New Head Coach Doug Marrone and Offensive Coordinator inherited this team with a giant weakness at Quarterback. Instead of “seeing what they had” in Ryan Fitzpatrick, they hitched their wagon to First Round draft pick E.J. Manuel from Florida State. The learning curve tied to successfully transitioning from college to the NFL as a quarterback is notoriously steep. In preparation for the Ravens match-up in Buffalo this Sunday, I went back to the film to watch how well this new offensive approach is going.
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The Run Game
The Bills have an offensive line built to run the Power scheme (i.e. man-blocking assignments and drive blocking, playcall examples via Matt Bowen (fix hyperlink) here and here.). As a unit, this line strikes me as highly intelligent in understanding responsibility but lacking in the power to move defenders off of their spot. This leaves a cluttered middle of the field with few holes to run through.
To mitigate these line issues and to help a quarterback make simple plays, the Bills have incorporated the Read-Option (mostly the Backside Read Option from shotgun rather than Veer) into their arsenal. This allows the elusive and decisive C.J. Spiller to run laterally and cut up the field at his leisure. The Bills continually try to get Spiller space on the edge to utilize his speed and agility in the open. Spiller is impressively explosive and worth the mainstream media praise in my opinion. Fred Jackson, however, is less worthy of the flattery he has been privy to. Jackson looks a step slow and he fits as an inflexible Power-style back, meaning he hits the hole designed for him regardless of whether it is open or not. In essence, Jackson is a product of the blocking in front of him.
Through the Air
I mentioned the coaching staff making Manuel’s transition into the NFL easy. Given one word to describe this Manuel-led offense, I’d call it “simple.” This offensive system relies on short-to-intermediate throws that are based on “if/or” reads. This is reflected in the number of plays where Manuel is only forced to react to the placement/leverage of one player before making a throw. The below play is an example straight from the Spread playbook:
Anyone who has watched Chip Kelly’s Eagles has seen this play many times. The Bills have an in-line TE Scott Chandler on the left with WR Stevie Johnson playing in the slot across from CB D.J. Moore. At the snap Johnson will run a “Bubble screen” and Chandler will run a “Stick” route.
Manuel looks at only ONE player after his initial play-fake, D.J. Moore. The choice between Bubble and Stick is determined by which direction Moore reacts to. In the above image, Moore is pushing toward Johnson in the slot rather than spot-dropping into a Curl/Flat zone.
Moore is clearly out of position (by no fault of his own, he is wrong regardless) and Manuel connects with Chandler. This throw goes down as an incompletion though as Chandler never has possession before it gets knocked out.
TE Scott Chandler is not a particularly agile route runner. They use him a bit over the middle and in the flats but his lack of speed and burst should not worry the Ravens linebackers too much on Sunday.
The Bills offensive simplicity becomes predictable at times. Both the Panthers and the Jets (the last two opponents) began to assume short passes and started to drive on these routes:
The Panthers are playing Cover-3 zone (3-deep, 4-Under). This route combination should pick up ~5 yards assuming minimal room for YACs. Slot receiver T.J. Graham needs to find a soft spot between zones to catch the ball and get down.
Graham turns his head at the 25 yard line while hugging the Flat zone defender (CB) because he knows that Flat defender must push to cover Stevie Johnson in the flat. Unfortunately for the Bills, Manuel waits and pats the ball before throwing…
This extra second of patience allowed Kuechley to drive in front of Graham and intercept the ball. This play is an example of how Manuel does not yet recognize defenses. He is simply looking at the spot of players. The depth of the CBs in Image 1 should have tipped off zone coverage and the throw should have been on time. To be fair, the Bills staff have not asked Manuel to read through progressions at this stage of his career, so there is shared blame here.
The Bills offense is not meant to come from behind and collect yards in chunks. This is a highly managed offense who needs to methodically work down the field. When the situation calls for pushing the envelope, the offense sputters. Some of this is due to Manuel’s arm strength – he doesn’t have a cannon for an arm like some veterans (Flacco, Cutler, Stafford). A good deal of blame falls on the play calling in my estimation. Ravens fans are familiar with isolation routes that the Cam Cameron offense featured. The deep patterns are no different in this offense. This is a baffling approach because they do not have receivers on the roster who can beat press-man or trail-man coverage (save for Stevie Johnson) and they do not have the offensive front that can consistently hold their blocks for >3 seconds. The result of this strategy and personnel is a lot of checkdowns (sound familiar Ravens fans?).
Manuel thankfully has some impressive poise in the pocket for his age (he was born in 1990). Manuel generally doesn’t rush to hit the checkdown man but he lacks confidence in throwing the ball downfield and when he does throw 9-routes, the ball fades out of bounds where it is impossible to catch.
Another area of strength in Manuel’s game is his legs. Manuel took off a few times via read-option although he gave it most of the time. Additionally, he will scramble down the field and can be elusive in space. This is a blessing and a curse, however. Manuel’s running ability stems from the fact that he starts looking for running lanes once the rush begins leaking through. This minimizes the depth of routes the Bills can use and leaves Manuel open to taking unnecessary hits.
Quick Notes on the Ravens Strategy:
- Containing the outside running lanes is imperative. The Ravens have two very solid edge-setters in Suggs and Upshaw but the secondary will need to help fill the alleys as well. Spiller in open space is dangerous.
- Stevie Johnson is an elite #1 receiver in my opinion. He has the burst and agility to beat man-to-man coverage and can leap to make high-point grabs. He has been handcuffed in his career by poor offenses and below-average quarterbacking. This offense is no different. However, the Bills will call quick-hitting plays to get Stevie open in space. The Ravens should blanket him with Webb as I am not concerned with the traits of the other WRs.
- I think blitz should be part of the Ravens gameplan. If the Ravens can add complexity to their pressure schemes, Manuel will look to run early.
- As mentioned above, Buffalo’s offense is designed to convert 3rd and Short continually. Although cliche, halting the run game will be beneficial more so than in most games. The Bills struggle to pick up chunks of yards.
- WR patterns are consistently short breaking routes (Manuel is tied for second-last in deep passing completions) where E.J. can take 3-steps and release the ball. Cover-2 can gives the Ravens press looks as well as zones to jump in-breaking patterns. Defensive playcalls like Cover-6 and Cover-2 Invert can give Manuel muddied reads and force poor throws or coverage sacks.
- Short routes often provide room to run for receivers. Another cliche: Tackling the catch. This will be important to systematically shut down this offense.