Manuel's faults have been on display this preseason, but he has also shown signs of hope. We saw a bit of both in the Bills' 27-14 loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday, in which he went 19-of-28 for 198 yards, a touchdown, an interception and an 85.1 passer rating.
Manuel looked best in the second half, when the Buccaneers had already pulled their starters on defense. Leading up to that point, though, it was not pretty. Manuel was 9-of-18 for 67 yards, was sacked twice and committed two turnovers (one fumble, one interception) while the Bills offense put up no points and six first downs on eight possessions.
The numbers don't do the performance justice. It was much worse than it looked.
And the crowd jeers. Boo’s for the offense. Its the preseason.— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) August 23, 2014
Manuel has all the physical tools to be a successful quarterback, with the arm strength to make almost any throw and the mobility to throw duct tape on a broken play when he is out of options. He now also has plenty of weapons at his disposal, with a skill position offensive group that includes Robert Woods, Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins at wide receiver and C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and Bryce Brown at running back.
If Manuel can put it together in time for the season, the Bills have some potential as a surprise candidate. It's all on his shoulders to take Buffalo to the next level.
Some Bills fans have begun to feel a sense of deja vu with similarities hearkening back to former quarterback Trent Edwards. One difference: Edwards didn't have the arm strength that Manuel has.
Last year, Manuel attempted 201 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and completed 69.2 percent of those throws. Manuel was dramatically less accurate the farther he went downfield, hitting just 42.6 percent of throws farther than 10 yards downfield. That being said, he has become gun-shy at times.
The concern on EJ Manuel is his propensity to check down. It's showing up again here against Tampa.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) August 23, 2014
One problem with the Bills' downfield passing game last season was the lack of big-bodied receivers, with guys like Marquise Goodwin (5'9", 179 lbs) and T.J. Graham (5'11", 188 lbs) consistently being asked to win one-on-one matchups. Now, with receivers like Woods (6'0", 190 lbs), Williams (6'2", 212 lbs) and Watkins (6'1", 211 lbs) in the offense, Manuel should feel a little more confident to take those downfield shots.
Far too often, Manuel seems content to dump it off underneath to pass-catchers in the flat. In fact, 56 of Manuel's 180 completions in 2013 went to running backs. That helps explain his harrowing 6.4 yards-per-attempt average last season (third-lowest among all qualifying quarterbacks last year, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com).
That was certainly the case last season, and seemed to be the case on Saturday night as well. Whether that was a function of the offense or of Manuel's penchant for checkdowns, we won't find out until the regular season. It's entirely possible, however, that the Bills were saving some things on offense. Hopefully, they were saving a lot.
Running Game Setting Up Long Passes
Manuel will always be at his best with the presence of a consistent and strong running game. He will most likely have that luxury as long as both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are in town.
The Bills led the league with 546 rush attempts last season, and they once again feature plenty of depth in the backfield, led by the two top dogs.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett classically said that the Bills would feed Spiller the ball "until he [threw] up." Spiller did not play up to his standards last season, despite a healthy average of 4.6 yards per rushing attempt, but he also battled a high-ankle sprain all season long. He is fully recovered from that injury, and the Bills are surely hoping he can stay healthy this year—they have never had both Jackson and Spiller fully healthy for an entire season.
If the Bills are ever going to be more successful on big passing plays, they will need the running game to command respect, forcing safeties and linebackers to play closer to the line and opening up larger windows for Manuel to hit his receivers deep.
Working In Sync With Pass Protection
At times, Manuel is not doing his offensive line any favors by holding onto the ball far too long. Other times, however, his linemen need to give him a chance to make the reads and get the ball out. The protection will not always be perfect, so he has to know when the ball has to come out.
Manuel was sacked four times on Saturday night, and repeated hits in the pocket could be worrisome for the Bills quarterback. There is much consternation over his safety while scrambling, but two of the three knee injuries he suffered last year were on seemingly innocuous hits in the pocket.
One way to help keep pressure off Manuel is on screen passes. Manuel only threw 16 screens last year, and only four of them were to wide receivers. If the Bills can get more screens in the offense, they can help keep the pressure off Manuel.
That said, Manuel simply has to get rid of the ball more quickly. He looks uncomfortable back there, and it seems like he immediately begins worrying about the rush if his first read isn't open.
The Bills are working with a revamped offensive line that includes veteran Chris Williams and rookies Cyril Richardson and Seantrel Henderson, so there's also a process involved in getting those guys all up to speed and on the same page.
The offensive line must work as a unit, but Manuel must also work with the offensive line. He must understand how much time he has in the pocket and work within those limitations.