Before we get deep into Johnny Manziel's first NFL start and all the little disasters within it, it's important to make one thing clear: Just because Manziel had a horrid opener in Cleveland's 30-0 loss to the Bengals last Sunday doesn't mean that he's hopeless. As Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network pointed out today, Manziel isn't the first quarterback to be shut out in his NFL debut. Bob Griese was, as was Troy Aikman, and those two are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. NFL.com's Gil Brandt notes a longer line of future greats who started out badly. It's a very, very long way from Cleveland to Canton for Manziel, but again, it's just one game. We're not much closer to knowing whether Manziel will be horrid, average or great over the scope of a full career than we were before last Sunday.
That said, the ease with which Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was able to neutralize Manziel's talents is a bit unnerving. Manziel completed 10 of 19 passes for 80 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and three sacks. With so little NFL tape to prepare for the rookie, Guenther went back to Manziel's Texas A&M tape against LSU and Missouri in 2013. The LSU game was particularly enlightening, as the Tigers bottled Manziel up by using "mush-rushes." Instead of blitzing him or bowing to him as a running threat, Les Miles' defense often conceded the middle-short and intermediate areas, and played heavy zone coverage with some creative pressure schemes mixed in.
As a result, Manziel's first reads were obstructed more than they were defined, and he struggled mightily, completing 16 of 41 passes for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in a 34-10 loss. That game ended the Aggies' 13-game streak in which they scored 40 or more points and provided a template -- if not a blueprint -- for stopping Manziel.
"The defense rushed and maintained leverage and we put speed on the field and covered," Miles said after the game. "That's the kind of LSU defense that we're used to."
Last Sunday, Manziel was similarly flustered by a defense dropping linebackers, sprinkling in blitzes and forcing him out of his preferred modus operandi. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup told me in our Week 15 preview podcast, Guenther's defense had already been trending that way, and Manziel ran right into the teeth of it.
"The Bengals have evolved dramatically defensively over the course of this season," Cosell said. "They began the year as a fairly high-percentage blitz team with some of the same concepts [the team had with former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer], because Paul Guenther was the coach who put together many of the blitz packages under Mike Zimmer. But as the year progressed, and they had injuries, particularly at linebacker, there was a stretch where their linebacker play was well below NFL standards. They had to change their defense. And over the last 3-4 weeks, they found some stability, and they settled into being a defense that plays a lot more zone, and doesn't blitz as much. They've played better. It's hard to say what they might do against Johnny Manziel, but Johnny Manziel is frenetic by nature. So, do you want to force him to drop back and read coverage, in which case you don't rush him, or do you want to play into that freneticism and chaotic nature, and make him even more so?"
Guenther did both, to be sure -- Cincinnati's defensive game plan was anything but one-dimensional. But in the end, the Bengals bet that if they forced Manziel to read the field, they'd defeat him. And given Manziel's limitations, it was the right bet to make.
Here was Cleveland's first third down of the game, a third-and-2 at their own 25-yard line. The Browns lined up in an unusual formation: diamond right, with four receivers in a bunch cluster. Josh Gordon was the "X-iso" receiver to the other side. At the snap, Gordon ran a quick slant, while the receivers to the right side blocked and milled around. This would lead one to believe that it was a designed run or a first-read bubble screen -- unfortunately, Manziel's run gained just one yard, and the Browns had to punt.
"[Offensive coordinator] Kyle Shanahan had a nice design," ESPN and NFL Films analyst Ron Jaworski said on ESPN Radio Wednesday morning. "The play was a quarterback draw -- they wanted to get Johnny into the game, I'm sure, and get some of those splash plays. [The Bengals] lined up with four down linemen and two linebackers, and they actually got a really good situation from an offensive perspective. Johnny had three options on the play: He could have thrown the bubble screen to the right, he could have thrown the quick dart route to Josh Gordon, or he could have run the draw. He tried to throw the dart route to Josh Gordon, but the linebacker took it away."
Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur did have a part in taking the play away, but what really shook Manziel was the effort of safety Reggie Nelson, who brought a box look from safety depth and then spun out to cover the flat. The Bengals did a great job of passing Gordon off through the depth of the route, and because Manziel isn't an anticipation thrower, that strategy is going to cause problems for Cleveland's offense. Manziel's default setting when he sees color where he doesn't want it is to tuck the ball and run.
The Bengals did play an unusual amount of zone in this game (at least, on pace with current NFL standards), but that doesn't mean they were passive. Here, early in the second quarter, the Bengals bring Lamur off the right edge, with linebacker Vincent Rey taking off from a blitz look to cover the left flat. Manziel had an opportunity in this case, because the Bengals were playing man coverage with a deep safety, and Gordon beat cornerback Leon Hall on a deep curl route. But Manziel mistimed the throw, and the ball went behind Gordon. Now, Gordon hasn't been the league's best receiver when it comes to route sharpness this season, but this looks like a fairly clean route that was mistimed. Hall was penalized for illegal use of hands, so the Browns ended up with a first down.
Not that it mattered, because Manziel threw his first pick of the day two plays later, on a second-and-8 at the Cleveland 20-yard line. The Browns went with a full-house backfield, and Gordon ran a vertical route up the numbers on the left side. Andrew Hawkins ran an over route from right to left, with cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick trailing him. It was a two-man route concept because everyone in the backfield stayed in to block, and Hall trailed Gordon upfield with Nelson providing deep help. That meant Manziel would have to time the crossing route through a gauntlet of Bengals defenders in his line of sight at the intermediate level and make sure the throw wasn't late so that Kirkpatrick couldn't jump the route. Manziel had a window, but he didn't use it, and Kirkpatrick jumped it for the interception.
This is one problem that Manziel has, and it's fairly common among young quarterbacks who played in his type of college offense: He does not throw with a great sense of anticipation, putting the ball where only his receiver can get it if the route is run and timed correctly. Quarterbacks who fail to throw with anticipation make life harder for themselves. Any pass contested by coverage either has to be a perfect dime of a throw or a physical battle won by the receiver. The complexity of the route tree is lost in traffic.
Manziel actually threw three interceptions in this game -- it's just that one was called back by a penalty. Bengals lineman Wallace Gilberry was busted for a neutral zone infraction that negated Manziel's pick on a badly-thrown ball out of a wide formation with 3:16 left in the first half. Shanahan's play design worked in this case -- the primary read was a quick crosser to Travis Benjamin underneath the intermediate defense. But Manziel's throw was high and off-time (again, anticipation issues) and linebacker Rey Maualuga was there for the pick. It's concerning when a quarterback can't take advantage of a simple gameplan, especially one that seemed to be plucked right out of Spread Offense 101, but you either throw the ball correctly, or you don't.
Manziel's second official interception came on that same drive, with 1:17 left in the first half, and I'd put this one a bit on Gordon as well. Still, the throw Manziel made was ill-advised at best. The Browns faced a third-and-4 at the Cincinnati 19-yard line. Manziel had tight end Jordan Cameron open on a deep crosser but didn't see it. He had Hawkins reasonably open on an out route to the right but didn't see it. He had Taylor Gabriel open for a moment out of a stack formation concept but didn't pull the trigger.
Instead, Manziel reacted poorly as the Bengals got pressure from a dual line stunt, ran around and tried to make a hero's throw to Gabriel (who was covered by cornerback Adam Jones and was running into the corner of Manziel's vision at that point in the play). Gabriel might have caught the pass if he hadn't delayed things with a weird little hitch in the crossing route, but that's a throw Manziel shouldn't have made. Maybe it works when you're throwing to Mike Evans against Baylor, but as they say, this is the NFL.
There are times when the offensive line shouldn't be blamed for a sack, and here's a great example. Early in the third quarter, the Browns faced third-and-4 at their own 24-yard line. Pretty simple, really -- Manziel had Gordon open underneath on a crossing route. He had a clean pocket and a throwing lane right as Gordon broke away from Lamur in coverage. But he didn't make the throw that required timing and anticipation (that again), and defensive tackle Geno Atkins send him to the ground.
We'll finish up with one of the better examples of Guenther and the Bengals countering concepts that should have been easy for Manziel. This is a staple for mobile quarterbacks -- Shanahan had great success with it in Washington with Robert Griffin III, and the Seahawks use it pretty frequently to create huge openings in coverage for Russell Wilson as a running threat. It's a simple scheme -- you sell run-action to one side, the quarterback boots out to the opposite side, and the defense overreacts enough to the dual rushing threats to rip huge holes in coverage. It didn't happen here, because the Bengals took a page from Les Miles' playbook and waited Manziel out with well-timed, patient defense.
"Everything was on point in practice," Gordon said after the fact. "Everything was smooth. Simulating the game is hard to be done. When you are out there thrown into the fire, you have to be ready for anything. It’s not going to look like practice.
"He’s a rookie. It’s his first game. You wish the circumstances were better for him, but it’s good for him to learn how rough this league really is. It’s really tough and you have to earn your wins."
The Browns are in a bit of a quandary. Head coach Mike Pettine has said that Manziel will start the rest of the season, and given the way Brian Hoyer was playing before he was benched, that makes as much sense as anything. Pettine and his staff have two more games this season to decide if Manziel has shown the team enough to put the offense in his hands and make some major changes in the overall structure of the gameplan. At this point, Johnny Manziel is a true NFL quarterback in name only, and the only thing that will change that is time.