 points since Allen took over as a starter in 2018, and he said it best after the game when describing the team win:
“It’s trusting the guys that we’ve brought into this building, and our front office, bringing in the right guys that care about football, care about each other,” Allen said. “And when you have that, you’re going to have success.”
Success came early and often Sunday, as the offense scored on their third play of the game and never looked back. New faces stepped up and familiar faces continued to impress as contributions to the win came from every part of the lineup. It was a week of firsts for many players on this roster as injuries forced the coaching staff to look for the next man up on the depth chart. In this edition of Mr. B’s Breakdown, we’re checking out how a compilation of moments from a nucleus of young players helped boost the peformances of existing stars and carry the team to victory.
LB Tyrel Dodson’s first start
Entering the season as a backup linebacker, Dodson made his first start of the season in Week 5 with Tremaine Edmunds out due to injury. Having played primarily special teams through the first four games, Dodson came in and turned heads. He led the team with seven solo tackles, four assists, one tackle for a loss and even added a sack for good measure. His efforts helped stall Pittsburgh’s run game, holding running back Najee Harris to 20 yards on 11 attempts and 1.8 yards per carry—a full two yards per carry under his career average of 3.8.
Dodson’s sack wasn’t flashy or an in-the-pocket variety of sack you might see someone like edge rusher Von Miller get, but he flashed his awareness and closing speed while making the play on quarterback Kenny Pickett. He takes the perfect angle toward the sideline to cut Pickett off and get him out of bounds for a three-yard loss to put the Steelers in a 3rd & 6 instead of a 2nd & 3.
WR Khalil Shaikir shines, scores first career TD
With the absence of two slot receivers, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and Allen looked to Shakir to fill the void. By playing in 70% of the offensive snaps on Sunday, the fifth-round rookie proved he has the ability to make big-time plays in this league by hauling in three catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Gabe Davis, who had a career game of his own, had high praise for the rookie during the postgame press conference:
“It’s just a commitment and a certain type of discipline to this game. And Khalil has that, and he’s going to be a great player…We knew since Khalil came into OTAs that he was going to be a good player,” he continued. “He’s been consistent, he listens, he’s a smart player. To see him have games like that, it’s no surprise to us.”
It was hard for me to decide which of the three clips I was going highlight, as all three are worth a watch. Ultimately, I chose Shakir’s 31-yard contested catch over the middle on 2nd & 10. I’ve watched this throw and catch over and over but I’m still amazed at the level of skill shown. It has to be watched from the All-22 view and end zone cam to be truly appreciated.
Lined up in the slot on Allen’s right side, Shakir streaks down the field, past the linebacker, and makes the catch in front of both safeties. Shakir jumps up high-pointing the ball, coming down with the contested catch.
When you see what Allen sees in the endzone, the appreciation for the play reaches a new level. To get the ball to Shakir, Allen waits until Shakir runs past the linebacker, forcing the linebacker to turn his back to the quarterback. Not knowing the ball is on the way, Josh now has to fit the ball over the linebacker’s head, but not overthrow Shakir due to the safeties closing on the ball. He had the smallest window to fit the ball in—but he did and Shakir rewards Allen for trusting him with the contested throw. This connection within the offense is just getting started and I expect it to continue growing each week as Shakir earns more playing time in games down the stretch.
WR Isaiah Hodgins records first NFL reception
Bills Mafia certainly knows Hodgins has waited patiently for an opportunity to play in the Bills’ offense. A 2020 sixth-round pick finally received his chance Sunday and he was excited. His one word tweet summed up his career to this point: “Perseverance”
After leading the team in receptions during the preseason, Hodgins was prepared to step in when his number was called. He rewarded the coaching decision by grabbing four passes for 41 yards. His best play of the day came on a 3rd & 4 from the Bills’ eight-yard line. Hodgins found a hole between the corner and the safety and Allen delivered the ball perfectly for a 26-yard gain to move the chains.
With the injury bug biting the Bills extensively and often this season, having a quality player like Hodgins who has matured within this offense can prove to be invaluable for the playoffs.
First career TD for RB James Cook
Finally, the former Georgia product broke out on the field in Week 5. Cook reached the endzone on a darting 24-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. He finished with 31 yards on four carries, flashing speed and vision that might not exist elsewhere in the Buffalo’s backfield.
Cook flashed his way up the middle of the defense using his speed to get to the second level. He was face-to-face with All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick but made a cut to the left, at which point Fitzpatrick had no chance to stop Cook on the play.
The Bills have struggled to find production with their running backs so far in 2022. Cook’s score was the first rushing touchdown for the team this season by someone other than Allen. I’d love to see Cook take over as RB2 and hope that Buffalo emphasizes improving their run-game efficiency moving forward.
That should boost James Cook's confidence. First career touchdown goes for 24 yards and it's the first rushing touchdown for the Bills this season by someone other than Josh Allen.— Heather Prusak (@haprusak) October 9, 2022
CB Kaiir Elam’s first career interception
Matched up against rookie stud wide receiver George Pickens, Elam battled all game long. Pickett threw at Elam 13 times on Sunday, completing 10 passes for 126 yards. In the Bills’ first four games of the season, opponents targeted Elam a total of 10 times. As a teacher, I have never given out an F- as a grade, but when asked what grade he would give himself, Elam said:
“F-minus. Honestly, I just expect a lot from myself, because I know how hard I work. I had an excellent week of practice. I did everything to prepare to go out there and have a great game, and I feel like I didn’t, so I’ve just got to keep working and make sure I never have a game like that ever again.”
Even with the struggles, Elam had the ability to make a play on an underthrown pass targeting wide receiver Diontae Johnson. Elam made a play on the ball, intercepting Pickett and ensuring the Steelers wouldn’t score before the first half ended.
With Elam now a full-time starter, games like this will only make him better moving forward. As a rookie, cornerback Tre’Davious White allowed 189 receiving yards to A.J. Green—and it taught him the importance of having a short memory in the NFL. White has developed into an All-Pro player for Buffalo and one can only hope a competitor like Elam will bounce back and ascend towards a similar trajectory.
The Bills appear to be as deep of a team as ever under general manager Brandon Bean and head coach Sean McDermott. The coaches and front office must be extremely proud of the young players for fitting into their scheme and successfully executing a game plan—and they’ve contributed to the NFL’s second-best offense and top-ranked defense. Certainly, the team has needed this depth more than they had ever hoped, but with each and every rep these young players get, they become more and more valuable to this team.
With a long playoff run in sight, health is the key factor that could derail this team. Having young players like Elam, Shakir, Cook, Dodson, and Hodgins could widen the margin of error Buffalo has when dealing with injuries to their star players. If you include Hamlin and Johnson in that conversation, you have a nucleus of young talent that we didn’t think we’d have to lean on, but who have shown up in a big way. I think they will only get better, which is scary for the rest of the NFL as Buffalo looks to get over the hump and win a Super Bowl this season.