The Evolution of EJ – Game 1
It is an exceedingly interesting and cautiously exciting time to be a Buffalo Bills fan for a multitude of reasons. In my opinion both the most obvious and most intriguing one is witnessing the entirety of EJ Manuel’s career trajectory.
We are undoubtedly in gently treaded waters at this point in our collective odysseys as Bills fans. Everyone is familiar with the rhetoric revolving around the playoffs. The hopelessness in our journey has continuously been amplified by an unyielding (and apparently unending) search for the heir to Jim Kelly. That is why as the EJ Manuel debate rages on vociferously within the inner circles of Bills fans, I for one have yet to grow weary of the conversation.
Now debate based on hyperbole, carefully culled statistical mining and everyone’s favorite doomsday scenario analysis, because yes, we are Bills fans, detracts from conversation in my opinion. Therefore, I’d like to present some analysis that I hope adds to the conversation on the basis of what I believe is the most accurate analytical tool we have at our disposal, the beautiful gift to football nerds everywhere, the All-22 tape. One constraint though. I think an interesting advancement and knowledge sharing activity would be to break down EJ through the background surrounding each touchdown and interception.
I view base statistics as simply outputs of information that lack any inherent analysis. I’m not talking advanced statistics here because I’m not ashamed to say I honestly don’t even know what that means. I'm not refuting their merit, I just can't speak to something I do not understand. But touchdown equals good and interception equals bad is great player analysis whilst simulating endless seasons of Madden, but the intriguingly wonderful yet often frustrating truth is that each stat, just like each play, has an incredibly detailed background. So, with that being said I will focus my analysis around the plays that produced these statistical outputs, along with occasionally some context surrounding them, while also providing commentary on the broader game and any noticeable trends, and whether they continue or not.
So without further rambling, the first touchdown against the Patriots:
The first play in the touchdown sequence comes in the second quarter after an acrobatic Justin Rogers interception. While this play is not the touchdown itself it is very important as a precursor to the actual scoring play.
To this point in the game the Bills have deployed 3x1 sets, utilizing differing personnel, on the majority of snaps. The three by one formations have mainly entailed an in line tight end, with a true slot, and a Z receiver wide. Concurrently, the Patriots have aligned in a one high safety look, often rolling the strong safety, Gregory down late. They have typically deployed press technique man on the outside, while through the progression of the game, based on the plethora of crossing and option interior route concepts, abandoning true man principles on the interior receiving threats (Chandler, Johnson and the back) in favor of more "match up man" principles.
Sparingly, the Bills have utilized the formation you see below, a tight trips formation with Chandler at the head of the trips, flanked by Stevie Johnson inside and Robert Woods outside. Concurrently, the Patriots have aligned in a two high safety look to this formation, employing either cover two of cover six (quarter quarter half) to counter, with cover two principles played to the field, and pattern reading cover four technique to the boundary over the isolated X, in this case TJ Graham.
Prior to the snap you can notice the strong safety, Steve Gregory, aligned directly on the hash, often an indication of cover two. On the snap he widens off the hash, splitting the distance between the vertical stems of Chandler and Robert Woods. While Chandler and Woods have vertical stemming routes, Johnson widens the nickel corner, to create an opening for an angle route back to the middle, as the Mike, Donta Hightower, carries Chandler on the vertical stem. This is an important piece of this particular play.
You can notice Hightower’s eyes at the point of Johnson’s break, and this will be part of the differentiation between this play and the touchdown. While he is carrying Chandler on the vertical stem, with the over the top safety help he takes his eyes down to Johnson, who is angling to the recently vacated area. Seeing this action Hightower sheds Chandler, passing him off to the cover two safety. Fortunately on Chandler’s stem he had pressed inside, allowing him to maintain enough inside leverage to not be pushed outside the hash. Additionally, the parallel vertical stems by Chandler and Woods have forced Gregory from the hash. This combination, of play design and execution, along with the techniques employed by Hightower and Gregory create the throwing window.
Now to EJ. To this point in the game, as one could likely expect in a first start, EJ’s throws have been a mixed bag. He has shown a capacity for manufacturing pressure where there is none, which has forced a couple different mechanical flaws, both starting with his feet. First and foremost he has shown a propensity to fall away on his throws, despite ample pocket space to step up and drive through the release. This movement in turn drops his elbow position forcing the ball to float or sail. A second flaw to consider is his inconsistent foot positioning on his throws. Directionally, a quarterbacks lead foot should be positioned, for a right handed quarterback, just to the left of the targeted area. This allows the needed core rotation, employing the full power of the throwing motion. Now, quarterbacks do not live in a perfect world and this sort of foot positioning can often be impossible within the context of any play. This is why it is a maddening tendency to see in a clean pocket. By overstepping, or stepping far outside of the intended target (this is different than over-striding), the bodily position as a whole changes. Therefore, when you see a ball sail wide, the first thing to look at is the lead foot positioning upon delivery, it is often telling of where the football is headed, as it is directionally where the core rotation will naturally go.
With the above being said, this play is one of EJ’s best. In concert with the touchdown that follows, it is a cause for optimism. On this play, as is often his or any quarterback’s first duty, EJ’s eyes go initially to the most dangerous safety, in this case Gregory. Seeing the technique of Gregory, staying high and coming off of the hash Manuel’s eyes go to Hightower.
While Hightower carries initially with Chandler his technique is not overly aggressive, even despite the inside vertical stem challenge of Chandler. Additionally, Hightower’s eyes are reading the pattern break of Johnson, indicating he will come off of Chandler, and he does, giving only a token shed, slightly deviating Chandler’s stem, however not enough to push him to the safety. What’s encouraging to note about this play is where Chandler, Hightower and Gregory are in relation to each other, and where Chandler is in the progression of his route, and the release of the football. To this point EJ has really thrown only one other truly anticipatory ball, the drop from Chandler on the corner route standing in his own end zone. Otherwise, the rest of his throws have been to "uncovered" receivers, meaning he is not throwing them open. Another encouraging factor in this play is EJ’s body positioning, and ultimately arm positioning on the throw despite the imminent threat, and ultimate reality, of pressure. Saying a quarterback "stands tall in the pocket" often provides very little context. However, with EJ particularly on vertical stemming routes it is important in that it will likely denote his elbow positioning on the release, which will give an indication of the trajectory of the football. Here, it is beautiful. He displays a quick weight transfer, keeping his drive leg (back leg) within the frame of his body, producing less "noise" to affect the upper body mechanics.
This allows him to drive off of his back foot, striding into his flexed front leg (not overextended), allowing his arm to "come over the top" (keeps his elbow above 90 degrees).
To complete the portrait he does not over rotate, allowing the ball to go where it is intended, as he stays within the frame of his target with his lead foot positioning. This all culminates in accurate ball placement on an anticipatory throw upon properly identifying not only the coverage, but the technique of the players within the context of that coverage. The scoring play displays the importance of that last piece.
What’s interesting to note about this play is that it is essentially the same play as the previous play, there are only a few small iterations. Additionally, it is the same coverage deployed by the Patriots. A lot was made of the simplicity of Nate Hackett’s offense last year, but here I believe you see why it had merit. The lack of motion allowed a young quarterback to have a still snap shot of the defense, and the quick tempo ensured the defense would have to either tip there hand or risk being drastically out of position. Additionally, deploying few formations and plays in addition to the still frame and tempo meant a relatively consistent overall picture for the quarterback, not to mention the young receivers, as coverage identification is an often overlooked and underappreciated aspect of a receiver’s development. But I digress, to the play itself.
Again, essentially the same play, minor iterations, same coverage, different throw. What we see here is what I will uncreatively name the "Non-Madden effect" of real football. Players and technique are adjusted play to play, as more information becomes available to them. In this case, the previous play produced a big gain down the middle of the defense. The offense realigns in the same formation, and the stem of Chandler is near identical. The players, namely Hightower and Gregory, make miniscule in play adjustments, based on the information provided by the previous play, along with what is unfolding on the current play, and these small adjustments, along with similarly small adjustments made by Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods, dictate the ball being thrown where it is, which is not to Scott Chandler. On the snap once again the play looks near identical.
One subtle, but very important difference on the offensive side is the stem by Robert Woods. On the previous play he widened slightly to attack the leverage of both the safety and the corner, but on this play it is more pronounced. As Woods angles to the corner of the end zone on his initial vertical stem he reaches just about level with the cover two corner Talib.
At this point he displays the type of understanding of leverage and spacing that is quite impressive, especially as this is his first professional game. Upon reaching level, he makes a more pronounced widening attack, before planting hard with his outside foot into Talib, and breaking to the corner. At the same time, Stevie Johnson, whose initial stem had been a lateral widening before an angle break on the previous play, shows a similar initial route stem here. The difference, once that is actually quite crucial, is that instead of breaking back to a vacated middle, he stays the course of the flat route, creating a smash combination on the outside with Robert Woods, into the cover two coverage. This all culminates in a flat footed Aqib Talib, affecting no part of the play.
Now, the Chandler piece. As with the previous play his initial stem is vertical and inside. However, in this instance Hightower takes a much more physical approach, walling off Chandler and pushing him two yards outside the hash, as he carries him the entire way on his vertical stem, even turning his back and employing essentially man under technique. The walling off by Hightower forces Chandler directly on the path of the alignment of the safety Gregory, who is approximately 1 ½ to 2 yards ourside of the hash. Notice Gregory’s body positioning on this play, relative to the previous one. Here instead of deviating slightly to play the outside he remains head up leverage on Chandler, even flat footed at the point of the previous shed by Hightower and break by Chandler. He is ensuring there is no reoccurrence of the previous completion. You can see all of this in the graphic above.
All of this has the effect of a wide open Robert Woods, darting to the corner of the end zone, over top of a cover two corner who failed to properly engage Woods at all in his stem, and a cover two safety, flat footed anticipating a throw to the post, unable to flip his hips and recover in time.
And of course, then there is EJ. While, make no mistake about it, this touchdown is majorly the result of play design, excellent execution by Robert Woods, and subtle coverage hiccups by the Patriots, the read and throw by EJ are important.
On the snap, once again, his eyes go immediately to identifying the technique of the most dangerous safety, Gregory, as an indication of the coverage. This is where what I mentioned above about Hackett’s offense comes into play. He holds the safety with his eyes, knowing, at the very least, he will have a one on one matchup, with an out leveraged cover two corner, into the corner of the endzone, where one on one battle balls are less dangerous. As the safety stays over the top of the stem by Chandler, EJ hits the top of his drop, eyes on the safety still.
Upon hitting the top of his drop he flips his hips and begins his throwing motion just as Woods is breaking to the end zone.
The timing here is flawless. EJ releases a touch throw, high and away, which would have been important if the technique of the safety had been better. Additionally, you’ll notice the body positioning on the throw. There is a tendency for quarterbacks, on short touch passes to lean back and as a result short arm the throw, causing "high and die" or pop up (think baseball) trajectory. Here EJ is efficient in his movements, maintaining an even base, flexed front foot, and a neutral shoulder plane (he is not leaning back upon release), and proper elbow positioning (cause and effect).
This allows him the proper follow through to complete the drop in the bucket throw. It is a perfect throw into the coverage, as denoted by the perfect triangle formed by Woods and the two closing defenders upon its completion. He takes the receiver equidistant away from any closing threat.
This is ultimately an extremely encouraging sequence. Here you can see EJ displaying that he has both the necessary traits to have success in this league, and the capacity to utilize these traits effectively in game situations.