Breaking Down EJ Manuel's First Performance for the Buffalo Bills
On the field, though, it was a different story.
Those who watched the game saw a quarterback who dinked and dunked his way to a 16-of-21 passing day, throwing for 107 yards (5.1 YPA) and a touchdown, and who did not find his stride until facing the Colts' second-team defense.
A rookie quarterback generally isn't expected to be able to throw the entire route tree (unless his name is Andrew Luck), but Manuel didn't even throw half of it.
Most of his throws were on slant routes, curl routes and dump-offs. None of his passes traveled more than 17 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Here's a diagram of the routes he threw:
Routes in red, Manuel threw twice.
Almost all of Manuel's pass attempts were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. In fact, the only two that weren't were his first and last throws of the game. He threw two screens, two checkdowns to backs, three slants, five different versions of five-yard out- and in-routes, and two curls.
Part of the fault for that rests on the coaching staff, for not calling enough plays to test Manuel's arm.
Head coach Doug Marrone admitted that much after the game:
Asked Doug Marrone about lack of downfield passing. Said he got on sideline phones to tell Hackett he expected more, too.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) August 11, 2013
That being said, the fact remains that we did not see an expansive repertoire of throws from the first quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL draft.
The first completion he threw that gained yards was on a nine-yard curl to wide receiver T.J. Graham (top of the screen).
This is simple for EJ: Because it's a throw he can make in rhythm, he doesn't have to think about it. It's his first read, and he's simply waiting for the right number of steps before unleashing.
Steve Tasker said something interesting on the broadcast.
This is another aspect of this offense—not only do they go no-huddle, this is kind of a timing route. If the ball comes out on time, it's in the air before Graham even turns around, and it's tough to defend those if they're on target.
Manuel had thrown the ball before Graham had even turned around to get it, but safety Delano Howell read the play and began breaking on the pass.
He nearly broke it up, but the throw is a good show of timing and arm strength from Manuel to get it in there before the defender could break it up. Still, there's danger in throwing too many of the same routes and one-read throws when it becomes easier for defenders to break on the ball and make plays.
He and the Bills offense were able to string together a solid drive and marched down the field 93 yards for a touchdown to close the first half.
That part of his performance came against the Colts' second- and third-team defenses, but it was still a good sign that Manuel is getting in tune with his receivers on these timing routes. He went 9-of-9 for 69 yards on the scoring drive, including a 17-yard seam route to tight end Dorin Dickerson that scored the touchdown.
Colleague Matt Bowen did a better job explaining this whole play better than I could and points out the depth of the safety (circled in red) relative to the end zone. That slight mistake opened up the window just enough for Manuel to complete the pass.
What I particularly love from Manuel is the confidence. He saw the middle of the field wide open and didn't hesitate to pull the trigger. He finished his drop and put that arm strength to the test.
Of course, EJ's performance wasn't all about his arm. He showed off his legs a bit, as well.
His 24-yard run helped revitalize the Bills offense, which had begun to peeter out (surprise surprise) after taking the ball out of running back C.J. Spiller's hands.
The Colts defense was in man coverage, and while that strategy will tighten up the windows into which Manuel can complete his passes, it will also leave them prone to a scramble, with their backs to the quarterback.
With all of his receivers covered, Manuel took off, and no one could do anything about it until he had already gashed Indianapolis for a big gain.
He had another designed run of four yards that helped the Bills pick up a first down during their two-minute drill. It doesn't read like much on the stat sheet, but Manuel's athleticism goes a long way in giving the Bills more options in how to run their offense.
So, while we didn't see a great deal of variety from Manuel and he wasn't tested with all the tough NFL throws, he did show flashes of the quarterback the Bills drafted him to become.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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