It would be hard to imagine a scenario where Johnny Manziel’s first start could have gone any worse for the Cleveland Browns. They lost 30-0 to a division rival, were basically knocked out of playoff contention and Manziel looked like he had no business playing in the NFL.
Some of the issues with the Browns on Sunday were not Manziel’s fault. The defense allowed 347 yards, including 244 of those on the ground. The unit was gashed for 5.4 yards per carry and three scores by way of the run.
The receivers dropped a few passes, and most would agree that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan did not do Manziel any favors with the play-calling. Still, a 10-of-18 performance for just 80 yards and two interceptions cannot be excused. Especially when there were plays to be made.
The worst part of the rookie’s first start was the fact that he played like a college quarterback. By that I mean that he tried to throw to open receivers instead of throwing receivers open. There is no bigger divide between quarterbacks at those two levels than that factor.
He also had a tendency to cut the field in half and ignore receivers on his backside. This made him twice as easy to defend. To compound that issue, when he did not see an open receiver on the side of the field that he was focused on, he scrambled to that sideline.
Every defender on the field was sitting in half the space, leaving Manziel nowhere to throw. These are ingredients for a bad day behind center, a 27.3 quarterback rating and a short career in the big leagues.
The bright side is that this was just his first start, and he was thrown into the fire against the top dog in the AFC North, who was extra motivated for a multitude of reasons. Manziel, himself, was one of those reasons.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the habits Manziel needs to clean up if he is going to be successful in the NFL.
On this play, Manziel has wide receiver Josh Gordon in one-on-one coverage and one deep safety. The safety will not matter because Gordon is going to run a corner route to the middle of the field.
As long as he reads the linebackers correctly and the ball is delivered in time, this should be an easy pass-and-catch.
Manziel has a good pocket to throw from and sees the deep safety has started to backpedal to compensate for Gordon’s top-end speed.
This is the moment when Manziel should throw the football. It still seems as though Gordon is covered, but in just two more steps, he will plant his outside foot and make the cut to the inside part of his route. In the NFL, cornerbacks have fantastic closing speed, so the window to pass the ball is very small.
This is a picture of when Manziel finally delivered the football. As you can see, Gordon is open at this point, but the deep safety is already closing on the route. The corner who is covering him will quickly make up that ground once the ball is in the air as well.
When the ball arrives, there are two defenders on Gordon to disrupt the pass. It did not help that the ball was delivered slightly high, but if it was thrown earlier, that would not have mattered.
On this play, Manziel has max protection in the backfield and just two viable wide receiver routes he can use. Gordon will run a streak to clear out the defenders, and Andrew Hawkins will run an in-route.
If the defense bites on Gordon and his deep route, then that should leave Hawkins one-on-one with his defender underneath. If they do not bite on the deep route, then Manziel can throw one up to Gordon behind the defense.
This is when Manziel should have thrown the football. Just as Gordon is passing Hawkins’ route and he can see that the corner is following him.
This would create a clear out for Hawkins and an easy pass-and-catch to the sideline before any defender can get there.
This is when Manziel finally delivers the football. The defender had nearly five extra yards to make up the ground that he lost when Hawkins made his cut to the inside earlier in the play.
Even the strongest arm is no match for a good angle, and that is exactly what the defender took. He was able to cut off the route and intercept Manziel’s pass. Had he been more decisive and delivered the ball earlier, this would have been an easy first down. He admitted as much after the game.
“I saw what I wanted to see and didn’t have enough confidence in myself to let it fly,” Manziel said to the media after the game. “I saw what I wanted and I ripped that all week through practice and when it came down to it, just a split-second hesitation. And in the NFL, I learned hard today; they can undercut that and they can get to that ball.”
This is later in the game, when the Browns desperately need some kind of spark to avoid a shutout and utter embarrassment. Unfortunately, that never happened. Manziel has two routes to the right side of the formation and Gordon, who will run a comeback route, to his left.
The primary route is to Manziel’s right, but he has to be aware enough of what the defense is doing after the snap to know when to look at his backside routes.
When Manziel hits the end of his dropback, he is staring directly at five defenders and just two routes that are completely covered. To his backside, he has Gordon just about to come out of his break and clear well over seven yards of room between him and his defender.
When Manziel sees this much traffic to his right, he should get to his third progression, which is Gordon, and let the pass rip.
Instead of checking the route to his backside, Manziel hesitates and lets a delayed blitz head his way. His next mistake was not rolling the opposite way of the pressure and coverage. He is now rolling toward the sideline with all the defenders and has cut the field in half.
This play ended up an incompletion but would have easily been an interception if he delivered it into the field of play. Manziel better realize quickly that his legs can hurt him just as much as they can help him. His first reaction should always to get through his progressions and then use his mobility.
When he does leave the pocket, he needs to move away from the coverage downfield instead of into it. If he had thrown a pass back across the field, it would have been intercepted as well. Instead of giving the Browns an easy first down, which they only had five of on Sunday, he created a no-win situation. That play and that statement pretty much sum up Manziel’s performance on Sunday.
All quotes and observations were acquired firsthand unless otherwise noted.