Many fans will take a look at the way EJ Manuel’s 2014 season ended and try to encapsulate the 4 games he started with his rookie season the year before. Even when you go back and look at highlights, film, and statistics, they don’t always tell a complete story. Case and point will be the “pick-six” interception that Manuel tossed in the Houston Texans game to J.J. Watt. While it is easy to pin this on Manuel, was this really his fault?
JJ Watts Pick 6 of Manuel
While this may cause those of you with recurring nightmares of this play to have a relapse, many different things happened (or in some cases didn’t happen) that led to the perfect storm of the best defensive player in football snagging a pick and rumbling down field for a touchdown. Even when watching this play over and over, if you want to see this all as Manuel’s fault it is easy to find proof of that. Others believe this is a play that, while Manuel was the one who tossed the interception, factors outside of that decision were the reason that Watt was able to get in the backfield. Was it EJ’s fault? Watching a play is subjective, even though we have proof of that occurrence, it is easy to see what you want to see. Being objective, we have plenty of wheels in motion at the start of this play. You can make your own conclusions. We only ask that you watch this with an open mind.
Go ahead, watch it for yourself. Ready? Let’s get started.
Right tackle Sentrel Henderson might have been humming to himself the Divinyls hit “I Touch Myself” because he certainly didn’t touch anyone on this play. The last thing you want to see from a tackle is his head whipping around as a play shoots past him. Here, Henderson bites on the bluff step in from the safety down at the line. It appears his intent was to support guard Eric Pears inside. This reaction allowed Watt to go untouched and screaming into the backfield around the edge. Pause this video at the 3 second mark and count the number of players on the line. If you counted 6, you are wrong, the answer is 7. When a tackle is looking around for somebody it make contact with, it is already too late. It is especially too late when he is looking at the back of a jersey of someone who is already 4 yards past him. If Manuel holds on to that ball, the monster that is J.J.Watt may have slaughtered him in the pocket. If Manuel sees Watt coming and decides not to throw the ball, instead opting for his “back-side spin-o’-rama” scrambling to his left, he would run straight into the blitzing cornerback who had cleared left tackle Cordy Glenn. Either way, Manuel would have been in a bad situation. If Manuel had been injured in the sack, would Henderson have taken the Aaron Hernandez defense saying “I was there but I didn’t do it”? Henderson didn’t do much except make a bad decision and assist in ending Manuel’s 2014 season as the starting quarterback.
Tight End Scott Chandler is supposed to be running just outside of the hash-mark on this play. Instead of chipping Watt, he runs clear past him. Was it his job to get a piece of him? No. Running his route he was doing what he was supposed to do. Even a casual amount of contact might have halted this play. In coverage, Chandler clips the middle linebacker who was dropping back in coverage off the line of scrimmage trying to get to the outside receiver. It is clear that this play was not intended to be a pass in the flat to Fred Jackson, as none of the receivers are looking to block downfield.
Mike Williams was the aforementioned outside receiver. He runs a simple button route. Had this play been intended as a pass to Jackson, Williams (the most veteran receiver on the roster) would not have been assigned a route like this. He would have been on a mission to engage a defender down the field.
Speaking of downfield, only 4 defensive players were not on the line of scrimmage. The book on Manuel has been to bring pressure and force him into making a mistake, as he tends to go to the check-down route when he sees pressure pre-snap. The nearest defensive back to any wide receiver was 8 yards off the line of scrimmage. In this case, why would Manuel make the decision pre-snap that he was going to throw to Jackson? The answer is simple, the book on Manuel is right. He misses the cornerback stepping off of coverage near the snap. This corner blitz gives Chris Hogan a free release with no one in front of him except a safety and cornerback 8 and 10 yards deep respectively. How do you know that Manuel didn’t see the corner step up? Because that would have left one defensive player 8 yards from the line of scrimmage to cover both Hogan and outside receiver Sammy Watkins with the help of a safety a couple yards deeper. Had the corner blitz been a bluff, it would still be single coverage on Hogan with no one near Watkins. With the 7 players who were at the line of scrimmage, they only bring 5 in pressure. Prior to the snap, it couldn't be more obvious that Houston was playing zone coverage.
Moving outside to Watkins, he goes to run the most uninspired drag route I have ever seen. He gets off the ball a little late and gets about a step in before the ball is thrown. Honestly, he didn’t need to move at all. Had Manuel seen the corner step down, a bullet to Watkins in the open field could have easily been a first down or score. After all, the team invested a lot of faith in Watkins specifically because of his ability in the open field.
Fred Jackson has made a serious reputation for himself as one of the best pass blocking backs in the game. Here, he slides past an untouched Watt. Was it his job to pick up the blitzing defensive end? Clearly it wasn’t. Had the ball not been intercepted by Watt and actually caught by Jackson, the outside cornerback who was 8 yards deep at the snap was already near the line of scrimmage. Fred might have been able to shake him but getting a first down would have been unlikely. Because of zone coverage, cornerbacks will key off the hand placement of a quarterback. Here, Manuel has two hands on the ball near his ear. When he removes his left hand from the front of the ball, the cornerback starts streaking from the backend. Manuel stares down Jackson and Watt stays wide to block the throwing lane.
The animal that is J.J. Watt could have had encounters with possibly three Bills players on that play. All of them decided to avoid making contact with the league’s best defensive player. As fans, we look for the smoking gun. Whose fault does this play ultimately rest on the shoulders of? Manuel was able to get away with making pre-snap decisions at Florida State under head coach Jimbo Fisher. We saw similar pre-snap decision making in the young careers of Fisher previous quarterback’s JaMarcus Russell and Christian Ponder (see video here as an example of Ponder under pressure and making a pre-snap decision that resulted in an interception). Learning to read the field is a basic but necessary trait for a quarterback in today’s NFL. Had Manuel been able to do this in college, the learning curve wouldn’t be as steep as we all have experienced with him.
So the list of offenders on this play is short. Is this play a result of Manuel’s inability to read pressure, Henderson missing his assignment, Chandler not picking up Watt, or Jackson not picking up Watt? Would a veteran receiver in Watkins place have been able to make Manuel aware prior to the snap that he was all alone? Most will argue that it is the quarterback’s job to protect the football. In order to do that, you have to be able to see what is happening on the field. This was not a priority in FSU’s offense (as they have been able to churn out 3 first round quarterbacks under Jimbo Fisher with Ponder, Manuel and most recently Jamies Winston), even though it is seen as a “pro-style” system. Henderson's choice was just one of three decisions by players to avoid engaging with Watt, but his decision was not the most fatal of all. Manuel missing the blitzing cornerback and the pre-snap decision to check out to Jackson was the biggest series of mistakes. So, while several players had the power to stop this play, it was Manuel’s lack of vision and pre-determined pass that was the nail in his 2014 season.