Despite Impressive Debut, EJ Manuel Still Looking for Deep Ball Consistency
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One of these days, Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel is going to complete a pass of greater than 20 yards. Even without notching a single "chunk play" in the passing game, Manuel showed the world that he can, in fact, throw a deep pass against the Patriots in the team's season opener on Sunday.
It wasn't all beautiful rainbows (the football kind or the colorful kind) for Manuel on Sunday, though.
The first-year signal-caller showed flashes of the arm strength and vertical passing ability that Bills head coach Doug Marrone has long praised, but there were also the regular signs and symptoms of a rookie quarterback trying to figure out how much touch to put on his passes and when to just heave it with everything he has.
Any step, however, would have been the first step of 2013 for Manuel throwing it deep. To this point, he has not yet attempted a single pass traveling 20 yards or more through the air.
His passes had largely been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in the preseason, as illustrated above (routes in red were thrown more than once).
That continued on Sunday against the New England Patriots, but the Bills also sprinkled in some deep passes for their rookie quarterback, as well.
Film research shows that while Manuel attempted just two passes of longer than 20 yards (the wheel route on the far left; both fell incomplete), he went 3-of-4 passing in the area between 15 and 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
He could have gone 4-for-4 had tight end Scott Chandler held onto this pass.
Chandler ran a post pattern over the middle, breaking between Patriots linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower.
Chandler came open on his route downfield, and Manuel made the right choice by throwing the ball to his tight end.
However, Manuel could have better located the pass. He put it over Chandler's head, instead of in his basket, but this is a catch that a 6'7" tight end is expected to make.
There was no problem with his delivery on a later deep throw for Chandler after a Patriots turnover.
This time, Chandler ran a go-route straight up the seam through the Patriots defense.
There were big hits on both ends of the play.
Manuel was far from flummoxed by the oncoming pressure from Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich. The Bills rookie quarterback stepped into the throw and delivered a strike, but he paid the price for his courageous effort, taking a vicious hit in the process.
On the receiving end of the pass, Chandler received a jarring hit from safety Steve Gregory.
While the Chandler incompletion was partly the fault of the tight end, there were a couple of throws where Manuel might have had a better chance of a completion with a bit more distance and better location on the throw.
For example, he had a shot on a deep pass to wide receiver Robert Woods, who was covered well by Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
There was no safety help over the top for Dennard, but the pass was slightly underthrown. That allowed Dennard to get under it, turn around and nearly make a play on the ball.
However, Woods transformed from wide receiver to defensive back quickly enough to ensure that the pass fell incomplete.
That near-miss on the interception wasn't enough to scare Manuel away from going deep on Dennard again in the fourth quarter, this time targeting speedy wide receiver T.J. Graham.
The Patriots were in Cover 1 with Patriots safety Devin McCourty (circled in blue) as the deep safety. Manuel decided to throw the ball even before Graham got open.
Dennard was once again in good position in coverage on Graham all the way down the field, and Manuel's throw sailed over everyone's head and out of bounds.
Had the ball stayed in-bounds and been placed slightly more in front of Graham, it could have been a completion of 30 yards or possibly even more.
Enough about Manuel's missed opportunities, though; what about the deep balls he actually did hit?
Well, after his aforementioned completion down the seam to Chandler, he hit Woods for an 18-yard pass in the end zone for the first touchdown of each man's career.
The problem? The throw doesn't really show us much about Manuel, except that he knows how to make an opponent pay for leaving a receiver wide open in the end zone.
This was a busted coverage by the Patriots secondary, with Patriots cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington (circled in blue) defending one area and no one defending deep.
One of the two Patriots corners didn't execute their assignment, and that left Woods wide open. Manuel was more than willing to make the Patriots pay.
But make no mistake; he made the Patriots pay even when they were in position to make a play.
On Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson's 18-yard touchdown catch, for example, the ball was placed perfectly so that no one but Johnson could get it.
Manuel decided he was going to make this throw no more than six yards into Johnson's route. The veteran receiver got inside leverage on Arrington, and Johnson—being one of the most gifted receivers in the NFL (minus those costly drops)—was able to reel it in despite tight coverage by Arrington and McCourty converging on him when he made the catch.
None of it would have been possible without a quick decision and an on-target throw by Manuel.
So, while Manuel has yet to hit a pass play of over 20 yards, he showed some comfort throwing the ball downfield.
He's already leaps and bounds ahead of former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and once he sands off the edges in his ball placement, the Bills can really trust him to make some big throws for them, despite a West Coast offense that's heavily predicated on short passes.
The ability to make throws all over the field is something Fitzpatrick never had, and it is something the Bills will boast with Manuel sooner than later.
And it looks like it'll be sooner, according to Manuel: "It's extremely important. You want to stretch the field, and that's what we plan on doing," he said of the game plan against the Carolina Panthers (h/t The Buffalo News).
If the Bills can get the vertical passing game moving, that could help open things up for underneath routes, more yards after catch and improvement in the running game.
All Manuel has to do is build off the experience he gained against the Patriots, and he will be on his way to improving his long ball.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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