The Buffalo Bills host the Pittsburgh Steelers this week on Super Wild Card Weekend. This is the fourth-consecutive season that the Bills will have hosted a game during this week, and the third time that they’ve been the AFC’s No. 2 seed since the playoffs expanded to seven teams per conference.
Of course, by the previous format where only six teams each made the playoffs, that means that the Bills would have had a bye week in three of the last four postseason tournaments, including this one. Thanks to some unfortunate injuries that occurred last weekend against the Miami Dolphins, the Bills could absolutely use a week off to regain their health.
Alas, that week off is long gone, and the Bills will play this week — potentially without quite a few starting players. Add in the possibility of some wild weather thanks to the predicted lake-effect snow and this Sunday’s game is sure to put the “wild” in Super Wild Card Weekend.
Thanks to the Bills’ health situation and the weather, it was difficult to pin down exactly who our players to watch are this week. Our list is a nod to what should be a run-heavy game script.
Here are our five Bills to watch this week.
QB Josh Allen
Full disclosure: I was going to leave Allen off this list and talk about wideout Trent Sherfield instead. With wide receiver Gabe Davis set to miss this one thanks to a knee injury, it’s likely that Sherfield will start the game in Davis’ place. However, with the wind and snow expected this week, I’m going right back to Allen for multiple reasons.
It’s imperative that Allen takes cares of the football. Forcing throws into tight coverage with a swirling, heavy wind could lead to disaster, especially against a secondary with as much talent as Pittsburgh’s has.
Realistically, though, Allen is going to be used like another running back this week if the weather proves to be as miserable as the forecast suggests. I expect to see some “student body left”-style play calls this week, as interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady may use more of fullback Reggie Gilliam to serve as an extra blocker for Allen on designed quarterback runs.
Allen ran 15 times last week, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him approach that total once again if the weather is a factor. If Allen can use his legs to keep the chains moving, protect the football (and himself) when he’s running, and complete some timely passes through the Western New York wind, then the Bills will be in fine shape. If Allen loses his patience in the passing game or doesn’t run with two hands on the ball, he’ll make things much more difficult for his teammates.
RB Leonard Fournette
This is a risky call given that Fournette hasn’t officially been called up from the practice squad at the time I’m writing this, but I fully expect that he will be active again after slotting in as RB2 last weekend. With a snowy forecast, the Bills will need a “hammer” at running back, and Fournette can still provide that juice. If the team decides that Latavius Murray gives them a better chance in this role, that may also work, but “Playoff Lenny” is ready to activate. Fournette is a solid receiver out of the backfield, as well, which gives Buffalo options in the short passing game. Last week, I thought that Brady telegraphed Fournette’s runs a bit too much based on personnel groupings. This week, I’d like to see them try something different, whether it’s utilizing some of the pin-and-pull game that Buffalo’s linemen execute so well or giving Fournette some chances off-tackle, diversifying his run calls could lead to greater success.
RB James Cook
Yep. Two running backs here. The Bills will need to run the ball. Cook is their most dynamic runner. At the end of last week’s game, though, it was Fournette in the game trying to salt it away, which tells me that head coach Sean McDermott doesn’t quite trust his second-year back to hold the football in critical situations.
Cook has the kind of speed that could be deadly in a game like this. The offense has a clear advantage in snowy games for one reason: They know where they’re going. The defense has to react. If the offensive line can open some holes, Cook can put the Steelers’ defenders on ice skates — not quite literally, but almost — and pick up some big chunks.
That’s not an easy task against this team, though, as Pittsburgh allowed the fourth-fewest rushing first downs (95) on the season. They did allow 4.3 yards per rush, though, and if Buffalo can divvy 35 carries between their running backs at that figure, they’ll be fine this week.
LB Baylon Spector
After Tyrel Dodson went out with a shoulder injury last week, it wasn’t rookie Dorian Williams who replaced him. Instead, it was Spector, the second-year man with only 18 defensive snaps for his whole career entering play. Only six of those defensive snaps prior to Sunday came this season, with the other 12 coincidentally coming at the end of Buffalo’s 38-3 victory over the Steelers in 2022.
Spector played 19 defensive snaps last week, and he acquitted himself well, making four tackles on what was a solid night for the seventh-round choice out of Clemson. Even with the Bills signing veteran linebacker A.J. Klein to the practice squad, I assume that the team will start Spector in place of Dodson if No. 25 can’t go, elevating Klein to fill Spector’s role on special teams.
It’s a big chance for a young player to show his worth, and in a game that should feature a run-heavy game plan from Pittsburgh, it should be one Spector can handle. I expect some play-action and looks over the middle to tight end Pat Freiermuth to test Spector’s eye discipline — and if he can hang, then the Bills will be alright.
CB Dane Jackson
Just like I don’t expect Dodson to play this week, I’m assuming that Buffalo will be without super trade acquisition Rasul Douglas, who injured his knee in last week’s victory. In the six games following Douglas’ acquisition by Buffalo, Jackson played in five of them, appearing on just 24 defensive snaps in those games.
Pressed into action against a prolific passing offense in the Miami Dolphins, Jackson managed three tackles and a pass breakup in the win. He was also flagged for two penalties, which could be problematic if the Steelers decide to take a shot to try and draw a penalty this weekend. If Jackson is matched up against George Pickens, that’s a definite disadvantage for the Bills. He is a better size matchup for Diontae Johnson, even if Johnson is quicker than Jackson is.
I don’t anticipate too much noise from the Steelers’ passing game, but Rudolph has shown a propensity for big plays in his three starts. Preventing those will be paramount to success for the Bills, so Jackson needs to be on this week if he’s asked to handle most of the defensive work once again. We may also see a little Kaiir Elam this weekend for the first time since he came off of Injured Reserve, but I expect Jackson to start in place of Douglas if the latter can’t play.