The Buffalo Bills are at a bit of a crossroads in their 2023 season. Another loss would drop them to .500, which was not something we expected this late into the season. In fact, Buffalo hasn’t been .500 or worse eight games into a season since the 2018 season, which was quarterback Josh Allen’s rookie year.
After struggling with a pair of opponents with a combined record of 4-10, the Bills are set to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night. This is the second home game in primetime for Buffalo in 12 days — and hopefully for the Bills, it’s a less harrowing victory than their 14-9 “triumph” over the New York Giants on October 15.
If the Bills are going to beat the Buccaneers, they’ll need contributions from some obvious people (I’m looking at you, Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs). However, there are some other players on the roster who also need to start pulling their weight, or do so more consistently.
Here are our five players to watch this week — with a bonus positional group tacked on for good measure.
WR Gabe Davis
If this were the ‘80s, I’d say that we need to put Davis’ picture on a milk carton, since no one can seem to find him of late. Given that the number of us who understand that reference may be limited, though, I’ll still suggest that a missing persons report be filed on Gabe’s behalf. The alleged WR2 in Buffalo’s attack disappears far too often, struggling to create separation in big situations against tougher coverage schemes. Davis saw five targets on Sunday, and he caught one of them for a total of five yards. Some of that is Josh Allen either misfiring or otherwise not connecting with “Big Game Gabe,” I’ll grant that. However, too much of it is Davis’ limitations as a receiver. He runs a great “9” route, and he’s pretty sound in the deep-over game and the slot-wheel. Everything else is a lumbering adventure for the fourth-year man. Perhaps wide receiver Trent Sherfield should see an uptick in snaps outside, or the Bills could try out some “11” looks with receivers Deonte Harty outside and Khalil Shakir in the slot. Old friend Chris Trapasso noted that, in Harty’s best professional season, he did most of his damage lined up as an outside receiver, not a slot player. Something has to change on offense for Buffalo — and outside of Stefon Diggs, no pass-catcher should be considered untouchable.
TE Dalton Kincaid
Just. Give. Him. More. Snaps. I think I’ve seen enough of tight end Dawson Knox to know that, while he’s good for a few big plays a year, he leaves me wanting more when he can’t make big catches consistently in big spots. Kincaid has caught 25 of the 27 passes thrown his way. Much of that work has been done in the short area of the field, which isn’t even his biggest strength. Kincaid has monster potential in the intermediate-middle of the field, and when you look at Josh Allen’s passing charts, it’s a barren wasteland in that spot. Use Kincaid to his fullest potential, please and thank you. He had a great day against the New England Patriots, catching all eight of his targets for a team-high 75 yards. With Knox out for the foreseeable future thanks to wrist surgery, the time to unleash Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft is now. The man is dangerous. Kincaid can be the legitimate No. 2 wideout the Bills need if only the team treats him like it.
G O’Cyrus Torrence
Through the season’s first quarter, Torrence drew rave reviews, and deservedly so. The big fella looked like a linchpin of the line, a major hit in the 2023 NFL Draft for general manager Brandon Beane. In the three games since, he was bad against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, so-so against the New York Giants at home, and dreadful on the road against the New England Patriots. He’s seen a great run of defensive tackles so far, and that isn’t going to stop this week with Vita Vea looming on the other side (though notably, he’s on the Bucs’ injury report). Torrence was drafted to add some nasty to the front-five, and he has helped the unit to be one of the league’s best for much of the season. Against the Patriots on Sunday, the line was a liability, and most of the issues came right up the middle. Torrence needs to be great on Thursday, or a player like Vea can single-handedly ruin the Bills’ game plan.
DT Poona Ford
The issue with Ford is really something that’s not fair to him — he isn’t DaQuan Jones. Whereas Ford is a stout run defender and essentially a non-existent pass rusher, Jones was dominating in both facets this season. Part of the reason that Buffalo was able to hold the Patriots to around 3.5 yards per rush out of the running backs was that Ford ate space in the middle. Part of the reason that the Bills were unable to collapse the pocket at all on quarterback Mac Jones was that Ford was on the field for around half of the defensive snaps. It’ll be interesting to see if defensive tackle Ed Oliver can go this week, because I could see a Ford/Oliver combo doing fairly well. However, the Phillips/Ford duo didn’t do much in the face of New England’s quick passing game. Ford managed four tackles on 27 defensive snaps, which was more than any other Buffalo defensive lineman had in the game. I’ll be interested to see what direction his snap count goes this week.
LB Tyrel Dodson
I’m watching Dodson for one main reason: I want to see that he isn’t on the field when the defense is playing, and that rookie Dorian Williams is. That’s it. That’s the only reason. Head coach Sean McDermott noted that the team made a change at linebacker in the fourth quarter because “[they] were giving up some plays at that position.” After inserting Dodson, did the play improve? I’d argue that it worsened, frankly, as the Patriots marched for two fourth-quarter touchdown drives — one covering 66 yards on nine plays and the other covering 75 yards on eight plays — where Dodson was picked on mercilessly in coverage. We know what Dodson is. He’s a good special teams player with run-stopping ability who can’t cover anyone of note in the passing game on defense. We don’t yet know what Williams is, but we do know this: The only way he’s going to improve is through playing. Dodson isn’t the answer, and Williams may not be, but the rookie also might be. He needs to play. Enough with this flip-flop stuff. Keep Dodson with the special teams where he belongs this week.
BONUS: The Entire Secondary
Buffalo’s five back-end defenders (six if you count Taylor Rapp, who sees some work as a slot player-slash-linebacker-slash-safety) are going to have their hands full this week. Baker Mayfield is a much better quarterback than either Mac Jones or Tyrod Taylor, and the wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin is better than anything those other teams trot out, as well. In the last two weeks, the Bills have allowed 49-of-66 passes to be completed (74%) for a total of 472 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Again, that’s against Tyrod Taylor and Mac Jones. Add in Trevor Lawrence from the Bills’ 25-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and those numbers become 74-of-103 (72%) for 787 and three touchdowns without an interception. On the plus side, the Bills aren’t allowing a ton of passing touchdowns. On the negative side, they’re allowing teams to complete nearly everything they throw. Mayfield enters play this week completing 65% of his passes. Buffalo needs to devise a better plan in the back end to deal with the quick throws and crossing routes that New England used to march up and down the field on Sunday.