The Buffalo Bills are willing to live with some ups and downs from rookie quarterback EJ Manuel this season. That comes with the territory of starting a wet-behind-the-ears QB right out of the gate.
What the Bills do want to see from Manuel, however, is progress -- from start to start, and even play to play. The Florida State product showed that in his two preseason outings, gradually gaining steam in his exhibition debut against the Colts, then playing well against Minnesota.
How quickly a rookie can learn from his mistakes tells us a lot about what level of success may await that player in the future. Judging by how Manuel performed against the Patriots on Sunday, Bills fans still have every reason to be excited about him as their guy for the remainder of this season and beyond.
One play, in particular, emphasized that: Manuel's late second-quarter TD toss to Robert Woods. To see why Manuel deserves a little extra credit for that play, we have to look back a few minutes earlier in the game, to a brutal decision (and near-interception) by the Buffalo signal-caller.
Stevie Johnson (boxed in yellow below) started the play bunched to Manuel's left with Woods and tight end Scott Chandler. Johnson's pattern looped him around Woods for a quick slant just past that first-down marker at the 18.
The problems for Manuel and Buffalo began at the snap, because both Woods and Johnson were slowed on their releases by the pass rush of DE Chandler Jones. This was meant to be a quick-hit pass play designed to give Buffalo just enough yardage to convert on a 3rd-and-short.
The delay in Johnson's pattern threw off Manuel's timing. Rather than adjust and look for a second option or scramble for the first down -- as you can see below, the latter option was very much available to his blindside -- Manuel stayed locked on Johnson. Manuel's preferred receiver is not in this next shot, but you can see his eyes are completely focused out to his left, where Johnson was trying to get into his route.
Pressure off Manuel's right side from Rob Ninkovich threatened the play even further. Manuel cocked and reset the ball twice before firing exactly where he had been looking the whole time. Kyle Arrington jumped the route and nearly came up with an INT in the Buffalo red zone.
About nine minutes later, Manuel redeemed himself with a pretty touchdown pass to rookie Robert Woods in the right corner of the end zone. Manuel looked far more polished and confident on that throw, and he left the New England defense confused as a result. The TD pass to Woods again opened with the same bunch formation -- Johnson in tight with Woods and Chandler -- though this time flipped to Manuel's right. Johnson ran a route to the flat, while Chandler headed straight upfield and Woods broke off on a corner route.
Manuel dropped and looked for Chandler on a go route. He found his tight end smothered by a pair of defenders -- a linebacker sliding from the middle, with safety Steve Gregory (No. 28) over the top. Despite pretty terrific coverage from Dont'a Hightower, Gregory holds his position. Why? Because Manuel draws him toward Chandler with his eyes,
Whether the play called for Manuel to hesitate before firing out wide to Woods or Woods was the secondary option after Chandler, Manuel rather quickly readjusted his focus on the play. After initially tracking Chandler near the goal line, Manuel shuffled his feet, turned his body and spotted a wide open Woods.
That blur in the left of the photo is Gregory, about a third of the field away from Woods. After Woods caught this pass, cornerback Aqib Talib reacted as if he were anticipating some deep help from Gregory on the play. (The NFL does not release its coaches' film until later in the week, so there are limited angles of Talib on the play. It appeared, however, that he let Woods release long so he could play zone short.)
Gregory might have been there, too, had he not allowed Manuel to pin him to Chandler. At the very least, Gregory could have given Manuel second thoughts on this pass. As it was, Woods had tons of room to make the grab and stay inbounds.
NFL defenses will feast on a quarterback who cannot move from his primary reads -- it was one of Brandon Weeden's biggest issues during a tough 2012 rookie season. Manuel learned that lesson early, when Arringon almost came up with a costly interception. The Bills' new QB was far from flawless the rest of the day, but his work on the Woods TD pass displayed a better understanding of what it takes to pick apart talented secondaries.