BY SEAN DONOVAN
Despite the fact that they lost, the Buffalo Bills were counted among the teams that pleasantly surprised Week 1. They stood toe-to-toe with divisional juggernaut New England, carrying a lead late in the fourth quarter before losing on a field goal in the closing seconds.
The Bills got resilient performances on both sides of the ball, but perhaps the most impressive was that of rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel against one of the most capable game-planners in the league, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
New England has been known to make life difficult for rookie passers in recent years, boasting a .765 winning percentage against first-year quarterbacks since the 2000 season.
Manuel completed 67 percent of his passes on the afternoon and did not turn the ball over, nor did he take a sack. He was able to be decisive with the ball because his team made it easy for him to be; the Bills utilized simplified reads so that Manuel could make the decision early in the play where his intended receiver would be.
Often, Manuel was able to focus on a single defender to make his read, then throw the ball based on what he saw.
Which defender would be the read was dictated by the coverage. On this second-quarter play, the Patriots are in Cover 2 with nickel personnel. The Bills ran a route combination designed to attack a single player in zone coverage, in this case slot cornerback Kyle Arrington towards the bottom of the picture.
Slot receiver Stevie Johnson crosses Arrington's face to the inside, briefly drawing his coverage. The play called for Manuel to read how quickly Arrington released off Johnson and returned to his zone.
Because Arrington opened his hips to the inside, Manuel could instantly tell that running back C.J. Spiller would be open in the flat and have space to run. The rookie delivers the ball and the play picks up 8 yards.
New England conceded the underneath running back route to the Bills most of the day, which is why Spiller and Fred Jackson combined for nine catches. Manuel would get his opportunities downfield as well.
On a red zone play later in the half, the Bills lined up with bunched trips to the right of the formation, while the Patriots again gave a Cover 2 look. Buffalo had two receivers attack free safety Steve Gregory's deep-half zone.
Tight end Scott Chandler ran a seam route while wide receiver Robert Woods ran an out-and-up to the corner of the endzone. As the following picture shows, Gregory is forced to pick between two receivers entering his zone, and his choice to focus on Chandler gives Manuel an easy throw to Woods for the touchdown.
After the snap, all Manuel had to do was to key on the safety then throw an accurate pass for a big play. Reads like these are easy for any quarterback to make, as long as he can decipher the defense's coverage before the snap.
The Patriots adjusted after the half by playing more man coverage, forcing Manuel to go through progressions to find an open man. The tactic effectively slowed down the Bills attack, and afforded Tom Brady's offense enough time to mount the comeback.
Buffalo would have been happier if they got the win as well, but to see Manuel running the offense and doing a great job of taking what the defense gave him has to leave the team feeling optimistic about the season.
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