The Buffalo Bills’ offense is counting on getting back to Plan A on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The return of rookie quarterback EJ Manuel to full practice Wednesday gives the offense an injection of talent and – the Bills hope – stability after four weeks of scrambling to fill the most important position on the field.
“He looked really good, like he hasn’t missed a practice at all,” said receiver T.J. Graham. “Last week he kind of got his feet wet with practice.”
Barring any setback during practice the next two days, Manuel will be under center when the Bills (3-6) visit the Steelers (2-6). Manuel sprained the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee in Cleveland on Oct. 3. He took the majority of the snaps with the starters Wednesday. Thad Lewis took some snaps with the starters, too.
“I’m very confident, pushing off it fine, running around making plays on it fine,” Manuel said. “I definitely expect to just go back in and make plays.”
When last the Bills saw Manuel on the field, they were 2-2 and essentially were in the lead against Cleveland. (Manuel had driven them most of the way to a go-ahead touchdown, but the Browns rallied to win the game.)
Buffalo has lost four of its last five, counting the Cleveland game. The Bills’ offensive numbers aren’t dramatically different without Manuel.
In his first four starts, the Bills averaged 350 yards and 22 points. In the last four games, the Bills have averaged 339 yards and 19 points.
However, the players recognize the 6-foot-5, 237-pound Manuel brings a welcome physical presence to the offense.
“He’s a playmaker,” said running back Fred Jackson. “He can do things with his feet. If plays break down, he knows what he’s doing in the offense. … There’s a bunch of different things he can bring, standing in the pocket throwing the long ball, all kinds of things.”
One thing Manuel did particularly well for a rookie in the first four and a half games was protect the football.
He threw three interceptions and lost one fumble.
Lewis and Jeff Tuel have combined for five interceptions and three fumbles.
“A lot of the fumbles have come from sack fumbles,” said coach Doug Marrone. “Obviously that is something from a turnover perspective that we have to do a better job with our quarterbacks of knowing where to put the ball.”
Manuel said he’s confident he will be able to make plays with his legs, and his knee injury did not deter him from using his running ability.
“If somebody comes through the line, I’m definitely going to take off and run,” he said. “I’m not going to stop doing that.”
However, Manuel said he accepts the need to protect his body when he escapes the pocket.
“I understand what I want to do as far as when I take off and run,” said Manuel, reflecting on the play in Cleveland in which his knee got hit on a scramble near the sideline. “I think what happened was a freak accident. It could have gone either way. If I had lifted my knee up a half inch more, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I think, obviously, if I get out of the pocket and I can’t get any more yards, just get down and go onto the next play.”
Manuel said he learned a lot the past four weeks by watching the games from a seat in the press box next to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. It would be good for Manuel and the Bills if he can build on his learning experiences on the field the final seven games of the season.
“Hopefully we can get some stability at the position,” Jackson said. “He’s a guy we wanted to be back there. We’ve got him back there now, and I know he’s excited to get the opportunity. If he’s out there, I know he’ll play well for us. To get some stability there, a guy that’s gonna be there for us the remainder of the season, hopefully, is something that can help this offense move in the right direction.”