The Buffalo Bills face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend in a game that looks lopsided on paper. The Bills enter the contest at 3-1 and coming off a come-from-behind victory over the Baltimore Ravens, winning 23-20 after trailing 20-3. The Steelers, on the other hand, are coming off a loss against the New York Jets in a game where they benched their starting quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, for a rookie in first-round draft choice Kenny Pickett.
Regardless of how the game looks on paper, there’s a reason why they play all of them in real life. Last year, the Bills were heavy favorites over the Steelers on opening weekend, yet Pittsburgh came out with a 23-16 victory. In that game, Buffalo’s passing attack was inefficient, but it was the rushing attack that kept them close late into the fourth quarter.
Our five players to watch this week are selected with that in mind. As much as I’d like to believe that the Bills can come out and throw it all over the yard, I have a feeling that this is a week where the run game comes up big. Here are our five Bills to watch this week against Pittsburgh.
RB Devin Singletary
Last year, Singletary carried the ball 11 times against the Steelers, rushing for 72 yards with a long of 25 yards. He fumbled twice, though he didn’t lose either one. With all the talk from head coach Sean McDermott this week about trying to find more success in the running game, I think that a few early handoffs for Singletary are in order. This season, the fourth-year man hasn’t been efficient with his rushes, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. However, his snap share has increased each of the last two weeks—as he played 73% of the offensive snaps in Week 3 and 88% of them in Week 4. He’s also been excellent as a receiver, catching 17 passes for 141 yards and a score thus far. This year, Pittsburgh has allowed opposing rushers to gain four yards per carry and a total of 532 yards in four games. Singletary could be in line for a big day, and if he can bust a few big gains early, the play-action passing attack will benefit as a result.
WR Khalil Shakir
The last time I spotlighted the rookie, he was a healthy scratch. This time, we expect that he’ll play given the injuries Buffalo has at the position. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder broke his ankle last week against Baltimore, so he’s out for the foreseeable future. Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie is working through concussion protocol. Wide receiver Jake Kumerow missed last week with an ankle injury. Wide receiver Gabe Davis has dealt with an ankle injury of his own all year. That leaves Shakir, who caught the first two passes of his NFL career last week, as a likely beneficiary in the form of additional snaps. He showed his agility and burst by turning a wide receiver screen into a 14-yard gain on his first catch, and then he showed great body control and awareness by hauling in a reception along the sidelines in toe-tapping fashion for his second grab. Shakir is going to be a big part of this offense in the future, but he is ready to contribute in the present, as well. He may end up WR3 by default.
G Ryan Bates
A huge part of the reason Buffalo struggled offensively last year against the Steelers was the play of Pittsburgh’s defensive line. linebackers Melvin Ingram and T.J. Watt, and defensive tackle Cam Heyward destroyed Buffalo up front. The good news is that neither Ingram nor Watt will play this week, as Ingram signed with the Miami Dolphins in the offseason and Watt is injured. Heyward, though, is still a problem, and it will be up to Buffalo’s interior linemen to protect quarterback Josh Allen. Neither Ryan Bates nor Rodger Saffold started for the Bills last year in Week 1, as Buffalo’s guards were Cody Ford and Jon Feliciano for that one. Neither of those players is with the team anymore. This will be yet another test for Buffalo’s interior linemen, and how well they perform will go a long way towards determining the game’s outcome. I’m guessing that Pittsburgh will line Heyward up across from Bates more often than Saffold, so I’m watching Rick extra closely this week.
CB Kaiir Elam
The rookie has been phenomenal over the last two weeks, allowing just two catches for ten yards last week against his main mark, wideout Demarcus Robinson. Elam will have a chance to make his first career interception against a fellow rookie, as quarterback Kenny Pickett makes his first career start in the unfriendly confines of Orchard Park. Elam might have “lost” the battle with fellow rookie cornerback Christian Benford for the right to start at the beginning of the year, but he hasn’t looked overmatched since stepping in for the injured Benford in the starting lineup. As good as he’s been in coverage, Elam has also been outstanding in run support. He has 15 tackles on the season, but he doesn’t have an interception. I think that changes this week.
S Damar Hamlin
With safety Jordan Poyer nursing some sore ribs, it’s possible that two reserve safeties are in the lineup again this week. It’s also possible that Hamlin is starting next to Poyer like he did against Baltimore. Hamlin was very good over the last two weeks in a role that most, myself included, expected to go to fellow backup safety Jaquan Johnson. Johnson was not good against the Miami Dolphins in Week 3, so Hamlin drew the start last week. He was excellent, making eight tackles in the victory. Hamlin isn’t the same caliber of player as safety Micah Hyde, but he has a similar ability to blitz and play the intermediate-middle of the field well. Whether he's teamed with Poyer or Johnson, Hamlin has proven that he belongs.