EJ Manuel and the Buffalo Bills’ offense have appeared in “offseason form” during spring practices this month.
The football has hit the ground more than one would expect from a finely tuned attack.
The Bills say their quarterback and the offense as a whole are miles ahead of where they was last season, when they ranked 19th in the NFL in yards gained.
Bills coach Doug Marrone said Thursday he’s happy with what he’s watching, considering the team is installing its entire offensive playbook, not dealing with a package of plays.
“Really when you look at the volume we have in, which is really full scale, everything right now, he’s made a great amount of improvement in things he didn’t do as well last year,” Marrone said of Manuel. “It starts with the foundation – his footwork. So I’m really excited about where he is and the amount of stuff we’ve put on his plate.”
“We put in a lotta’ offense,” Manuel said this week. “When you’re game-planning, it’s different. You only have 60 or 70 plays in a game plan. But right now we’re putting in the house. That’s why I say over-communicating is extremely important for us.”
It’s tough to judge spring practices. It’s not real football, because there are no pads, and there’s no hitting. Lots of different players are mixing and matching in the lineup.
Manuel’s accuracy has been as consistent as one might like. He zips some throws into tight spots on perfect rhythm. Other times receivers are reaching too far for throws. Receivers, meanwhile, are working on getting their steps down on their pass routes.
“I definitely feel a lot better about my grasp of the offense,” Manuel said. “Sometimes that’s why I get frustrated because I know it’s there, I know it’s there, and if we have one misstep and it doesn’t complete, that’s frustrating.”
Thursday’s final voluntary practice of the spring was a better outing for Manuel. He hit Sammy Watkins on two perfect seam routes that the rookie receiver would have taken for big yards after the catch. Manuel hit Chris Hogan on a nice touch pass down the right sideline.
“We’re just getting plays down, and everybody’s starting to process everything,” Watkins said. “Once you learn the plays, you’re not thinking and you can move faster. That’s what you saw today.”
Late in the session, Manuel hung in the pocket with pressure closing in on him and hit Robert Woods over the middle on what looked like his third read. That kind of pocket presence has not been routine for the QB this spring. Marrone suggested end results of plays in spring are not always the main thing the coaches are seeing. “I’m excited because I think what happens is a lot of times, even players, a lot of times you’re looking at the end product,” Marrone said. “But for us, we’re looking for those steps in where he’s going and what he’s taking.”
“I’m really happy about where it is,” Marrone said of the offense. “I’m happy about the ability we have in our matchup potential now, the ability to put different players in there. There are things we can do now that we couldn’t do last year.”
Watkins and veteran addition Mike Williams should upgrade the receiving corps. The Bills’ running back position is deeper than ever with the addition of backups Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. Tony Moeaki could add another dimension to the tight end position.
Should the offense be looking smoother?
“I understand the question,” said No. 2 QB Thad Lewis. “I just feel like spring ball, with no pads on, the defense can run around and make plays more so than the offense. The offensive line up front, you really don’t have as much to hit. If you grab onto them, you’re practicing holding. So you’re really just practicing your techniques and things of that nature. It’s hard to simulate game situations.”
“Today was red-zone emphasis, and we’ve been doing that for a second day, so it should be better than the day before,” Lewis said. “I think a lot of the young guys are gaining confidence.”
The Bills have the weekend off and return next week for three days of mandatory minicamp practices, Tuesday through Thursday. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus has stayed away from voluntary workouts the past two weeks in the wake of his arrest in Hamburg on charges related to a street-racing incident. Dareus will attend the mandatory practices, and Marrone said he has spoken with Dareus every day. Marrone said rookie defensive end Bryan Johnson, who injured a knee last week, will be ready for training camp. Receiver Marquise Goodwin, who banged a knee on Monday, was back practicing Thursday.
The contracts of two of the Bills’ college scouts, Brad Forsyth and Theo Young, were not renewed and they are no longer with the team. Forsyth, based in Colorado, had been a college “area scout” for the Bills since 1995. Young, who scouted parts of the Midwest, had been with the Bills the past three seasons.