Breaking Down Johnny Manziel's Impressive Preseason Debut

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Breaking Down Johnny Manziel's Impressive Preseason Debut
AP Photo/Rick Osentoski

If there is one thing Johnny Manziel is used to, it's attention. Despite Brian Hoyer being named the starter for the Cleveland Browns' first preseason game, Manziel was the main attraction and did not disappoint.

Fans would have been unsatisfied if they were expecting wild, game-breaking plays from Manziel. In fact, he was the exact opposite; he was under control, poised and used his ability to extend plays when needed during a 13-12 loss to the Detroit Lions on Saturday night.

On paper, Manziel finished his first preseason game 7-of-11 for 63 yards and a QB rating of 79.0. In reality, he was light-years further than most thought he would be at this point. That means the quarterback competition in Cleveland is alive and well.

Of Manziel’s four incompletions, one was a poor, rushed throw in pressure (see breakdown below), one was a possible completion if the coaches had reviewed the play and the other two were great throws dropped by inexperienced receivers. It is tough to find something to dislike in Manziel’s first game.

He also used his legs efficiently. One of the main worries with Manziel was that he would take off at the first sign of pressure. On Saturday night, he showed the ability to go through his progressions and only use his legs when the situation called for it (six times for a team-high 27 yards).

Before we break down some individual plays from Manziel’s first NFL game, let’s see what some of the national pundits had to say.

 

Johnny Has Them Talking

Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post has been following the Manziel circus since his arrival in the NFL. If you remember, he was the guy who was most critical of the Browns for not allowing national media at rookie minicamp. Even he felt the electricity of Manziel on the field Saturday night:

While Hubbuch’s observation wasn’t the deepest comment of the night, it certainly captured the way most people felt about his performance. It didn’t matter whether you love Manziel or hate him; it was must-see TV.

Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller loved the way Manziel slowed the game down. One of the biggest obstacles for a rookie quarterback is to not rush plays. They have to stay calm, they need to relax, and they must dissect a defense before making a decision. By the way, all of that has to happen before a 350-pound defender ends the quarterback’s career with a body slam.

The only real measuring stick for rookie quarterbacks are other rookie quarterbacks. This is especially true for the guys selected around them in the draft. Rob Rang of CBSSports.com thought Manziel stacked up favorably against Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr, two guys whom the Browns passed on.

2014 Preseason Rookie Debuts
Blake Bortles 7-of-11 169 yards 0 TDs 0 INTs
Teddy Bridgewater 6-of-13 49 yards 0 TDs 0 INTs
Derek Carr 10-of-16 74 yards 0TDs 1 INT
Johnny Manziel 7-of-11 63 yards 0 TDs 0 INTs

NFL.com

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also had plenty of designed runs for Manziel. He ran some zone-read plays and even took snaps out of the "pistol" formation. This resulted in six runs for 27 yards, including one scramble which moved the chains on a third down.

Lance Zierlein of Sports Talk 790 in Houston tweeted after the game that Shanahan favoring shotgun formations was by design:

 

The Good, the Bad and the Manziel

It’s easy to say that Manziel was impressive in his rookie preseason debut, but let’s take a closer look at the things he did well on the field.

Make no mistake: Manziel was nowhere near perfect. He did, however, make more positive plays than negative, and that is really all you can ask for from a rookie quarterback.

The first play we are going to examine was Manziel’s best throw of the day. It was his third full series, and he was getting into a rhythm.

 

1st-and-10 at Their Own 30-Yard Line

NFL Network screenshot

The first snap of this drive was taken from under center and utilized play-action. Manziel planted his foot and was decisive with the football, delivering a strike to Taylor Gabriel on a slant route (above).

There was tight coverage from behind and a safety closing in over the top. The screenshot below shows just how much Manziel had to thread the needle to make this pass for a first down.

NFL Network screenshot

This play illustrated Manziel’s arm strength and his ability to throw in the pocket. Throwing on the run is not the only thing he can do well. If the ball is delivered anywhere but this exact spot, there is no way it ends up a completion.

 

2nd-and-8 at Their Own 46-Yard Line

Two plays later, Manziel made his worst throw of the day. In fact, it was the only truly poor throw that he made all evening. Manziel took this snap out of the shotgun, and before he could deliver a quality throw, the pocket was collapsing.

NFL Network screenshot

As you can see in the screenshot above, Manziel had to deliver the ball in a very tight space. This was a huge question for Manziel entering the NFL as he usually had plenty of room behind an elite line at Texas A&M.

Manziel rushed the throw and delivered it high over the head of intended wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. His target was open, but instead of following through on the throw, Manziel left his hand above the helmets of the defenders, causing the ball to sail.

 

4th-and-1 at Detroit’s 29-Yard Line

No play illustrated the simultaneous good and bad of Manziel more than this scramble on fourth down. On one hand, he made a play with his legs and moved the chains when everything was on the line. On the other hand, he had an opportunity to save himself and throw the ball, and he chose not to use his arm.

NFL Network screenshot

As you can see in the screenshot above, Manziel could have thrown the ball to fullback Ray Agnew to get the first down. Instead, he opted to run to the edge and move the chains himself.

Sure, the end result was the same, but what Manziel has to remember is that for every 30 times that play works, there can always be one time where he gets injured.

At the NFL level, quarterbacks have to protect themselves, especially when there is another option.

 

2nd-and-13 at Their Own 12-Yard Line

The best display of Manziel’s magic was during his last series on the field. He stepped into the pocket and delivered a semi-jump pass to a flaring running back, Terrance West. What seemed like a simple eight-yard gain would have been a sack for most quarterbacks.

NFL Network screenshot

In a situation similar to the poor throw Manziel made earlier in the quarter, this time he found a receiver and rose above the offensive line to deliver an accurate pass. This is where he can really shine.

Everyone knows about his ability to move outside the pocket, but Manziel has an uncanny ability to move within the pocket as well.

 

The Skinny

Manziel was much further along than most people would have thought Saturday night. Despite his impressive performance, head coach Mike Pettine would not say Manziel would start the next preseason game against Washington on national television, per WKYC Sports:

Even if you are the biggest Hoyer supporter, it would be tough to make a case that he had a better game than Manziel considering his experience and the fact he played with the first-team offense (6-of-14 for 92 yards).

All signs point to Johnny nipping at Hoyer’s heels. This quarterback competition just got more exciting.

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