PITTSBURGH — EJ Manuel saw almost nothing but black and gold when he dropped back to pass on Sunday.
The Buffalo Bills’ rookie quarterback was no match for coaching wizard Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense.
The Bills’ 23-10 loss to the Steelers was Manuel’s worst showing in six starts this season and was more lopsided than the final score indicated.
During the first 55 minutes of the game – before the Bills managed a garbage-time touchdown drive – Pittsburgh held Manuel to just 79 passing yards and 10 completions in 25 attempts. Buffalo’s offense had only 140 total yards in the first 55 minutes.
When he wasn’t off target on underneath passes against tight coverage, Manuel was hurriedly checking down, Trent Edwards-style, for measly gains to receivers in the flats. Manuel did not have one completion on a pass that traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
“At the end of the day, if you want to know exactly what happened out there, he was going through his footwork too quick,” said Bills coach Doug Marrone. “Not as slowed down to see things develop. … And you know what? That happens to young quarterbacks.”
It happens a lot to young quarterbacks against the Steelers.
Rookie QBs now are 2-17 against the Steelers since LeBeau took over as defensive coordinator in 2004. In those 19 games, the rookies have averaged just 166 passing yards and been sacked 64 times. Manuel finished 22 of 39 for 155 yards, with three sacks and one interception.
The discouraging thing for the Bills, who dropped to 3-7, is this Pittsburgh defense isn’t as good as in past years. It just gave up 610 yards and 55 points to New England last week.
Of course, New England’s Tom Brady has seen all of LeBeau’s schemes. Manuel hasn’t.
“We didn’t capitalize on everything we thought we could have, and obviously it wasn’t the way I wanted to come back,” said Manuel, who had missed the previous four games with a sprained knee.
“I didn’t feel rusty,” Manuel said. “I felt good throughout the game. Obviously there were plays I missed. I just have to get better from that.”
The Bills’ offensive problems started with the running game. Pittsburgh’s defense, ranked 31st against the run, was ready for the Bills’ zone blocking stretch plays, which had gashed Kansas City last week.
Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined for just 23 rushing yards on their first 10 carries.
“They played good gap football,” Jackson said. “They had given up a lot of rushing yards, and what it was is they were out of their gaps. That’s something you can tell they worked on. Out there they were calling it – calling what they needed to do and making checks at the line. Great job by them scouting themselves.”
The Bills didn’t have much success running to the strong side from their two-tight-end formation. They did a little better running behind a fullback in the second half.
“We’re primarily a zone team,” center Eric Wood said. “Last week we had showed how effective we could be in that. They did a good job defending it. You’ve got to give credit where it’s due. Ultimately we’d like to start a little faster up front. We’ll have to see the film. But I know personally I could have done a better job early.”
Said Marrone: “I thought we tried to bounce too many things outside, which is always difficult against this defense. You have to pretty much run downhill and make a lot of yards after contact to be successful.”
You can’t steamroll teams on the ground every week in the NFL. Some weeks the passing game needs to carry the load, and the passing game is where the Bills lost this game.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett tried to avoid running into the teeth of the run defense. The Bills called passes on 15 of 27 first-down plays. But only six of those were completed, for only 45 yards, with one interception.
Buffalo had a great chance to get a touchdown early, after Jairus Byrd returned an interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass 57 yards to the Pittsburgh 29.
However, on a third-and-goal play from the 1, Manuel changed the call from the sideline from a run to a pass. He threw a fade to the right side of the end zone for Stevie Johnson. Manuel’s pass was way overthrown, too high even if Johnson had gotten a good break off the line (which he didn’t). The Bills settled for a field goal.
“We had a run called,” Manuel said. “Seeing that Stevie was one on one by himself to the corner, I always want to throw him a fade ball.”
The Bills got the ball on Pittsburgh’s 44 on their second possession, but a second-down Manuel slant pass for Johnson wasn’t far enough inside, and Johnson had to break it up to prevent an interception. The Bills punted.
The Bills’ third drive started at their 44, but a third-and-5 hitch pass for Johnson was well wide of the mark. Manuel did a good job sliding in the pocket to create space, but he couldn’t make the semi-tough throw.
Against Pittsburgh’s zone-dog defense (linebackers often replace linemen in a four- or five-man rush), QBs usually need to hit throws to the outside. Manuel didn’t, and that’s where the timing of his drop-backs came into play.
“I think what happens is you go into the game and things start to speed up a whole lot faster than you can simulate,” Marrone said. “I think that’s what happened. … His footwork was very fast today. That’s why you saw him going to check-downs quickly and not let some things develop.”
“Yeah, for the most part they did a lot of coverages that were deep and kept deep safeties,” Manuel said. “At times it was tough to stretch the ball down the field, so you can only take what they give you.”
Pittsburgh gave the Bills almost nothing.