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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

WFT vs. Bills preview: 5 key players to watch in Week 3

Written by John Sparaco

A decisive 35-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 has reignited excitement in Buffalo, allowing Bills fans to move past an underwhelming performance in Week 1.

Some themes from Buffalo’s first loss reappeared in Week 2, such as Josh Allen’s struggles to get in sync with his receivers. However, it was the balanced rushing attack and a ferocious defensive effort that allowed that storyline to fade into the background.

Devin Singletary rushed for 82 yards and one touchdown, once again averaging over six yards per carry on 13 attempts, including a 46-yard touchdown run on his first attempt of the game. Perhaps even more notably, Zack Moss, who was left inactive in Week 1 despite being healthy, reached the end zone twice in his season debut.

So far through two weeks of action, the Bills defense has flourished. While both the secondary and linebacker play has been stellar, arguably the biggest contributor to Buffalo’s success has been their newly improved pass rush.

The Bills’ defensive line has thrived in large part due to the accelerated development of homegrown talents such as Greg Rousseau, AJ Epenesa, and Ed Oliver. However, they have also benefited from veteran “glue guys” like Jerry Hughes, Star Lotulelei, Mario Addison, and Justin Zimmer who each excel in their individual roles.

Rousseau picked up his first two career sacks on Sunday. Epenesa recorded a career-high nine pressures and two quarterback hits, including one that knocked Tua Tagovailoa out of the game in the first quarter. Buffalo dialed up consistent pressure from everywhere on the field, allowing them to shut down Miami’s offense all game long.

Moving on to Week 3, the Buffalo Bills (1-1) return home to Orchard Park for a meeting with the Washington Football Team (1-1). Washington most recently narrowly defeated the New York Giants on Thursday Night Football by a score of 30-29, collecting their first win on a last-second field goal attempt.

Washington is led by head coach Ron Rivera, who Bills head coach Sean McDermott once served under as his defensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers from 2011-2016. They are without their starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who suffered a hip subluxation in Week 1, landing him on injured reserve. In the meantime, backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke has been handed the reigns.

Players to watch:

Taylor Heinicke

Heinicke has overcome a long journey to get to this point. Undrafted out of college in 2015, Heinicke spent the first three seasons of his career as the Vikings’ third-string quarterback before bouncing from the Patriots’ practice squad to the Texans to the Panthers, making a brief stint with the XFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks before ultimately landing with the Washington Football Team last season.

Heinicke has just three NFL starts under his belt, but do not be fooled by his resume; he is more than capable of leading an NFL offense.

“Don’t underestimate him,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday. “He’s a good quarterback.”

Heinicke first began turning heads when he started the team’s NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after Alex Smith was ruled out with an injury. Though Washington fell short, Heinicke pushed Tom Brady and the eventual Super Bowl champions to the brink, passing for 306 yards in a 31-23 defeat.

Heinicke continued to impress last week, earning his first career victory as a starter. Washington put all their faith in their previously second-string quarterback, allowing him to attempt 46 passes, 34 of which were completed for 336 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.

Though Heinicke is not considered a running quarterback, he does possess above-average mobility for his position. He is not afraid to throw into tight windows or challenge top corners, proving that by going after Giants’ Pro Bowler, James Bradberry. Most of the time, Heinicke was successful, connecting with his top wideout, Terry McLaurin, 11 times for 107 yards and a touchdown. However, that overconfidence almost cost him towards the end, as he threw a late interception to Bradberry trying to force a pass into a tight window, allowing the Giants to set up in their red zone.

Buffalo’s defense has been extraordinary through two games, and they will most definitely not complain about missing out on playing against Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has given them fits (no pun intended) in the past. Despite this, Heinicke is certainly no pushover.

Tre’Davious White

Heinicke’s aggressiveness with the football may very well be good news for Bills’ star cornerback, Tre’Davious White, who is still looking for his first interception of the season.

Most opposing quarterbacks tend to stay away from White’s side of the field, which has reduced his number of opportunities to create turnovers since his breakout season in 2019 when he picked off a career-high of six passes. Being that he figures to see a majority of snaps directly across Washington’s young star receiver, Terry McLaurin, White could be challenged quite a bit this Sunday.

The two met once previously in their careers back in Week 9 of the 2019 season. In that game, White held a then-rookie Terry McLaurin to just four catches for 39 yards on six targets. It is important to note that although White typically stays on one side of the field, he did in fact shadow McLaurin for the entire game, traveling wherever the star receiver lined up that day.

According to Washington Football’s official team website, McLaurin was recently asked prior to Week 1 who the toughest cornerbacks he has faced in his career are. His answers? Darius Slay of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jaire Alexander of the Green Bay Packers, and Tre’Davious White of the Buffalo Bills.

There is clear mutual respect from both teams, but Heinicke’s playstyle could yield multiple tough battles between two of the best young talents in the game.

Chase Young

A nightmare for offensive lineman everywhere, 2020 second-overall pick and defensive rookie of the year, Chase Young, presents quite the obstacle for Buffalo’s offense. 

As a rookie, Young recorded 7.5 sacks, 44 tackles (10 TFL), and four forced fumbles, recovering three, one of which was returned all the way from midfield for a touchdown.

The 6-foot-5 pass rusher possesses remarkable speed for his position, recently shown when he ran stride for stride with Giants running back Saquon Barkley, despite being over 30 pounds heavier than him. Young chased him 41 yards downfield before ultimately forcing him out of bounds.

Young has been quiet from a statistical standpoint so far this season, but that trend is not expected to continue for long, especially considering Buffalo’s struggles with pass protection to this point,

Young slides around the field defensively, lining up as an edge rusher on both the left and right sides of the line. This means that both starting left tackle Dion Dawkins and right tackle Daryl Williams will each see their fair share of reps against the star pass rusher.

Jonathan Feliciano

The Bills’ interior offensive line has been under scrutiny for their performance in the first two weeks of the season. Among those being criticized is starting left guard Jon Feliciano, who signed a three-year extension with the team this offseason.

Offensive line play is often believed to improve as the season progresses, as lines typically take time to gel as a unit. However, Feliciano and the rest of the line will continue to be under the microscope until the pocket stops collapsing as frequently as it has been.

In addition to Chase Young, the rest of Washington’s defensive line is proven to be one of the best in the league. Feliciano specifically draws a tough matchup against the menacing defensive tackle, Jonathan Allen.

Allen has been terrorizing opposing offenses this season, getting off to a hot start with three sacks already on the season. Three of Allen’s six tackles on Thursday Night Football occurred in the Giants’ backfield, contributing heavily towards opposing running backs’ struggles to find open lanes against Washington.

Feliciano has his work cut out for him on Sunday, but a strong performance could re-instill confidence in Buffalo’s left guard. On the other hand, a noticeable struggle against a tough opponent could easily cause Feliciano to be singled out by the coaching staff.

AJ Epenesa

It may not show on the stat sheet, but AJ Epenesa burst onto the scene as Buffalo’s most effective pass rusher against Miami. 

Epenesa was relentless on Sunday, creating nine quarterback pressures in Miami’s backfield. For comparison, Epenesa only pressured the quarterback seven times total in 291 snaps last season, signaling a noticeable jump from year one to year two.

The only thing missing from Epenesa’s performance was the sack numbers. Epenesa was unable to finish on a few occasions, failing to bring down the quarterback before they got the ball off. 

Given how frequently Epenesa came close to bringing down the quarterback, it is only a matter of time before those pressures begin translating into sacks, making him one to keep a particularly close eye on this weekend.

The Bills will be wearing the same uniform combo from last week, blue on white, this time being a more traditional look at home. Expect Buffalo to implement a heavy dose of RPO’s and read options early on to get Josh Allen and the offense going, especially since Giants quarterback Daniel Jones ate Washington’s defense alive with that same game plan on Thursday Night, rushing for 95 yards and one touchdown on nine attempts. If the offense starts to click along with their defense, Buffalo will be very tough to beat.

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