How Can Rex Ryan's Defense Contain Buffalo Bills QB EJ Manuel?

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How Can Rex Ryan's Defense Contain Buffalo Bills QB EJ Manuel?
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Will Jets head coach Rex Ryan (above) still be all smiles after his first meeting with Bills quarterback EJ Manuel?

Last week, the New York Jets defense had the task of slowing down the New England Patriots and 13-year veteran quarterback Tom Brady. 

This week, it's Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel

The former has 177 starts. The latter has two.

For a defensive guru like Jets head coach Rex Ryan, this week's job is a little bit easier than last week's. After 10 meetings with Brady in the past four calendar years, it may be tough to show Brady something he hasn't seen. Manuel, however, has seen nothing yet. While that's certainly not enough to make Rex overlook his next opponent, he admitted his eyes light up at the idea of facing a rookie quarterback.

"Maybe a little bit. It’s hard to say, 'Oh, no,'" he said at his Wednesday press conference. "But yeah, because I know he doesn't have the experience. No rookie quarterback (does). Look, Chad Henne never had (experience) and he looked like Dan Marino against us one year. Remember that? It was ridiculous...I’d much rather face a rookie quarterback than Tom Brady."

Former Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne wasn't a rookie in his first meeting with the Jets, but in either case, Rex's performances have generally been good when facing a first-year quarterback.

Rookie quarterbacks vs. Rex Ryan's Jets
Player Cmp Att Cmp % Yds YPA TD INT Rate
Josh Freeman 14 33 42.4 93 4 0 3 11.2
Colt McCoy 18 31 58.1 205 6.6 1 0 88.8
Ryan Tannehill 16 36 44.4 196 5.4 0 1 50.2
Andrew Luck 22 44 50 280 6.4 0 2 51.3
Ryan Tannehill 2 5 40 18 3.6 0 0 50.4
Russell Wilson 12 19 63.2 188 9.9 2 0 131
Ryan Lindley 10 31 32.3 72 2.3 0 1 28
Total 94 199 47.2 1054 5.3 3 7 53.9

Pro-Football-Reference.com

In his four-plus years as head coach, the Jets are 5-1 when facing a rookie starting quarterback (technically, 5-2 if you count a game in which Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw five passes before being injured.) Those quarterbacks have accumulated a combined 53.9 passer rating in those games and have completed less than 50 percent of their throws.

The Bills are fully aware of the challenges the Jets defense can pose to their offense.

Manuel, however, is not like most other rookie quarterbacks the Jets have faced over the years.

"He has a nice touch on the deep ball," Ryan said. "He's a big, good-looking guy who can really throw the football. That’s the main stuff we’re seeing."

His strength thus far has been his efficiency. He has completed 68.2 percent of his passes, the fourth-highest completion percentage in the league through two weeks. To this point, however, Manuel has completed just three passes that gained 20 yards or more, tied for the second-fewest in the league thus far this season. 

This has been achieved through diligent use of the West Coast offense, which is predicated on short, high-percentage throws, mostly over the middle and some outside the numbers. At this point, Manuel is still working to find consistency with the long ball, though he has shown some progress in that area.

We also haven't had much of an opportunity to see Manuel as a runner just yet (seven rushes, 36 yards). He has proven, however, that he can be effective in that role.

The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers both showed a tremendous amount of respect for Manuel's abilities as a runner, with a game plan that focused more on containing the quarterback in the pocket than getting pressure on him and hurrying throws.

On this 2nd-and-6 in the third quarter, the Patriots rushed just four defenders off the snap and played man coverage in the secondary, with linebackers Brandon Spikes (circled in blue) and Jerod Mayo in zone coverage over the middle.

Linebacker Rob Ninkovich (circled in red) rushed off the left side, but backed off his rush soon after the snap, watching out for Manuel's scrambling.

Manuel sat in the pocket and scanned the defense, but when he couldn't find anyone open, he tucked the ball and began to run.

As he headed for a hole off left guard, though, Ninkovich chased him down, but Manuel cut hard in the other direction, leaving Ninkovich (circled in red) behind. 

Spikes, too, rushed toward Manuel, and may have been able to stop Manuel, had he not gotten washed up in the traffic, with wide receiver Stevie Johnson getting in his way. 

CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf shed some light on what made the run successful:

Well, it's one of the problems if your secondary is playing man coverage, when a quarterback can run the way that EJ Manuel does, is that if they've got their backs turned, they're not seeing what's happening once he gets beyond the line of scrimmage.

...The interesting thing about EJ Manuel is that he doesn't have Robert Griffin III-type speed, but when he's out in space, he seems to gobble it up in a hurry. He's a long strider, and he's not a 4.3 40 guy—he's in that 4.55 range, somewhere around there. He's fast, but he's not a blazer.

Nineteen yards later, Aqib Talib finally knocked him out of bounds.

So, why does the ability to run matter so much? Look again at the list of quarterbacks above. The only one to defeat the Jets was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012. He's also one of the few on that list with real running ability. 

In particular, Wilson moves well in the pocket to extend plays. 

On the second play from scrimmage, the Seahawks sent wide receiver Doug Baldwin down the field on a deep post. The Jets brought a vanilla four-man rush and did a good job of keeping Wilson from scrambling initially. 

The initial coverage downfield was very good. Wilson pumped the ball once, before second-guessing himself and holding on. He did the same thing again, before his internal clock went off.

Wilson shuffled his feet to his right, at which point Baldwin headed the opposite direction to create separation from Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie. 

Most offensive coordinators would heavily advise against this throw, and if it were intercepted, the world would have been sent into collective 2009 NFC Championship deja vu—especially Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, then-Vikings OC.

The trouble with those quarterbacks is that it forces the Jets to play a bit more disciplined. They want to fly to the football, they love playing man coverage and they want to get after the quarterback by splitting gaps, not by staying in their lanes. 

Those are all elements that can expose a defense to a scramble from a quarterback.

What the Jets do well, however, is disguise their coverages and blitzes.

On 3rd-and-4 in the second quarter, the Seahawks came out with their 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). The Jets matched with their nickel package.

There are nine Jets defenders lined up on the line of scrimmage, with the corners in press coverage and the linebackers cheating down, giving the look of a blitz up the gut.

You can imagine Wilson's surprise, then, when cornerback Ellis Lankster blitzed off the offense's right side, with safety LaRon Landry picking up the receiver in coverage.

Lankster came untouched, and stripped the ball. Running back Robert Turbin fell on it, otherwise this would have set up the Jets inside the 10-yard line. The Seahawks, however, were forced to punt after this sack.

So, the blitz paid off after all.

Wilson's abilities as a runner didn't prevent the Jets from sending extra defenders after him in that game. The Jets blitzed the quarterback on 15 of 26 dropbacks, even more frequently than their season average of 37.89 percent. Wilson picked up 34 yards on seven carries, but most of it came from the read-option (runs of 18, nine and eight yards) rather than scrambles. 

The Bills might bring some read-option elements to the table against the Jets, but when it comes to Manuel as a passer, they shouldn't be bashful about mixing it up and pressing the issue.

The Jets will probably do what they do best: man coverage on the outsides, a single-high safety defending the long ball, and a combination of blitzes and flooding the middle of the field with the linebackers and the remaining safety.

As long as they do all those things while remaining disciplined, they should have better results than they did the last time they faced a rookie quarterback who can run.

 

 

 

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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