EJ Manuel is doing a good job of protecting the football.
Like any rookie quarterback, he’s also leaving plays out on the field by missing some open receivers.
The Buffalo Bills want him to keep doing the former, and they expect he gradually will do less of the latter.
Manuel has thrown just four interceptions in 249 pass attempts. That rate ranks seventh best in the NFL this season. Only one rookie quarterback in the last 10 years (Robert Griffin III) has finished a season with a lower INT rate.
“I think it’s just having the mind-set of not wanting to turn the ball over, not wanting to cost a turnover for your team because that really puts you behind the 8-ball in terms of executing our offense and lengthening drives,” Manuel said. “So I just have to continue to do it.”
Capitalizing on more passing plays while still avoiding interceptions will be key for Manuel, starting with Sunday’s game in Tampa. The Buccaneers lead the NFL in interceptions with 17.
Last week’s loss to Atlanta was a good example of Manuel’s status as a promising but still developing rookie. He ran for one TD, passed for another and helped the Bills put up 31 points. He made no turnovers. Good showing.
But he also missed open receivers on about five plays, by unofficial review, which could have meant more yards and points.
“He definitely is getting better,” said Bills coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. “He just has to continue to make the easy completions. Sometimes it’s almost like he wants to do too much, because he’s starting to really understand it. We tell him still just go through your progression and you’ll fall into a big gain. There’s times he was spectacular.”
Manuel threw a laser pass over the middle to tight end Scott Chandler, in stride, in overtime. Chandler fumbled after the catch. Manuel made a fantastic, 33-yard sideline throw to receiver Robert Woods in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown.
“That was as perfect as you could be,” Hackett said. “It was an adjustment by Woods, so the fact that EJ trusted it and believed it, that was awesome.
“EJ from the very first time he got here has screwed up me and himself,” Hackett said, half in jest. “What I mean is, he has such signs of greatness. He shows such amazing things. And I’m like, ‘How did he do that? Oh my God. I can’t believe he’s there right now.’ Then you’re like, ‘Oooh, he’s a rookie.’
“So it’s a roller coaster for me and for him,” Hackett said. “How did you make that play? But how didn’t you make that play?”
There were more plays available to the Bills’ offense.
Early in the third quarter, Manuel dumped to C.J. Spiller for no gain. He might have waited and found Chandler over the middle. Early in the fourth quarter, he miscommunicated on an incompletion to Woods but Chandler was wide open over the middle. On the next drive, a hitch pass for T.J. Graham almost was picked off while Stevie Johnson had broken open over the middle.
“Right now it’s just experience, experience, experience,” Hackett said. “Obviously I’m always going to want him to make more plays. His completion percentage is too low. It needs to go up. But that’s just about trusting the system.”
The Falcons blitzed a fair amount. Tampa blitzes a lot, too, probably more on first downs than most opponents. That puts more pressure on a rookie QB.
On one second-quarter play, Manuel threw an accurate pass over the middle to the left to Johnson for a 6-yard gain. Atlanta blitzed from the right, and Marquise Goodwin was streaking down the right side open for a deep ball, maybe a touchdown. Manuel didn’t see him, but Hackett doesn’t really knock his QB for that play.
“In that situation where they’re bringing everybody, you’re not going to have everybody blocked,” Hackett said. “So the idea is pick your side and go. You have to pick a side and go. You don’t have time to sit back and say should I go here? Should I go there?”
The coaches told Manuel to look for Goodwin next time in that situation, and they went back to the play early in the fourth quarter. The defense was the same. The blitz came again. Manuel picked Goodwin’s side. But this time Goodwin didn’t break free of the coverage as cleanly and Manuel’s pass was too far outside, out of bounds. Good decision; didn’t work out.
“As long as he’s very decisive in what he does and throws an accurate ball, that’s good,” Hackett said.
Seeing the different blitzes in different situations is all part of the buildup of experience a QB needs to get. Manuel got blitzed a ton in the first meeting with the New York Jets. He didn’t handle it well. He has shown progress since.
“His experience in that look has dramatically increased,” Hackett said. “He’s seen it quite a bit. That’s why he’s converting some, more than he did early in the season.”