by Mario Granata
Although the general consensus has all but written off EJ Manuel, and the number of people who are coming to his defense are few and far between, there are multiple factors that played a role in the final outcome of the Buffalo Bills 34-31 defeat at the hands of the Jaguars in London this past Sunday. Let me just preface this by saying I don’t feel that EJ played a “good game”. He has many flaws in his young career from mechanics to decision-making, but as any young quarterback, he will have those and many others. Sure, it would be easy to blame him, but just like Hashtag Sports, we like to look at things from another point of view.
Five key members of the offense were not playing for the Buffalo Bills this past Sunday against the Jags. Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, Seantrel Henderson, John Miller and Tyrod Taylor were all sidelined with injuries and other issues. Now, lets take a look at each position and see how this affected the offenses production.
Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin:
Watkins and Harvin are the two players who can take the top off of the defense. What that means is that their presence makes it possible for the running game, something that Greg Roman is known for, to get going and assist the quarterback. Although Robert Woods and Chris Hogan are formidable targets, they are route runners and are not known for their deep play ability. As a result, the linebackers play a little closer to the line as well as the secondary, so everything is very compacted at the line, because the Jags didn’t have to worry about the deep ball. (Something that we know EJ struggles with anyway.) Not having them there left some very tight spots for Manuel to throw, and for someone who isn’t a precision passer to begin with, it presents a problem.
Seantrel Henderson and John Miller:
Playing the role of them was Kraig Urbik and Cyrus Kouandjio. Now, if you ask anyone who has played the game, the left side of the line is primarily there to protect the backside of the quarterback while the right side of the line is filled with the better ‘run blockers’. Very simplistic, I know, but also true. With the right side of the line being out, the run game, which is the best friend of a quarterback needed help and couldn’t maximize its potential in the game. This is the reason when you watched the game that Richie Incognito was pulling on many run plays to the right. Not because Roman wanted to, but because he needed too. There were also a few plays where Robert Woods would motion in to get a seal on the defensive end because Kouandjio wasn’t getting the job done. These are keys that teams quickly pick up on, even teams that are as poor as the Jaguars.
So with no deep threat and no consistency in the run game, Manuel was already behind the 8-ball before the coin toss. Not an excuse for his play, but not many quarterbacks who are seasoned could overcome that, let alone Manuel.
2. Play Calling
Greg Roman and Rex Ryan (or Dennis Thurman if you want to get technical) both hinge on one another. What I mean by that is that Roman’s offensive game plan is heavily predicated on what the defense is doing. He doesn’t have the type of offense that can play with a large deficit. Unless you are the Packers and Patriots, where one side of the ball is completely independent of the other, the Bills are just not built that way. If the offense is turning the ball over, Ryan cannot unleash the hounds to do what he is best at and conversely, the ‘ball-control’ methodical philosophy of Roman will have to step out of his comfort zone if the game starts to get out of hand.
More specifically, the clock management during the final 2 minutes of the game, is what is the issue here. The Bills were struggling to get one yard, and then proceed to run about 20 valuable seconds off the clock while the offense was looking around much like a fraternity does when they wonder who brought the beer to the party. In a situation like that, the coordinator, and in this case, Roman has to have 2 plays ready to go with the time working against him. That is not a statement to people who are familiar to the game, that is a given for any successful coordinator.
Following the time-out, the best that Roman could conjure up, was to roll out a quarterback who is known for struggling throwing on the run, and not just roll him out, but roll him out to his left? The fact that EJ threw the ball like he was in an egg-toss competition is all on him, however, but I didn’t expect him to fire a laser to Woods on that play, and I doubt any of you would either. Bottom line, there was a better play to call in that situation.
3. Five Minutes of Hell
Many expletives and things in the 716 were thrown around during the start of the 2nd quarter during that dumpster fire of a series of plays, but allow me to provide you with not an excuse, but a few key points to what happened during that time. This is purely coming from a football perspective from a former quarterback, so take from it what you will.
During this play, the defensive end on Manuel’s left side crashes down forcing Cordy Glenn to turn his shoulders to him instead of passing him off to Incognito. Also a blitz was coming off of that corner, one from the secondary and another who looped around from the opposite side. This specific type of blitz was highlighted when the Patriots played the Colts, and the Colts utilized this and were able to sack Tom Brady. That reason alone should be one that should take blame off of Manuel. Compounded was the fact that LeSean McCoy completely wiffed on the block of either of the blitzing defenders. Manuel initially was looking to his right, so he didn’t see the two blitzing defenders, which is why he was caught off guard and the fumble occurred. All he saw was a defender leave the zone where he was reading and nothing more. Also, not only did McCoy miss picking up even one block, when the Jags picked up the ball, he also missed the tackle. So, in short, Glenn failed to pass off the end to Incognito, McCoy missed the block, and as a result, Manuel fumbled. A complex blitz that when used effectively, can cause some problems.
Manuel stares down receivers. No secret there. When you compound that with the fact that Roman is historically known for giving young quarterbacks only half-field reads, it doesn’t take Dom Capers to realize where the ball is going to go. However, on the play that Manuel threw the Pick-6, Robert Woods motioned into the line just off the tight end, making which was already a stacked box even tighter. Also on that play, Charles Clay, who was running a seam route, fell down at the line of scrimmage. Clay’s primary responsibility on that play was to occupy, and if possible, turn the shoulders of the linebacker to the play side. By falling down, Telvin Smith wasn’t occupied, and read Manuel’s eyes. In the scheme of things, Manuel was thinking that the linebacker shouldn’t have even been there and I doubt he even saw him. It would be worthy to point out that another drawback of Manuel is that he doesn’t throw unless he feels a receiver is wide open. This has to be coached out of him, and done fast or else he will be back in Virginia coaching high school football.
Greg Roman starts the drive by having Manuel run a read option to which Manuel picks up a first down. After two run plays that put the Bills in a 3rd and 11, Kouandjio has a false start penalty, putting the Bills and Manuel even further behind schedule. Now, from a quarterback perspective, the game is 21-3, and he was now faced with a 3rd and 16. In his mind, he has to make a play and forced a pass to Hogan, who was the only option that he had that was beyond the first down marker. What do you think the reaction would have been if Manuel, on that 3rd and 16, threw a 7 or 8-yard pass? Fans, who were already calling for his head, would be even more irate, so he took a shot, because he was pressing too hard, and threw another pick. Not the best decision, but I really can’t fault him for that one. If that second interception happened at any other point in the game, it wouldn’t have been met with such harsh criticism (or maybe it would) but I truly feel that he was trying to dig the Bills out of the hole he feels he put them in.
Consequently, after that second interception, Manuel finished out the game going 20-30 for 248 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. He didn’t just throw in the towel and call it a day, he battled back which is more than I can say for many quarterbacks who donned a Bills uniform in the past 15 years.
Manuel played horrible. Manuel turned the ball over. Manuel had some awful throws. All that combined would bury a team and leave them for dead, but guess what, the Bills then fought and clawed back and took the lead against the Jaguars. So, despite all the chaos and mayhem that transpired in the first half and beyond, the Bills were actually winning the game late in the 4th quarter. Now, I don’t know about you, but I would much rather take my chances on the Bills holding a slim lead and have the defense out there to protect it, thank to have them down a few points and the offense have to win it. Just my take, but I am sure I am not alone in that plight. Think about this for a stat as well. After the 5 Minutes of Hell, the Bills offense had 7 drives. 4 of them were scoring drives (two of which were 85 and 91 yards for touchdowns). The other 3 were a punt, the McCoy fumble inside the 5, and the turnover on downs to end the game. Not bad for a guy who was crucified at halftime by every Bills fan within screaming distance. Just think if McCoy doesn’t fumble, the Bills would have potentially scored on 5 of 7 drives after the fiasco in the 2nd quarter. Manuel was a large part of that comeback attempt.
I already mentioned the previous false start on Kouandjio, and the pass interference call on Robey wasn’t necessarily a result of him. We all have seen the play, and it was clearly, to everyone watching, that it was not interference, however this was a result of the previous 6 games that the Bills were flagged. Human beings are creatures of habit, and the NFL is no different. If a team is pegged to not abide by the rules, they are not going to get the benefit of the doubt. Chalk it up to undisciplined play, or bad coaching, or the atmosphere that Rex Ryan has created, but whatever you call it, the Bills have a stigma about them when it comes to the zebras. Just expect more of the same over the next 9 games, so when there is laundry on the field, take a deep breath, take another drink, and relax, because you know its coming…especially in Foxboro.
Now some of you might think I am crazy for the aforementioned reasons, and if you took the time to read this article either you are a fan of EJ Manuel or you are not a fan and wanted to see what type of car wreck that someone wrote defending his actions. As I stated at the beginning, I am not absolving Manuel for his play, I am merely listing that there were many other factors at play to why the Bills ultimately lost to the Jaguars last Sunday. Let me just add, when Manuel was drafted, he was not slated to be the starter Day 1. If you recall the Bills brought in Kevin Kolb to mentor EJ but a floor mat derailed those plans, as well as a first time coach (Marrone) and first time coordinator (Hackett) who were unwilling to develop a young player such as Manuel. This is essentially the first year that he has someone working with him who has any type of success in the NFL, so to completely write the kid off, and say that he is a bust, or garbage or whatever, is a little unfair to say the least. I’m upset. The fans are upset. We all thought the Bills would be in a different place when they entered the bye week, but with all things considered, they don’t just point to one person. There is plenty of things that affected the outcome of this past game, as well as previous games. Lets hope for the sake of the Bills and the fans’ sanity that they figure things out, and figure them out quick.