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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Texans vs. Bills preview: 5 key players to watch in Week 4

Written by John Sparaco

“I’m back” – Michael Jordan – Josh Allen

Okay, perhaps Josh Allen did not actually say that, at least not publicly. However, it certainly felt like he did with the statement performance he had last Sunday.

Allen and the Buffalo Bills’ offense eased any concern of regression from last season, scoring 43 points against the Washington Football Team in Week 3.

Allen looked like the quarterback Bills fans became accustomed to watching last season, passing for 358 yards and four touchdowns, rushing for one more en route to a 43-21 victory against Washington. This performance earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the seventh time in his career, trailing only Jim Kelly (10) for the most in team history.

Buffalo’s pass protection was much improved this week, preventing Allen from getting sacked against a very stout Washington defensive line, which paid dividends towards the success of the entire offense.

Now sitting in sole possession of first place in the AFC East, the Bills (2-1) are set to take on the Houston Texans (1-2), a rematch of the 2019 Wild Card playoff game.

Both teams have changed drastically since the last time they met. Josh Allen, now an MVP candidate leading a Super Bowl contending Bills team, will meet a Texans team without DeAndre Hopkins, JJ Watt, head coach Bill O’Brien, or Deshaun Watson, who is technically still on the roster, but remains out while he is under investigation for multiple sexual assault allegations.

Former Bills starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, was initially expected to make his return to Buffalo as the starter for the Texans this weekend, but a hamstring injury in Week 2 has forced Houston to turn to 2021 third-round draft selection, Davis Mills, who is making his second career start.

Players to watch: 

Stefon Diggs

Stefon Diggs has had a relatively quiet first few weeks statistically, but the Bills’ star receiver does not appear to be worried.

“When it’s my time to shine, I’m going to shine, but I’m in no rush,” Diggs said this week. “I’ll have plenty of plays. I’ll have my plays. I’ll have my success,” he assured.

Though Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley have had more opportunities to make plays in their first three games, this matchup against the Texans feels like a golden opportunity for Diggs to experience a breakout performance.

Houston ranks 23rd in opponent yards per game, yielding an average of 385.7 yards per game. For comparison, Buffalo’s defense has allowed an average of 252.7 yards per game.

Last week against the Carolina Panthers, Houston allowed top receiver, D.J. Moore, to record eight receptions for 126 yards, his highest totals of the season thus far. 

Diggs will likely line up against both Vernon Hargraves III and Terrance Mitchell on Sunday, offering him an ideal matchup to win at the line of scrimmage often. Now that his quarterback appears to have settled in and regained his confidence, it is only a matter of time before that connection takes off again.

Brandin Cooks

Houston’s passing offense ranks towards the bottom half of the league statistically, but top receiver Brandin Cooks has been a notable exception for them.

Through three games, Cooks has 23 receptions for 322 yards, both of which are good for third in the entire NFL. Cooks has consistently been one of the league’s most underrated wideouts for the past eight seasons, but despite playing with Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Jared Goff, and Deshaun Watson, he continues to prove he can put up numbers no matter who his quarterback is.

Cooks torched Jacksonville’s defense for 132 yards with Tyrod Taylor at the helm in Week 1, but since Taylor went down with a hamstring injury, Cooks’ production has not stopped. Davis Mills passed for 168 yards in his first career start, 112 of which went to Cooks as the duo connected nine times on 11 targets.

It is clear that the Texans like to lean on Cooks offensively as much as they can. He has the ability to create separation at all three levels, making him a threat in the short game, intermediate game, and deep passing game.

Justin Zimmer

Every week, Justin Zimmer manages to be one of the most jaw-dropping players to watch on the field.

He may not be a starter, however, there are areas of Zimmer’s game that are seen by very few players at his position. Despite his 300 pound frame, Zimmer can still catch up to some of the NFL’s speediest talents.

Superstar Chiefs receiver, Tyreek Hill, known as one of the fastest if not the fastest player in the NFL, was among the first to acknowledge Zimmer’s speed following the AFC Championship Game last season.

“I thought that number 61 was actually about to clean my clock,” Hill said. “That dude was actually rolling…for him to do that, for a big guy to run all the way down the field, it’s great,” he added.

Zimmer’s motor never stops when he is on the field. Whether he is in pursuit of the quarterback, running back, or even a wide receiver out in open space, Zimmer finds a way to impact the game. Pay close attention to Zimmer whenever he is on the field Sunday.

Andre Roberts

The former Bills return specialist returns to Buffalo this Sunday after spending both the 2019 and 2020 seasons with the franchise.

Roberts made the Pro Bowl in each of his two seasons with Buffalo, averaging a career-high of 30 yards per kick return last year.

Buffalo made the difficult decision to let Roberts walk in free agency this offseason, yet so far, Roberts has not given the Bills front office much reason to regret that decision.

Roberts has had a slow start to begin the season, fumbling twice in the past two weeks while averaging 22.6 yards on kick returns and 2.6 yards on punt returns through three games. 

Despite his recent struggles, Roberts will almost certainly carry an extra chip on his shoulder against his former team this Sunday as he looks to finally score that elusive return touchdown that he was unable to get during his time in Buffalo. The last time he faced the Bills back in 2018, Roberts arguably single-handedly defeated them as a member of the Jets, averaging over 35 yards per return that day.

Zack Moss

The Bills are very much a pass-first offense, but there was a discernable shift in the run game last week that is worth monitoring.

After sitting out Week 1 as a healthy inactive, Zack Moss leapfrogged Devin Singletary as the Bills’ leading rusher in Week 3. Moss received 44 snaps last Sunday as opposed to Singletary’s 34.

Whether this change was specific to last week’s game plan or is permanent moving forward remains to be seen, however, it is important to note that Buffalo had easily their best offensive output of this season with this change in place.

Singletary began the season with two strong performances right out of the gates, averaging over six yards per carry against Pittsburgh and Miami. However, he was unable to get anything going against Washington’s front four, totaling just 26 yards on 11 carries last week.

Moss, on the other hand, has caught fire since being inserted back into the lineup. He rushed for 60 yards on 13 attempts last week, additionally catching three passes for 31 yards and a touchdown, his third score total in two games played.

Moss has been difficult to bring down, displaying a level of physicality and violent running style that makes him very tough to play against. He also excels as a pass blocker, making him an ideal fit to keep gaining snaps in Buffalo’s pass-heavy offense. 

The Bills opened as 17 point favorites at home this Sunday, yet the team has made it abundantly clear that they are not overlooking the Texans.

“If you don’t [take opponents seriously], you get your ass kicked,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said this week.

Buffalo will wear their blue on white uniform combination for the third consecutive week, hoping to attain the same dominant results from when they wore them in Week 2 and Week 3.

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