Rex Ryan and the rest of the Buffalo Bills’ new coaching staff is beginning an “evaluation period,” where they’ll examine where each player fits within the new schemes that will be installed. One of the biggest questions heading into the new season is where and how EJ Manuel fits within new offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s “ground and pound” brand of offense.
While the Bills still have to look for alternative options at the quarterback position, if only for competition and depth purposes, it appears Manuel well enter the 2015 season with a clean slate and a chance to show why he should be the starter.
When Manuel was benched four games into the 2014 season, it was more because his game left something to be desired. In Manuel’s first 15 games he’s thrown for more touchdowns (16) than interceptions (12); but his biggest struggles have been consistency and accuracy, in addition to throwing under pressure, and failing to chances down-field. These are all issues that Greg Roman and David Lee will look to correct.
Possibly the biggest benefit that Manuel can get out of the switch is a better running game. The 49ers under Roman ran the ball on 46.5 % of plays last year and finished ninth in attempts. Roman’s commitment to the run and it’s effectiveness yields better results in the passing game within his offense.
An additional benefit of an effective run game is the open passing lanes that are created off of play-action passes. In Roman’s four-year stint in San Francisco, a whopping 25.5% of pass plays called were off play-action. That’s a stark difference from Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s two years in Buffalo as their offense ran play-action passes just 16% of the time. As defenses creep toward the line of scrimmage worrying about the run it becomes easier for an offense to sell a play action fake and throw over the top for big gains.
While Roman was in San Francisco he was able to build an effective passing game off of those play actions fakes. Roman had more success off play-action passes with Alex Smith than Colin Kaepernick, whose completion percentage was nine percent points higher and he threw for an extra five yards down the field, but Kaepernick still was able to deliver consistent completions while also being a threat to run the ball.
Roman can create play-action passes with zone-read concepts, as Manuel has the ability to run outside of the pocket, but it’s more likely that his run game will be based with Fred Jackson as a lead back in addition to Bryce Brown carrying more of the load in his second year in Buffalo.
In addition to utilizing more play action, Roman’s history of efficiency from a deep passing game will also be paramount for the Bills. According to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required), Manuel has thrown over 20-yards down the field on 13.5% of his drop backs. Those passes have yielded 515 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions, while he’s connected on just 30.9% of his attempts. Essentially one out of every three deep throw results in a catch, which goes back to the point of Manuel leaving opportunities on the field.
Roman’s quarterbacks have attempted fewer deep balls on average than Manuel (12.4% average), but their results are higher when it comes to yardage (704 yards on average) and completion percentage (44.8% average). If Manuel is able to gain a moderate increase in accuracy then you will see the Bills’ big-play ability increase dramatically.
When looking at the numbers, it appears that Manuel is not a broken QB, but one that needs refinement. He carries the physical traits–an ability to extend plays and a strong arm– but he struggles with ball placement and the accuracy required to make the most of these types of throws.
All in all, the hiring of Greg Roman may turn out to be a saving grace for Manuel and the Bills’ offense. His ability to develop the offensive line and create an effective run game should assist Manuel in his development as a quarterback. The overall offensive philosophy Roman brings can help smooth out those rough edges of Manuel and further instill some confidence in him after being essentially redshirted last year.