Niagara Gazette

November 11, 2013

MEILER: Manuel, Bills take giant step back

By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Things went about as poorly as possible Sunday for the Buffalo Bills and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.

Losing to the 2-6 Pittsburgh Steelers was one thing, looking inept offensively in a 23-10 game that was much more a blowout than the score indicates was another. But Manuel’s dud (22 of 39, 155 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) was enough to waste any goodwill built up by Bills fans after watching four weeks of Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel.

Manuel had missed Buffalo’s previous four games after spraining his knee in a loss to Cleveland on Oct. 3. Lewis and Tuel — and the team as a whole, really — looked better than expected and remained competitive during what was probably the toughest stretch of Buffalo’s schedule.

Still, the team went 1-3 without Manuel, and neither backup played well enough with any consistency to stir up any sort of QB controversy. If nothing else, the two made enough boneheaded plays (like game-changing pick-sixes) that Manuel became Bills’ fans savior. If the team could hang with playoff-bound squads like the Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs with undrafted nobodies in Lewis and Tuel, what could it do with its first-round starter?

Nothing, apparently. The Steelers played a great defensive game Sunday, bucking tradition by dropping into coverage rather than blitzing Manuel, which has been defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s calling card for most of his 40-year coaching career. LeBeau took away Buffalo’s running game, bet that Manuel and Buffalo’s receivers couldn’t beat him, and won.

It’s not all Manuel’s fault. Playing without rookie Robert Woods hurt, leaving Stevie Johnson as the lone receiving threat that could consistently win one-on-one matchups. Then Johnson got hurt, leaving a group of underwhelming receivers that relied on play designs and route combinations to get open.

But a good quarterback makes his receivers better. A good quarterback throws receivers open, putting the ball in a spot where only his teammate can get it. Manuel was the opposite Sunday, missing a wide-open Johnson multiple times before his injury, then turning to check downs and swing passes after he couldn’t connect with his receivers.

A good quarterback picks apart coverage-based defenses. We’ve seen it in Buffalo for years against Tom Brady. Good quarterbacks force defenses to blitz, then try for big plays when coordinators gamble and bring extra pressure.

Manuel is not a good quarterback. Yet. He’s still a rookie, and Sunday’s game was only his sixth start. His biggest issues have been inaccuracy and his tendency to check down rather than attack the secondary with long passes, which seems to be opposite most of the elite (see Brady, Brees, Manning and Rodgers) quarterbacks in the league.

Nobody expected Manuel to touch that “elite” level any time this year. But Buffalo fans will expect improvement. After 14 playoff-less seasons, they’re willing to wait for what could be a franchise quarterback.

At the same time, the Lewis and Tuel games proved that the rest of the roster can compete with the big boys. It feels like the team is a quarterback away from taking the next step. And after 14 playoff-less seasons, Buffalo fans won’t be willing to wait long.

Respond to Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or by email at mike.meiler@niagara-gazette.com.