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EJ Manuel shows progress in Bills vs. Steelers preseason action

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Taking a long, hard look at EJ Manuel's preseason performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Joe Sargent

I am an EJ Manuel skeptic. I've had low expectations for him since before he was selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, even while I hope to see him succeed with the Buffalo Bills. With that in mind, let's talk about Manuel's performance in the first half of the Pittsburgh Steelers preseason game from this past weekend.

Frankly, I was really impressed. Outside of a few small mistakes, Manuel did an excellent job choosing his targets and delivering the ball to the right spot. Despite the team failing to score when it counted in the red zone, I consider this the best performance I've seen Manuel deliver in his career thus far. How did he impress me so much? Let's break down the passing plays and talk about it.

Q1 - 14:20 - 2nd and 7

Pittsburgh rushes four. Fred Jackson sees no one to block, steps forward, and Manuel hits him after a seven-step drop for a quick completion. Jackson has space in front of him and picks up five yards.

Q1 - 13:37 - 3rd and 2

On a five-step drop, Manuel has a clean pocket from Pittsburgh rushing four. He hesitates slightly, but delivers an easy pass to Scott Chandler that's caught for four yards and a first down. Chris Hogan appeared to be open on a deeper route across the middle, but I won't argue a completion for a first down, especially this early in the game.

Q1 - 12:04 - 1st and 10

On play action, the pocket collapses pretty quickly. He steps up and scrambles left, keeping his eyes downfield. Both of his checkdown targets are covered man-to-man, so he tucks and runs for five yards, heading out of bounds.

Q1 - 11:04 - 3rd and 3

This is the play on which Sammy Watkins was injured. The Steelers are showing blitz, with one deep safety and man coverage on the boundaries.

On a three step drop, Manuel turns and targets Watkins, who appears to be coming open on an in-breaking route behind an unsuspecting Troy Polamalu.

Manuel's pass is off the mark and hits the ground at Watkins' feet. But at least it drew a penalty. I don't think the decision was poor, just the throw.

Q1 - 10:59 - 1st and 10

The Steelers rush four, and Manuel takes a three-step drop in a clean pocket. Once again, the Steelers leave tons of room for a checkdown to Jackson.

Now who can argue with that? Easy pass and catch, and if it weren't for Troy being Troy, the Bills might have gotten a few more than five yards out of it.

Q1 - 10:20 - 2nd and 5

Here's Buffalo's first screen play. Despite the guy right in his face, Manuel delivers the ball right on target to the running back. Frankly, Manuel was terrible at these kind of short touch passes last year. To see this was a big plus for me.

Q1 - 9:44 - 3rd and 1

The Steelers are showing blitz, with zone looks to the offensive right side and a man look on the flanker wide left. Manuel takes the snap and immediately sprints right. He's looking deep to Robert Woods, or checking down to Jackson if Woods is covered.

Manuel makes the right read as Woods is open, but he makes an off-balance throw. The pass is a bit too high and off the mark, and Woods can only stretch out one arm for it.

Q1 - 8:11 - 2nd and 8

The Steelers have just scored on a huge broken play. Buffalo gets the ball back and the first run is effectively stuffed. No problem, says Manuel.

Manuel takes a five-step drop, identifies the hole in the zone on the right side, and delivers a strike to Mike Williams past the sticks. That ball was delivered on target to a spot that would let Williams turn upfield. Great pass.

Q1 - 6:52 - 1st and 10

On this play, the linebacker shows blitz presnap, then backs off into coverage. Corner blitzes from the right side, along with a different linebacker. This is another screen play for Buffalo.

Once again, a great pass right into Jackson's hands. Unfortunately, the blocking here was subpar, and the extra defenders easily made the tackle. Good process, bad result.

Q1 - 6:09 - 2nd and 15

With the TFL on the last play, Manuel's going to pass here, and he wants to make up a big chunk of that yardage. He takes his steps with a clean pocket, and it's pretty clear he's eying the tight end up the seam.

It's a great decision, really. All of his other options are well covered, the safeties are deep enough, and Chandler has a step on Ryan Shazier. If Manuel lofts the ball high enough, it's a chance at a 15 to 20-yard completion.

Unfortunately it's a bit low, Chandler is bad at boxing out defenders, and Shazier is a freak. It's a pick, but I would give Manuel half credit here because he made the right decision on that pass. The pass needs to be better, though.

Q1 - 2:14 - 1st and 10

Manuel takes a five-step drop and delivers a quick pass to the left side. Looks like there was miscommunication with Woods, though, as Woods was still running up the sideline when the pass landed a few yards behind him.

Q1 - 2:10 - 2nd and 10

This play is a slip screen, where Manuel takes the snap, immediately turns and throws left to Woods, who has to put the moves on the cornerback and make his way upfield. The pass is delivered right to Woods' chest, but the Steelers close quickly, and it's a short gain.

Q1 - 1:34 - 3rd and 7

The Steelers rush five here, but Jackson picks up the blitz and Manuel has a clean pocket. He sees Chandler with plenty of room in front. The pass is a little high, but Chandler brings it in, and he manages to get the first down.

Q1 - 1:16 - 1st and 10

Pittsburgh is actually in a pretty vanilla look presnap, with a Cover 3 nickel setup and four down linemen. The blocking isn't great on this designed rollout, and Manuel doesn't really have room to scramble forward if he wanted to.

He identifies Hogan open past several defenders, and makes the throw while scrambling right. Unfortunately, Hogan can't reel it in. It looked like the pass was slightly behind Hogan. Good decision, and a better pass would be complete for a first down.

Q1 - 1:10 - 2nd and 10

This is a quick pass with no hesitation. He knows that Jackson is open with space, and he delivers the ball right in front for some easy YAC. First down.

Q2 - 14:27 - 1st and 10

Uh-oh. This doesn't look-

Oh, here we go again, here comes the-

Scramble right, incompletion out of bounds! Manuel gets pressure up the middle, not something easy to deal with, but he escapes without getting hit and gets an okay outcome. I don't consider this a negative play by Manuel. (That was Eric Wood who gave up the pressure from the tackle, by the way.)

Q2 - 14:20 - 2nd and 10

On a five-step drop, the Steelers rush five and Manuel again faces pressure, this time from the right side thanks to some acrobatic movement by Jason Worilds.

Really, everyone failed at blocking on this play.

In less than two seconds, Manuel is within the grasp. He throws the ball away as he's being brought down, but that wasn't a great choice. Intentional grounding penalty.

Q2 - 14:14 - 3rd and 27

With the pocket closing around him, Manuel delivers the ball on target to Chandler.

The ball turns Chandler upfield, and he fights to within three yards of the sticks. No first down, but I'll gladly take a 24 yard pass that puts you into field goal range.

Q2 - 9:41 - 2nd and 6

Play action. Seven step drop. Doug Legursky gets beaten badly. Manuel is getting wrapped up by a defender, but he stands tall and delivers a strike to Woods right in the hole of the defense. Woods does what he does best and gets some serious YAC. Great decision, great pass.

Q2 - 7:48 - 3rd and 9

Just before this play, Seantrel Henderson made his first dumb rookie mistake and got called on a false start. A 3rd and 4 becomes a difficult 3rd and 9. No big deal, says Manuel.

16-yard deep out, right on the money to Woods. That's why they drafted Manuel, because few people have the arm strength to zip it over there on time. First down.

Q2 - 7:25 - 1st and 10

Not a big fan of the decision here, but it worked alright in the end.

Manuel has T.J. Graham and Woods running comeback routes wide left and right. Hogan flares out left, and Jackson flares right. Chandler runs a five-yard hitch up the middle. Yes, Manuel completes to Chandler, but there's no room for YAC with two guys right in front of him. Both Graham and Woods were in position to catch the ball in stride, turn upfield, and have a safety to beat for a touchdown. This is the type of checkdown I'd like to see less often.

Q2 - 5:37 - 4th and 1

Although it's a 4th and 1, the Bills line up in a shotgun, three-wide look. The Steelers have eight defenders on the line of scrimmage at the snap. Six blitz. Manuel locks on to his leftmost receiver (Graham) as soon as he gets the ball, and his pass is tipped. I think that if the pass wasn't tipped, it's a first down, and I think that if Manuel wasn't so obvious about locking on to Graham, the pass doesn't get tipped. You can definitely see Cameron Heyward watching Manuel's eyes as he prepares to raise his arm.

Q2 - 3:10 - 3rd and 4

It should be noted that from this play forward, all of the passes were against Pittsburgh's second string defense.

No hesitation. Manuel starts his reads, sees Graham coming open, delivers the pass right to him, and Graham turns upfield and fights forward for the first down.

Q2 - 2:34 - 1st and 10

A simple result. Manuel takes the ball, looks through all his reads, doesn't see anything he likes, and checks down to Anthony Dixon. Three defenders immediately crash in and make the tackle after a short gain.

Q2 - 2:00 - 2nd and 5

On this play, Manuel targets Hogan on a crossing route, but it appears that there was miscommunication on the play. Hogan ends his route and the pass leads him a few more yards forward. Incompletion.

Q2 - 1:56 - 3rd and 5

This looks familiar. Manuel sees the defenders dropping back to cover his wideouts and delivers the ball to Jackson for the first down.

Q2 - 1:27 - 1st and goal (from the 6)

Let's play "spot the bad habit." If you guessed "Manuel staring down his receiver as soon as he got the snap," you're right! Shamarko Thomas sees the checkdown to Jackson coming and closes quickly to make the tackle for no gain.

Q2 - 0:36 - 3rd and goal (from the 3)

Any question where Manuel wanted to go with this one?

That being said, he slotted in a beautiful pass right past the defender to Woods. Unfortunately, Woods got run out of bounds.

Q2 - 0:32 - 4th and goal (from the 3)

Buffalo wants to go for it, and they run the exact same play as before, except this time Manuel doesn't lock onto Woods at the start.

Manuel sees his target and he wants the 6'7" Chandler. The pass is in the air before Chandler comes out of his break. Unfortunately, Chandler gets pushed over. The pass was on target, but falls incomplete.

Summary of the first half (all of Manuel's snaps)

22.5 good decisions out of 29 designed pass plays. Overall, Manuel had a strong game against the Dick Lebeau defense that confuses so many young quarterbacks (and was admittedly vanilla in exhibition play). His bad decisions were mostly nitpicking on my part, with no terrible passes into the teeth of the defense. I could honestly grade him a lot closer to a 26 out of 29 if I wanted to; he made very few mental mistakes.

20 well-placed passes out of 26 valid attempts. Considering the amount of checkdowns, this number is right where it should be. Earlier on, Manuel struggled a bit with hitting those intermediate throws, but by the end of the night he had found his stride.

Overall, this was a big surprise to me as someone who has taken issue with Manuel's ability to read the full field and deliver the ball accurately. I was very impressed with the way he moved the ball, and I think the lack of touchdowns was caused more by bad luck than anything else. For two quarters, this offense moved nearly at will against the Steelers, and they did it without Watkins.

This is by no means a final report on Manuel. For all of the Manuel fans out there, he still has some bad habits that need fixing, and the accuracy needs tuning up, before he can lead this team to the playoffs. For the skeptics out there, trust me when I say what I saw against Pittsburgh was something that looked like a potential franchise quarterback. That isn't easy to find in the NFL.