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What EJ Manuel's Week 1 start means for Patriots vs. Bills

Posted by Erik Frenz  September 4, 2013 12:58 PM

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When the Buffalo Bills announced quarterback EJ Manuel as their Week 1 starter against the Patriots, it ended over two weeks worth of speculation.

It's been about that long since Manuel had surgery on his left knee on August 18, but head coach Doug Marrone said Manuel is recovering ahead of schedule. The quarterback practiced for the first time since his knee injury on Sunday, and participated fully on Monday.

Whether he is back to 100 percent, or reasonably close, we'll find out on Sunday. Any lingering effects of the surgery could impact his ability to use his legs to extend plays and/or pick up yards running the ball.

Either way, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pointed out some of the difficulties in preparing to face a rookie quarterback.

"To be honest with you, there isn't a ton of Buffalo film on either one of them," said Belichick of Manuel and rookie backup Jeff Tuel, who would have started if Manuel couldn't play. "We saw them play in college and scouted them both coming out there, but that doesn't really mean as much as what they do in this offense and how they do it. There's not a whole lot of film on either guy."

One look at the Bills preseason tape makes the game plan obvious: get ready to defend a lot of short passes.

ej manuel preseason throws.png

A diagram of each of Manuel's throws (red indicates routes Manuel threw more than once) reveals Buffalo's tendency to keep things close to the line of scrimmage in the passing game. Manuel attempted 33 total passes in the preseason, and averaged six yards per pass attempt. For context, the NFL average in 2012 was 7.1 YPA.

In addition to sound coverage, the Patriots need to be ready to make a sure tackle. The Bills have a ton of speed at receiver in T.J. Graham (4.41 40-yard dash), Marquise Goodwin (4.27) and Robert Woods (4.51), and can be dangerous with the ball in their hands.

That being said, the Patriots can't afford to ignore the deep pass. Marrone wasn't necessarily in favor of not taking any deep shots with Manuel.

"I told [offensive coordinator] Nathaniel [Hackett], 'Let’s just make sure we get some go's. That’s what [Manuel] does best. Throw some deep balls,'" Marrone said. "It was just a matter of the play calls dictating that, not going into the game. I'm surprised that we didn't throw more go's. I think we had some other things that we were working, but I would have liked to have seen more go's."

With Manuel, though, the preparation goes beyond the short and deep throws, and includes his ability to run the ball.

The Patriots need to keep an eye on Manuel's knee, and how comfortable he is on it. Will he be brave enough to run through the heart of the Patriots defense if he sees a hole? Will he be limited in his ability to extend plays in the pocket? Will he step into his throws with strength and confidence?

All legitimate questions, none of which we'll have the answer to until after the first whistle blows on September 8.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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