The defending NFC champs have been decimated by injuries this year
The Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers face off on Monday Night Football this week. It’s the 13th meeting between the two clubs, and the third time they’ve met in primetime. Buffalo has lost both previous primetime games—a 27-17 heartbreaker in 1995 that turned on a Darrick Holmes goal-line fumble returned by Lee Woodall for a touchdown, and a 35-0 drubbing in 2001 when the 1-9 Bills were overmatched by the 8-2 49ers.
This time, it’s Buffalo with the superior record, as the 8-3 Bills look to make it three-for-four against the NFC West by beating the 5-6 49ers. San Francisco is clinging to their playoff hopes, and while they’ll almost certainly end up with a better record than whichever team wins the NFC East, they’re done no favors by playing in arguably the NFL’s best division.
In order for Buffalo to emerge from Arizona victorious against the 49ers, they’ll need to neutralize San Francisco’s top players. Here’s the five we’ll be watching this week.
QB Nick Mullens
The man who shattered Brett Favre’s school records at Southern Miss hasn’t exactly had the pro career that Favre had—but most people to play the position haven’t, so that’s no different than a former Bills quarterback (Alex Van Pelt) besting many college records of another NFL Hall of Fame quarterback (Dan Marino). Mullens has some quality traits, and he’s had some strong games in his young career. This season, he’s completing 67% of his passes, but he’s only thrown six touchdowns against seven interceptions. When pressured, Mullens makes questionable decisions, and he doesn’t quite have the arm talent to overcome late or rushed throws into tight windows. If the Bills can put some pressure on him, they will force some turnovers, which will force the 49ers into a negative game script early.
RB Raheem Mostert
The top athlete in a stable of strong running backs is Mostert, who exploded onto the scene in a big way last season towards the end of the regular season. He took off in the playoffs, though, rushing 53 times for 336 yards and three touchdowns during San Francisco’s Super Bowl run. A litany of injuries has kept him from consistently staying on the field, but he averages well over five yards per carry on his career. Combining his regular season and post season numbers from 2019, Mostert carried the ball 190 times for 1,108 and 13 touchdowns. This year, he has 67 carries for 346 yards and two touchdowns in only five games. The Bills will need to keep him contained in order to force Mullens to beat them with his arm.
WR Deebo Samuel
Another player who’s missed a ton of time due to injury, the 49ers’ top wideout came back with a bang last week. Against a tough Los Angeles Rams secondary, Samuel caught a career-high 11 passes for 133 yards. Samuel is a violent runner who does plenty of damage in space, and the 49ers will look to give him the ball in a variety of ways—screens, crossers, bombs, jet sweeps, the works—so Buffalo will need to be aware of his location at all times. Tre’Davious White vs. Samuel will be a fun matchup to watch all day.
DL Kerry Hyder
With Nick Bosa and Dee Ford out, it’s been Hyder who’s essentially come out of nowhere to post fantastic numbers. He had eight sacks with the Detroit Lions back in 2016 but, after missing all of the 2017 season with a torn Achilles tendon, he hasn’t been the same player. Hyder had just 23 tackles and two sacks over the course of the 2018 and 2019 seasons in a total of 23 games played. This season alone, Hyder already has 37 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, 17 quarterback hits, one fumble recovery, and 7.5 sacks in 11 games. He’s played mostly defensive end this year, but he’s similar to Buffalo’s Quinton Jefferson in that he can move all around the defensive line. It wouldn’t surprise me to see San Francisco try to pick on right guard Brian Winters by having Hyder attack him all day.
CB Richard Sherman
The wily veteran may not be the same player he was during his heyday with the Seattle Seahawks, but he’s still a darn good cover guy in his own right. Thanks to a calf strain suffered in Week 1, Sherman missed nine games, but he intercepted Jared Goff last week in his return to play and managed to appear on every single defensive snap. He’s healthy, and his instincts make him dangerous every time Josh Allen throws his way. It will be interesting to see how Sherman and Stefon Diggs match up, as the Bills could try to exploit the speed mismatch if San Francisco tries to let Sherman cover Diggs one-on-one. Sherman may also see some time on the more physical Gabriel Davis, but I imagine that he’ll spend more time chasing Diggs than he will the rookie.