Buffalo Bills QB EJ Manuel: Breaking Down The Good & The Bad From 2014 Preseason Performances

Buffalo Bills second-year quarterback EJ Manuel is already entering a pivotal season in his young NFL career. The No. 16 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft was technically selected by former General Manager Buddy Nix, but the pick has current GM Doug Whaley and Head Coach Doug Marrone’s fingerprints all over it.

Upon the passing of Ralph Wilson Jr., the sense of urgency for not only the players in the organization, but the coaches and front office executives surged, as no job will be guaranteed when new ownership steps into place.

Doug Whaley wheeled and dealed his way through the 2014 offseason, putting pieces around Manuel that could help the team make a playoff push, not only ending a 14-year drought, but to also build a resume as basically a job interview to encourage whoever owns the team to keep them around.

This offseason, Whaley added extremely talented skill position players in Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams and Bryce Brown, to complement an already-impressive group of Robert Woods, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. In order to protect Manuel and ensure that the team has an effective run game to rely on, Chris Williams, Cyrus Kouandjio, Cyril Richardson and Seantrel Henderson were acquired.

The pieces are in place for Manuel to have no excuses for not being able to take the next step, but while there are serious questions surrounding the 6’5” 235-pounder after the first four exhibition contests of the year, he’s also shown that he has the physical talent requisite of an effective professional quarterback.

EJ’s Arm Talent, Quick Read of Defense

Here, the Bills offense is in one of their “base” packages, using 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) out of a shotgun set. The Panthers are showing a single-high safety as the strong safety is near the line of scrimmage over tight end Scott Chandler. The single-high safety tells EJ that he’s seeing either Cover 1 (man coverage by CBs) or Cover 3 (boundary CB’s, FS responsible for deep 1/3 of field).

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Due to the one-on-one matchups on the outside and due to the free safety playing “centerfield,” EJ knows his best bet is to attack the sidelines, where very few free safeties have the range to make a play from 15-25 yards out.

After the snap, Sammy Watkins comes inside to set a pick, while Chris Hogan runs a flag route out of the slot. Watkins’ pick is effective, as the cornerback covering Hogan can’t get around his teammate.

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Manuel sees this immediately and delivers a beautiful pass, leading a wide-open Hogan for a big gain along the sideline.

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EJ’s Lack of Patience

While EJ has shown that he can make a quick decision from a pre-snap read, he’s shown a lack of anticipation and has struggled moving the ball down-field in adverse situations as well. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Manuel struggled against Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 zone-based defensive scheme.

Here, the Bills are in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end, 2 wide receivers) with Manuel under center. Due to both of the Bills’ wideouts being bunched to Manuel’s right against a Cover 2 zone, Mike Williams is lined up against a linebacker from the slot.

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Against a two-deep look, offenses will typically look to attack the seams, where linebackers can be caught out of position in coverage, while the safeties, who are each responsible for a deep ½ of the field, are often too far away to make a play on the ball.

Following the snap, instead of dropping into an underneath zone, the linebacker blitzes Manuel off the edge, leaving Mike Williams, who is running an inside post route attacking the seam between the safeties, wide open, as Chris Hogan runs a go route, forcing the safety to provide help over the top.

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Manuel sees the pressure, panics, and quickly dumps the ball off (inaccurately) to Fred Jackson, who is unable to secure the pass. Instead of recognizing his obvious target from the pre-snap look, standing tough in the pocket and delivering the pass, Manuel did exactly what has bothered most analysts throughout his collegiate career and first season with the Bills.

Bottom Line

EJ Manuel is a young, physically talented quarterback that doesn’t have the benefit of sitting and learning the mental aspect of the game. Recent history with the 2011 and 2012 draft classes have put immense pressure on young signal callers to step in immediately and be a difference maker.

Manuel, who was the first quarterback taken in his draft class, has the burden of expectations, along with the pressure of making a playoff run with a franchise that hasn’t been there this entire millennium.

Every move, pass, and decision that EJ Manuel makes this season will be endlessly scrutinized, and most of the time it’ll be the bad plays over the good ones.

Manuel has shown flashes of why the Bills’ front office and coaching staff fell in love with him enough to use a first-round draft pick, but if the playoffs are going to be an attainable goal for the ’14 Bills, Manuel has to do a better job of not only keeping plays alive, but letting them develop.