One of the most anticipated games of the 2022 NFL regular season came down to the final drive between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. The Bills made the final play to put them over the top—a well-played defensive sequence that led to an acrobatic interception by slot cornerback Taron Johnson.
This game had all of the excellence we’ve come to expect from quarterbacks Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, along with the genius of defensive coordinators Leslie Frazier and Steve Spagnuolo. In the end, the plays are made by the players, and Buffalo made more winning plays to come away with a 24-20 win.
The rookies weren’t as much of a factor in this game like they were in Week 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bills saw some of the best of cornerback Kaiir Elam on Sunday, but he wasn’t the only rookie who saw the field in Missouri. Let’s discuss more of Elam and the rest of the rookie performances from Week 6!
CB Kaiir Elam
Elam showed head coach Sean McDermott and the Bills’ brass why they were right to believe in him by using their first-round pick to select him this past April. He gave up a couple of receptions on the day, the first of which was to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster very early on the first drive that could have easily rattled him. After all, it was a rookie essentially going against one of the best quarterbacks to ever do it in the middle of his prime. But it didn’t, and Elam had a huge impact on the game. No play was bigger than his interception of Mahomes in the end zone on the first defensive drive.
Elam appears to move on to the next play no matter the prior outcome. He made one of the plays of the year when he stabbed one-handed and ripped the football away from receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Elam continues to blossom on a weekly basis, and he outshined veteran cornerback Dane Jackson on this day. Elam should be in contention to take over as the full-time starter opposite cornerback Tre’Davious White when he returns to the field this season.
Elam rotated a couple of drives with fellow rookie Christian Benford before Jackson was forced to leave briefly with a stinger.
RB James Cook
Cook wasn’t much of a factor in this game after showing a spark against the Steelers last week. Devin Singletary was the hot hand, and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey decided to ride that hand, even with running back Zack Moss a healthy inactive. Cook had two carries for eight yards. With Moss a potential healthy scratch candidate until further notice, Cook should, theoretically, get more work on offense in the future.
LB Terrel Bernard
Bernard was a big-time factor on special teams coverage. McDermott and Frazier decided to deploy the athletic, physical Siran Neal at cornerback on many snaps in Dime packages to guard tight end Travis Kelce. Bernard wasn’t given that opportunity, but he did take advantage where there was opportunity. He had four special teams tackles on just 13 snaps. Bernard will remain active as long as he’s making plays in the third phase of the game. It is, however, disappointing that he continues to be passed over by other players in crucial situations.
WR Khalil Shakir
There may be more opportunity coming in the future for Shakir, and that wasn’t necessarily due to Shakir’s play on Sunday. Starting slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie coughed up a couple of opportunities that could have easily cost the team a win. He’s had a couple of drops this season. McKenzie brings explosiveness, but it’s hard to trust him as a reliable asset in the passing game. Shakir brings stability to the table as a possession receiver, and he fields punts at a high level. Fullback Reggie Gilliam’s presence in this game likely limited Shakir’s offensive reps (15 snaps), but he had one catch for 14 yards on a hot route orchestrated off Allen’s pre-snap read of a slot corner blitz from cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Shakir makes the most of nearly all of his opportunities, which bodes well for his future with the team.
CB Christian Benford
Benford was active for the first time in a few weeks after suffering a fractured hand against the Miami Dolphins. He played 26 snaps on Sunday, and seemed to play well while hardly being targeted. Benford collected a tackle and seemed to play sound in his rotational action with Elam, and while filling in for Jackson when he was injured. It’s going to be very difficult for McDermott to decide who starts when White returns. In reality, Benford and Elam are playing at (or even outplaying) Jackson’s level right now.
LB Baylon Spector
Spector was inactive for the first time in multiple weeks this past Sunday. He played well in clean-up duty against Pittsburgh last week, but he’s not going to factor into this year’s version of the Bills. Interestingly, linebacker Andre Smith came off the suspended list with a six-game absence and was subsequently released—which is a nod to Spector’s play throughout training camp and the preseason. Spector has outperformed where he was selected early on in his rookie season.