In Week 15, Johnny Manziel finally got his chance to prove that he belongs in the NFL, and the Cleveland Browns got their chance to evaluate Manziel to see if he has the potential to be a franchise quarterback. Against a stout Cincinnati Bengals’ defense, Johnny Football faced a tough test.
Overall, Manziel had a very rough debut. He lacked the confidence that he was known for at Texas A&M that enabled him to make flashy runs out of the pocket when under duress. Things are different now. The throwing windows he has to fit the ball into are much tighter, the defensive ends are faster, and the offensive schemes are more complex.
Against the Bengals, Manziel had very little to be proud of. He was nervous in the pocket, was operating a one-read offense, had sub-par throwing mechanics, did not see the field well, and even ran into a defensive lineman for a sack at one point in the game. I also counted only 3 times in which he took a snap from under center, something that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan intended in order to take some pressure off Manziel in his first start. But if Manziel is to become a successful quarterback, he will need to learn how to take snaps from under center in a pro-style offense. I took a look at all of his snaps from the Cincinnati game, and dissected some plays that paint a more detailed picture of Johnny Football’s performance.
6:33 in the first quarter, 3rd and 2:
With the Bengals showing a Cover 0 man look, Manziel had Josh Gordon split out wide as the hot read on a slant route, with Adam Jones covering him. At the snap, Manziel dropped back and immediately looked Gordon’s way, completely ignoring the fact that he had Andrew Hawkins wide open on the screen to the right.
As the play developed, Gordon had inside leverage on Jones and was open for the throw. However, Manziel backed off from throwing to Gordon through the tight window and scrambled out of the pocket. The right move here would be to look to his right and identify Hawkins as the open receiver to throw to.
0:29 in the first quarter, 3rd and 13:
In an obvious passing situation with third and long, Cleveland went with Isaiah Crowell in the backfield to Manziel’s right and 4 receivers out wide. Cincinnati responded with a Cover 3 zone, daring Manziel to try and identify the soft spots in the zone. Crowell stayed in to help with pass protection, while Andrew Hawkins, in the slot to the left of the formation, ran a post route.
With the pocket collapsing around him, Manziel made a move worthy of a pro QB by stepping up in the pocket to avoid the pressure. By doing so, Manziel drew two Cincinnati defenders towards him, on account of his penchant to scramble so often. Doing so created a pocket in the zone of the Bengals’ secondary, which gave Manziel the option of throwing to Gordon on the “Go” route or Hawkins on the post. With safety Reggie Nelson over the top of Gordon, Manziel made a nice throw on the run to Hawkins, but Hawkins was not able to hang on for the catch as Nelson hit Hawkins seconds after he caught the ball. It was one of the few bright spots for Manziel, but his teammate was not able to make the play.
11:30 in the second quarter, 2nd and 8:
Down 17-0 in the second quarter, Cleveland, facing a 2nd and 8 from their own 20-yard line, came out in Pistol formation. Tight end Jordan Cameron motioned into the backfield, joining Isaiah Crowell and Ray Agnew alongside Manziel. The rookie quarterback appeared to check into a play-action pass at the line of scrimmage, as the Bengals packed the box with eight defenders. Manziel did a nice job checking into this play, considering the situation: the Bengals were in Cover One with man coverage. Josh Gordon would run a “Go” route and draw the safety while Andrew Hawkins would run a crossing route against Dre Kirkpatrick.
At the snap, the Bengals rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. After faking the handoff to Crowell, Manziel saw Hawkins running across the field with a step on Kirkpatrick and telegraphed the pass to the receiver. Kirkpatrick saw Manziel staring down Hawkins and recovered in time to undercut the route and intercept the pass. If Manziel had thrown the ball earlier, led Hawkins, and given him more room to make the completion, he probably would have had a nice 20-yard reception. Instead, the result of a bad throw by Manziel was an interception by Kirkpatrick.
9:13 in the second quarter, 3rd and 6:
On the next possession after a Bengals’ field goal, Manziel was in shotgun with an empty backfield on 3rd and 6 from the Cleveland 24. The Bengals were in Cover 1 defense with George Iloka as the lone safety. Tight end Jim Dray, offset from the line of scrimmage to the left of the formation, leaked out from the formation at the snap and ran a seam route. Andrew Hawkins ran a “Go” route with Adam Jones on him in single coverage, but was not able to gain separation.
After receiving the snap, Manziel looked to Cameron on the out route first and saw that he was double-teamed. After that, Manziel panicked and ran out from the pocket. He saw Dray open, but a Cincinnati linebacker was sitting on the route underneath. With better anticipation, Manziel could have hit Josh Gordon on the hitch route on the left, but didn’t give himself enough time to complete the throw. Manziel should have just thrown this ball away, but instead tried to loft the ball to Dray over the linebacker while on the run. Combined with a weird side-armed throwing motion, this combination led to Manziel overthrowing Dray. It’s another example of Manziel’s poor decision-making and bad mechanics in the pocket.
13:58 in the third quarter, 3rd and 6:
Still scoreless in the second half and down 20-0, the Browns were facing a 3rd and 6 from their own 24. Manziel was in the Pistol formation yet again with “12” personnel. The Bengals were in zone with both safeties playing down in the box, but at the snap they both retreated into Cover 2.
Manziel had multiple options post-snap, three in fact. He had Josh Gordon open on the crossing route, Jordan Cameron on the post route, and Terrance West on the check down in the flat. However, Manziel doesn’t see any of this because he was too focused on avoiding the pass rush, which leads to him having happy feet in the pocket. This is a common theme for the rookie; as soon as he feels a hint of pressure he gets antsy and takes flight, which is what he tries to do here. However, he has no running lane to utilize, unlike at Texas A&M where his dominant offensive line opened huge holes for him. The result here is a 10-yard sack by Geno Atkins, another poor play by Johnny Football.
The difference between Johnny Football at Texas A&M and Johnny Football with the Cleveland Browns is that the talent gap between him and his opponents has closed. He cannot easily outrun linebackers anymore, he does not have the stout offensive line he had at A&M featuring first-rounders such as Luke Joeckel (Jaguars) and Jake Matthews (Falcons), and he does not have Mike Evans. Evans was like a security blanket for Manziel. Manziel could throw it up to Evans in most situations and expect the wide receiver to come down with the ball. With the Browns, Manziel does not yet have the chemistry with any wide receiver where he can do that, even with Josh Gordon on the field. Manziel’s offensive line in college gave him the time to find an open receiver, and also created huge holes for him to scramble through if the need was there to do so. In the NFL, the defensive ends and linebackers are quick enough to chase down Manziel, and the holes he had to run through are no longer there with the offensive line he has now.
The good thing for the Browns is that these mistakes are correctible, with time. Manziel should not have been plugged in the starting lineup for the remainder of the season. He is clearly not ready, and should be considered a developmental project for the next couple of years. He needs to become better at reading defenses, fix his throwing mechanics and footwork, and become a pocket quarterback. Quarterbacks who can run are successful because of their passing skills, not their running skills. Quarterbacks who are mobile can use it to their advantage by using it to buy time and escape pressure, a prime example being Russell Wilson. Manziel needs to learn how to become a pocket quarterback who uses his feet to complement his passing game when the situation arises.
Georgetown Class of 2018