Pitoniak: Manuel Bounces Back Strongly

-                 If I had told you beforehand the Jets would limit C.J. Spiller to six yards on 13 carries and the Bills would manage just 1.8 yards per carry, you would have thought the Jets had stampeded Buffalo.

                Well, those were indeed the paltry numbers the Bills mustered Sunday afternoon at the windy Ralph, and it was Buffalo doing the stampeding.

                A week after western New York obsessed over the performance of rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and wondered if the Bills would need to draft another quarterback next May the kid showed us how foolish it can be to rush to judgment on a rookie QB whose body of work consisted of six games.

                All Manuel did Sunday was complete 20 of 28 passes for 245 yards and two scores in a 37-14 thrashing of Buffalo’s AFC East rivals. And we should add that those were two LONG scores – a 34-yarder that was knocked down by a gust, but that T.J. Graham made a nice adjustment on, and a 43-yard laser beam to Marquise Goodwin, which came one snap after a 40-yard laser beam along the sidelines to Graham.

                There are several encouraging things to be gleened from this performance.

                 It showed Manuel’s resilience, his ability to forget about dismal showings like last week’s in Pittsburgh. And he clearly learned from the mistakes he made in his first meeting with the Jets, when he was sacked eight times and completed fewer than 50 percent of his throws – none down field.

                It also showed that he can rise above the adversity of not having a ground game at his disposal or his two top receivers – Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods – each of whom was inactive because of injuries.

                Lastly, it showed that despite having played at Florida State, where weather was rarely an issue, he can handle the wind, which Sunday was gusting between 20 and 30 mph, often turning spirals into wounded ducks. The weather in these parts are part of the equation a quarterback must deal with. Yesterday, at least, he passed that meteorological test.

                So, this was a step in the right direction in the education of a rookie quarterback. It should also serve as a reminder that along the way there will be some very high highs and some very low lows.

                Just as it was wrong for many to pass judgment on Manuel last week, so, too, it would be foolhardy to get too carried away with this stellar showing that saw him post a 121.9 quarterback rating.

                After this bye week, the Bills will resume with a home-away-from-home game against the disappointing Atlanta Falcons in Toronto’s Rogers Centre, followed by back-to-back road games against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. Manuel has struggled on the road, but Tampa and Jacksonville are just 3-17 combined and play before a goodly number of empty seats and apathetic fans.

                After that, Buffalo returns home Dec. 22 for its final home game against AFC East rival Miami. The regular season finale will be against the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium, a true house of horrors that has never hosted a Bills win.

                As I wrote last week, this second half of the season will be a time to evaluate what the Bills have at all positions, especially quarterback.

                A week after Manuel took several steps back, he took several steps forward.

                It would be nice to see him continue that progress because there are so many other needs the Bills would like to address come next May.

                OFFENSE: The run game was non-existent, but thanks to the confident, composed play of Manuel and the step-up performances of receivers Goodwin and Graham (combined 8 catches for 155 yards and two scores) it didn’t matter. In addition to his passing, Manuel picked up two first downs on sneaks and didn’t turn the ball over. B-plus
                DEFENSE: Jairus Byrd on two interceptions, Da’Norris Searcy a pick-six and Manny Lawson recovered a fumble. The four turnovers by Jets quarterback/turnover machine Geno Smith resulted in 24 points. Kyle Williams had two of the Bills four sacks, forced a fumble and had another tackle for a loss. The Jets did rush for 134 yards, but take away Chris Ivory’s 69-yard, late-game burst and New York managed just 65 yards on 22 carries. The Jets failed to make a first down on seven of their first 10 possessions. They also converted just 18 percent of their third downs. A-minus
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Dan Carpenter nailed all three of his field goal attempts (40, 42, 43) on a windy day. Brian Moorman pinned three punts inside the 20, but also dropped a snap and wound up with a 1-yard punt. Buffalo’s cover and return teams picked up a couple of costly penalties, altering field position. B-minus
                OVERALL:  The week off will give several banged-up players a chance to heal, so the Bills actually may be healthier than they’ve been all season when they resume play December 1 against the Falcons in Toronto. The Bills next three opponents are a combined 5-25, so it’s conceivable that Buffalo could finish on a positive note. If Manuel continues to progress, an 8-8 finish would not be out of the realm of possibility. B

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