Buffalo Bills Can Help with Play Calls, but EJ Manuel Must Expand Repertoire

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer ISeptember 26, 2013

The Bills need to help rookie quarterback EJ Manuel (3, above) or he could be fighting for his life all season.
The Bills need to help rookie quarterback EJ Manuel (3, above) or he could be fighting for his life all season.Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It was apparent, right from the opening play for the Buffalo Bills offense, that the New York Jets were going to make life difficult for rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.

Instead of letting him complete anything he wanted in the 10-yard window beyond the line of scrimmage, they crowded that area and forced Manuel to go deep. He couldn't do it, and the results were as plain as English breakfast tea. The performance, however, was notably weaker.

Anytime a quarterback goes 19-of-42 passing, there are probably going to be some hangups in the offense. It wasn't just the stats that were alarming, though. 

In drafting the big-armed Manuel, it seemed the Bills would get away from the dink-and-dunk offense that head coach Chan Gailey was handcuffed into running by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's inability to throw deep. Manuel has struggled at times to throw deep, though, and against the Jets, that ability was completely absent from his arsenal.

Thus far this season, he has connected on four of his 16 pass attempts traveling 20 yards or more. His 25 percent rate on such passes is the the third-lowest in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Manuel attempted eight such passes against the Jets and connected on just one of them.

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It's not even as though the opportunities weren't there. Right from the start, the Jets were devoting their players to defending the short and intermediate zones. There was frequently only one or no safety help over the top.

The above screen grab is Manuel's first pass attempt of the game.

The Jets put their corners in man coverage on the outsides, with linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis dropping into hook zones and Dawan Landry as the lone deep safety.

Only one of the four routes is deeper than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. 

Five of the seven Jets defenders in coverage are no more than six yards off the line of scrimmage (the 30-yard line on this play). 

Manuel stared down the curl route on the left side by wide receiver Stevie Johnson, but it was well-covered and he had to scramble when pressure began drawing nearer. 

The defenders, however, were in zone coverage and were able to quickly react to Manuel scrambling before he could build a head of steam.

Therein lies the proverbial blueprint for shutting down EJ Manuel: Shut down the short and intermediate routes, forcing him to go deep, and keep linebackers either in spy or zone coverage so their eyes are on the quarterback, able to react to Manuel if he scrambles.

On the very next pass attempt by Manuel, the Jets didn't give any safety help over the top.

Manuel did what he should do in this situation by at least attempting the deep pass to Johnson; however, the Bills veteran receiver was blanketed by fourth-year cornerback Kyle Wilson.

Once again, we see the Jets flood the middle of the field and leave their cornerbacks in man coverage.

No safety is deeper than 17 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Jets crowded the short and intermediate area and rarely gave their corners any safety help on deep routes. 

If Manuel and the Bills had been able to connect on a few like this, they might have forced the Jets to change their strategy of leaving just one or no safeties deep.

Their inability to hit those big plays, though, led to safeties cheating down and looking for the short routes.

For example, on 2nd-and-18 in the third quarter, Manuel attempted a slant for Johnson over the middle. 

Safety Dawan Landry, however, was sitting back in his zone, waiting for the ball to be thrown.

Once it was, he broke toward the receiver and came downhill with a heavy hit. Johnson was able to hang onto the ball, but it wouldn't shock me if he had to spend a few extra minutes in the tub to soothe the soreness of this heavy hit from Landry.

Manuel needs to be more accurate on deep throws, but he could get some help from the offensive coaching staff with some more original play-calling. Four of the eight deep throws on the day were wheel/go routes down the left sideline. Another—the aforementioned incompletion to Johnson—was a wheel route that Johnson then had to cut inside to adjust to the ball by Manuel.

This chart of all of Manuel's aimed throws on the day outlines one of the key problems with the Bills' offensive play-calling: They have Manuel throwing outside the numbers more frequently than between the numbers.

According to Pro Football Focus, Manuel threw 18 passes over the middle in the season opener against the Patriots, compared to just nine throws outside the numbers. In the two games since then, he has thrown 45 passes to the outside and 33 passes over the middle. 

It's hard to expect Manuel to throw over the middle when defenses are consistently devoting their resources to taking those throws away, but they must also find ways to open up the middle of the field. That includes Manuel making defenses pay for singling up on the outside and not respecting the deep pass. That will, invariably, force defenses to respect all parts of the field. 

This is part of the maturation process for any young quarterback. The NFL catches on quickly to strengths and weaknesses. Once teams are able to do so, it's up to the quarterback to then adjust his game and improve in other areas.

It's a give-and-take process, though. The Bills should pepper in the outside throws to complement their throws over the middle, which are the bread and butter of the West Coast offense. For all of it to work, though, Manuel needs to be able to go long when a defense forces him to do so.

The play-calling could be better, but at some point, Manuel is going to have to learn to make all the throws—or, at least, to make the throws he can make better than anyone else can defend them.


Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.