LAS VEGAS — It’s Week 4, and the Bills are in “Sin City” where they are getting set to take on the 2-1 Raiders, with Buffalo looking to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2008.
The Bills are coming off a thrilling win over the now 2-1 Los Angeles Rams, while the Raiders are coming off their first loss of the season, 36-20 to the New England Patriots.
With the Buffalo offense continuing its torrid pace, it’s now the Bills’ defense that has come under fire despite the team’s 3-0 start and will be under the microscope this afternoon. The Raiders can move the ball, especially when they utilize second-year running back Josh Jacobs, and should provide the Bills with another tough test this week.
Here are a few things to watch for during today’s game:
BILLS’ RUN DEFENSE
The Bills’ defense struggled mightily at times last week, particularly against the run. With Rams running back Darrell Henderson Jr. going for 20 carries, 114 rushing yards, and a touchdown in Week 3, Buffalo’s front was exposed and must get back on track with a strong performance against the Raiders.
However, that’s easier said than done, especially going up against one of the league’s top running backs in Jacobs, a 1,000-yard rusher from a season ago. Jacobs is a budding star, and if the Bills aren’t able to improve their play up front, they could be in for a long day against the Raiders’ offense.
Another concern for the Buffalo defense is the Raiders’ offensive line that, while banged up, is still a big, physical group that will present some of the challenges the Bills found difficult to overcome against the Rams.
While the Bills have avoided any significant injuries this season, one big loss they suffered during the preseason was defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who decided to opt-out of the ‘20 season due to concerns over COVID-19. Lotulelei, although not a player that jumps off the screen when you watch him play, did a lot of the dirty work for the Bills inside, as far as his ability to take on blockers, which allowed others to make plays.
The Bills need other guys to step in and fill the void, specifically DT Harrison Phillips, who is still making his way back from an ACL injury that cost him much of last season.
SECOND HALF DEFENSE
Buffalo has been very Jekyll and Hyde through its 3-0 start. Despite fantastic first-half performances in all three of their games, the Bills have allowed all three of their first three opponents to climb back into it during the second half, and make things interesting if not down right frightening down the stretch. The Bills allow the fewest first-half points in the NFL (5.3), while allowing the second-most second-half points in the NFL (20.3). They must get their act together against a good Raiders team that has proven its capability of coming back from a steep deficit to begin the game.
In the Raiders’ Week 2 matchup with the New Orleans Saints, the Raiders fell behind by double digits in the first half only to come storming back behind a three-touchdown performance from quarterback Derek Carr.
As we saw against the Rams last week, if the Bills are unable to muster up improved resistance during the second half this week, we could see a repeat of what happened against LA, or worse.
The Raiders’ slot receiver is in for a more prominent role this week with Vegas’ ‘20 first-round draft pick, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III listed as doubtful for today’s game with a hamstring injury. Renfrow is coming off his best performance of the season, receiving nine targets and catching six of them for 84 yards against the Patriots in Week 2. He could be in for a bigger day against a Bills’ defense that has struggled against opposing slot receivers this year.
In the Bills’ opening day win over the New York Jets, Jets’ slot receiver, Jamison Crowder finished with seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. In Week 2 in the Bills’ win over the Miami Dolphins, Dolphins’ slot receiver Isaiah Ford recorded seven catches for 76 yards, and in Week 3 in the win over the Rams, LA slot receiver Cooper Kupp led the team with nine catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.
A lot of that falls on Bills’ nickel cornerback Taron Johnson, who has not performed up to par to begin the year.
Renfrow could be in for another big day against a Bills’ defense that has been a paradise for opposing slot receivers so far this season.
It took until the fourth ‘thing’ on my list to get to what is the fastest-growing storyline in the NFL, and that is Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen and his explosive first three weeks of the season. To begin the year, Allen is on pace to throw for over 5,000 passing yards, over 50 passing touchdowns, run for over 400 yards, and score over 10 rushing touchdowns.
To say those stats will pan out over the course of 16 weeks is hyperbolic, but the numbers represent just how transcendent of a season Allen is having, not only for the Bills, but in regard to league history.
After demolishing the Rams’ defense in Week 3 to the tune of five total touchdowns, Allen will take on a young Raiders secondary looking for his third straight game with 300+ yard passing yards.
BILLS’ PASS CATCHERS
Before he exited last week’s game with a calf injury WR John Brown failed to record a catch, while number one receiver Stefon Diggs also struggled to get open at times and finished the game with four catches for 49 yard and a touchdown.
Brown has a clean bill of health going into this week’s game, and it would behoove the Bills to get both he and Diggs going in the early going this afternoon.
WR Cole Beasley was the unsung hero of last week’s win over LA, recording six catches for 100 yards. Beasley has proven to be a security blanket of sorts for both Allen and the Bills, and having him as your team’s third-best wide receiver is a big plus for the Bills.
Rookie WR Gabriel Davis broke out in Week 3, grabbing four catches for 81 yards. He won’t see a large share of targets unless one of Buffalo’s top-three targets go down. But Davis is showing he belongs as more than a team’s fourth option.
Last but not least, the performance of the Bills’ tight ends last week was incredible. Without starting TE Dawson Knox, who missed Week 3 with a concussion, backups Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith combined for three touchdown grabs and led the way for the Bills’ offense. This week, with Knox back from injury, this group becomes even more dangerous. Knox has struggled to begin the year, but if he can get his act together, the Bills’ tight end group can finally become a strength for this team, something they’ve been waiting for for decades.