PITTSBURGH — A week earlier, Doug Marrone was so upset with the loss to the Chiefs that he felt sick to his stomach and wouldn’t pet his dog.
Let’s hope the poor mutt was hiding behind the couch when his master came through the front door after this stinker.
It was the Bills who played like dogs here Sunday in a 23-10 loss to the Steelers. Trust me, it was worse than the final score indicated. If the Steelers hadn’t lost interest and let them drive 80 yards in garbage time, the Bills would have gone without a touchdown for the first time all year.
They were outplayed in all three phases. The defense played soft against the run and gave up big plays in the passing game. The offense was terrible. Punter Brian Moorman was dreadful. The play calling was uninspired and amateurish. The players gave in to discouragement after getting off to a slow, non-opportunistic start.
“You could sense the discouragement,” said safety Jim Leonhard. “It kind of sucked the energy out of the team and we couldn’t get it back the rest of the day, which is a shame. That’s the one thing you can’t allow to happen. You can’t let early struggles change your mentality.”
This wasn’t the 1975 Steelers (a Super Bowl champion, and the last Pittsburgh team the Bills beat in a regular-season road game). It was a Steelers team being called the worst in years, a team that had given up 55 points and 610 yards, both franchise highs, to the Pats a week before.
The optimists among us saw it as a chance for the Bills to make a modest statement and kick-start a winning streak that could get them in the playoff race. Instead, they produced their first truly ugly performance of the Doug Marrone era, a game reminiscent of so many disasters of the past.
But worst of all, rookie quarterback EJ Manuel was horrendous. Back after missing five weeks with a knee injury, Manuel was timid and inaccurate with his throws. His footwork was off, as Marrone conceded later.
No one would throw the kid under the bus afterward, and it’s true that there was plenty of blame to go around. But we’ve seen enough shabby quarterback play over the last 15 years to know that a shaky QB can make a bad situation worse, that he can drag an entire team down.
Manuel finished 22 of 39 for 155 yards. But those numbers don’t begin to tell the story. He was 11 for 14 for 76 yards on a final, meaningless drive, tossing softballs to obscure, uncovered targets like Chris Gragg.
Here are Manuel’s real numbers, the pass statistics he assembled in the first 55 minutes and change, when it actually mattered: 11 of 25 passing for 79 yards. There was a pretty stiff wind at Heinz Field, but it’s pathetic to go nearly a full game averaging barely 3 yards a throw.
Keep in mind, the Steelers’ defense was under fire for allowing too many big plays. Coming in, they had allowed the most 50-yard pass plays of any team in the NFL this season. “Defense Dying With Every Big Play” was the headline in Sunday morning’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Manuel and the Bills were just the antidote for old Dick LeBeau’s defense. They tried very few passes down the field. C.J. Spiller ran sideways and couldn’t find seams. The Bills’ longest run was 11 yards. They had just one pass over 20 yards, a 23-yard slant to Stevie Johnson.
“I said during the week to keep it in perspective,” Marrone said. “The kid missed two and a half weeks earlier in the year. The kid missed four weeks and just came back. He’s trying his best.”
LeBeau is now 17-2 against rookie quarterbacks. He took away the deep stuff and trusted that Manuel wouldn’t hurt him with intermediate throws. It worked. Manuel spent most of the day checking down, settling, like Trent Edwards at his worst.
The most maddening sequence came late in the first half, with the Bills trailing, 10-3. On first down from his 38, Manuel threw a simple 7-yard pass at Fred Jackson’s feet incomplete. On second down, he dumped off again to Jackson, who was drilled immediately after a 4-yard gain. On third down, he checked down yet again to Jackson for 2 yards.
Nate Hackett didn’t put Manuel in many situations to make big plays. The Bills ran on six of their first seven first-down plays. It was the middle of the third quarter before Manuel threw a first-down pass to one of his wideouts. He didn’t get tight end Scott Chandler involved until late.
No doubt, he missed rookie Robert Woods, who had become his favorite target before Manuel hurt his knee in the Cleveland game. But you need to do a better job of getting your playmakers involved in the offense.
Manuel is a rookie, a kid, as Marrone kept reminding us. Rookie QBs usually take time to develop. It might be two or three years before we can make a definitive judgment on Manuel. The knee injuries have set back his development. It’s like he’s back in September again. But it’s never too early for doubt. There are certain tendencies in a young quarterback that make you wonder about his long-term prospects. Scouts make judgments on these guys when they’re in college, and there were reasons that a lot of teams didn’t see Manuel as a franchise guy.
The lack of touch and accuracy, the tendency to give up on plays too soon, those were the main flaws that made teams wary about Manuel. In time, the Bills are confident he will overcome those flaws and become a franchise quarterback.
Manuel progressed faster than expected, both in training camp and the first quarter of the season. But this is a setback. He has started and finished two road games as a rookie, at the Steelers and the Jets, and played badly in both of them.
Early in the season, the Bills simplified the game plan to compensate for Manuel’s inexperience. It looked like the same approach Sunday.
Their conservative attack betrayed an overall lack of confidence in Manuel’s ability to make throws down the field. Marrone’s lack of faith in his QB was evident when he decided to punt on fourth-and-5 from the Steelers’ 36, down by 14 points, on the third play of the fourth quarter. It was a Gregg Williams moment, the kind that makes you wonder if Marrone is as progressive a thinker as we’ve been led to believe. What does the new analytics director think of that call?
Sure, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But when the quarterback is checking down at the nearest sign of trouble and the head coach is punting from the other team’s 36, it must be hard for seasoned fans to believe this is some brave new era of Bills football.
Manuel will have plenty of chances to win them over. Next he gets Rex Ryan and the Jets.