The Buffalo Bills host the Denver Broncos this week on Monday Night Football, the first time these teams meet in primetime since December of 2005, when the Broncos came to Orchard Park, NY and beat the Bills 28-17 on a Saturday night. Then-quarterback Kelly Holcomb threw a touchdown pass to running back Joe Burns in that one — if you don’t know who Joe Burns is, that makes two of us — and quarterback Jake Plummer hit wide receiver Rod Smith and tight end Wesley Dukes for his two scores. Running back Willis McGahee added a rushing touchdown for Buffalo, and running back Mike Anderson had two for Denver.
Clearly, a lot has changed in the nearly 20 years since these teams shared the primtime stage, as the Bills are in the midst of a run of success, but the Broncos are languishing near the bottom of the AFC. That feels odd to say at the moment, as well, since Buffalo is 2-3 over its last five games this year and the Broncos are 3-2 over their last five. While Denver is looking to overcome a ghastly start to the season, the Bills are looking to reverse their fortunes and play more like they were in September.
The Bills need some big performances from their key guys this week. I’m skipping quarterback Josh Allen for a couple of reasons — first, it’s obvious that he needs to play well. And second, there are some other guys who need to step up, or keep doing so, in order for the offense to be successful.
Here are our five Buffalo Bills players to watch this week.
RB James Cook
This isn’t to say that Buffalo needs to commit to the running game even when it’s obvious that it isn’t working; however, the team cannot let its top running back disappear from the game plan when the sledding is tough. It would be nice to see a few more run concepts in the offense, as it does appear that Buffalo’s running game is a little predictable. Using motion and misdirection to confuse opposing defenses could give a speedy runner like Cook the step he needs to turn a two-yard gain into a 12-yard jaunt. Making sure that Cook, who is a tremendous athlete in space, has the chance to pick up chunk plays should be a weekly part of the plan. If Allen can use Cook more as a check down, too, it will help both to sustain drives and also open things up for receivers in the intermediate levels. If players sitting in zones have to focus their attention on Cook in the short field, they may be more apt to step up and give Allen space to hit his wideouts and tight ends deeper down the field. Cook is still averaging 5.5 yards per touch on the year, and he’s caught nearly 85% of the passes thrown his way. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey must find ways to ensure that his best play makers have the ball in their hands, and Cook is undoubtedly one of Buffalo’s top play makers.
TE Dalton Kincaid
I saw something on social media posing a question about Buffalo’s WR2 situation. The question asked if Bills fans would be upset with a second-fiddle whose numbers were exactly that of Tee Higgins in 2023. The post noted that the stats shown were not those of Buffalo’s WR2, Gabe Davis. However, I think the premise there is flawed. Buffalo’s actual WR2 is and should be Kincaid, similar to how the Kansas City Chiefs operated through wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. One could argue now that Kansas City’s WR1 is Kelce, and Kincaid has shown that, regardless of the position he’s listed as playing, the function he serves is that of a receiver just like Kelce. Over Buffalo’s last three games, Kincaid has been targeted 26 times. He has 23 catches for 241 yards and a touchdown. In that same span, Stefon Diggs has 29 targets. He’s made 21 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns. This is the one-two punch through which Buffalo’s passing offense needs to run. Wide receivers Gabe Davis and Khalil Shakir are the ancillary pieces in this passing attack, with James Cook the guy thrown in for good measure. Especially as teams give Buffalo some deep two-high looks to limit big plays downfield, using a player like Kincaid, who is nearly automatic in the short-to-intermediate range, to move downfield is essential to the offense’s success.
DE Greg Rousseau
It’s been a tale of two seasons for Groot, who was a force in the first month of the season, but after he suffered a foot injury that caused him to miss Buffalo’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, he’s been a non-factor for weeks now. Before missing that game, Rousseau had three sacks, four tackles for loss, nine total tackles, and four quarterback hits in four games. Since then, Rousseau has not registered a sack, and while he has five quarterback hits and nine tackles in his last four games, he has two tackles for loss, both of which came against the New York Giants. Rousseau hasn’t been consistent throughout his career, and injury is part of that, but if he’s going to suit up and play, he needs to be able to impact the game at a high level. Buffalo currently has two edge rushers — Rousseau and Von Miller — who are taking plenty of snaps and don’t look anywhere near full health. With edge rusher Leonard Floyd missing a practice this week due to illness, Buffalo’s depth along the edge looks like it may be tested this week. A big game from Groot would be tremendously helpful.
[Insert Linebacker Here]
Who the heck is going to play linebacker this week? Terrel Bernard is in concussion protocol, and if he can’t go, a nightmare pairing of Tyrel Dodson and Dorian Williams seems likely. Will head coach/defensive play caller Sean McDermott give us the return on defense of A.J. Klein, who missed last week’s game with a back injury? If Bernard can’t clear protocol, I assume that Dodson would wear the green dot on defense, but he’s proven to be a weak link more often than not when he plays significant snaps. On running back Joe Mixon’s touchdown run last week, Dodson was so slow to diagnose the run play that Mixon shot through a wide-open gap that newly signed defensive tackle Linval Joseph had opened for Dodson to make the stop. As for Williams, the coaching staff has jerked him around this year so much that it’s hard to tell exactly where he stands in his young career. In the ideal world, Bernard will be ready to roll this week, but little has gone ideally for the Bills and their defense this year. I’m prepared for a M.A.S.H. unit at linebacker Monday night, and that unit’s performance is going to be a key factor in the outcome.
S Taylor Rapp
With Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer both dealing with injury this week, it’s possible that Rapp will see an increase in snaps as an actual safety this week rather than as a dime back. After he whiffed badly on a tackle of tight end Drew Sample that led to a touchdown last week, his performance is going to be scrutinized this week. Rapp has played in at least one-third of the defensive snaps over the last two weeks, making four tackles in the process. He’s started one game this year, Buffalo’s 48-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins, a game in which he made six tackles while playing every snap on defense. Rapp is a capable backup who can play well in spurts, and he will likely be called upon for a larger role this week. This may also mean the return of safety Damar Hamlin to the active roster on game days, as well as his return on defense if Buffalo keeps running their dime looks on third downs.