After winning their season debut on the road against the Chicago Bears 23-20 in overtime, quarterback EJ Manuel looked poised and confident as he sets into his own as a NFL quarterback. It was a good step forward after fans saw the train wreck that was the offense during the preseason, especially earning the win on the road.
While Manuel performed well, there are signs that offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is still not ready to open up the offense. Whether this is fear of his job security or an indictment on Manuel is something we don’t know, but in either case the Bills have a greater chance of being successful if Manuel does begin to air it out.
On Sunday, Manuel went 16-of-22 for 173 yards with a touchdown passing and running, and an interception. That is a solid performance that allowed the team to win a close game. The defense did its part and the offense was able to convert two turnovers into 10 points, but what happens if the defense can’t get those turnovers? Or has a bad game? The Bills success would then be reliant on the offense to come through. Thus far under Nathaniel Hackett’s tenure as play caller, he appears gun shy.
Granted the offense is built around the running back position of C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and newly acquired Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown, but the Bills also went out and drafted Sammy Watkins and traded for Mike Williams to add a more a potent, quick strike dimension to their offense.
Against the Bears, Manuel took down-field shots seven times that were converted into five catches for 118 yards. Solid numbers for sure. That said, Manuel also completed six passes to Jackson and Spiller for only 24 yards, continuing a check-down trend from last year.
Some of that is on Manuel, but not as much as fans realize. Of those six completions, four of them were designed to get the ball to the running back. Hackett called conservative screens passes on 2nd and 16, 2nd and 12, and 3rd and 21 hoping the Bears defense would over-pursue. The fourth was Spiller’s run and catch for a touchdown, which did work in the red zone.
If you look past the pass attempts to the running backs, another worry arises when realizing the Bills converted 4 of 12 third downs. The longest conversion was a 3rd and 5 play in the first quarter. That play resulted in a 25-yard gain by Sammy Watkins. The Bills failed to reach the first down marker on any 3rd down longer than five yards.
It’s understood that the Bills will not be able to convert every third down, but the play calling can’t be so safe that it relies on multiple broken tackles for a chance at conversion. If the Bills don’t throw it to the sticks then there is a drastically low chance of getting a first down.
In order for the Bills to inch closer to an offense that can challenge for a playoff berth, they have to be willing to try to push the ball down field consistently. This is especially true in long down and distance situations, and that starts with the play called in the huddle.