By Matt Johnson

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The pressure is on EJ Manuel this season to not only start for the Buffalo Bills  but play at a high level and help them compete for a wild card spot. Manuel was the first quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft when the Bills selected him with the 16th Overall pick with the hopes he could be their franchise quarterback.

There is already pressure when you are the first quarterback selected, you are considered the best player at the most important position and that is already plenty of pressure to carry on your shoulders. But then when you look at the outstanding success rookie quarterbacks have had for the past few years, the pressure to be successful immediately is even hirer. The expectations are unfair but given what quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck did last season, there will be some fans expecting similar play out of Manuel.

Manuel took the field for the first time on Sunday against Luck and even though it was a preseason game, fans had the chance to see two young quarterbacks battling it out. Luck only stayed in for two series but NFL fans got a great glimpse into the future of Manuel and he played well on NFL Network.

Manuel got off to a slow start to begin the game and the skeptics started to weigh in picking his game apart and for good reason. On his first two drives Manuel completed just one pass on a busted screen play that resulted in a loss of six yards. The second drive was even more horrific when Manuel and CJ Spiller muffed the exchange and the Colts recovered the football. After two drives EJ Manuel certainly wasn’t looking like the top quarterback of his draft class.

He found more success on the Bills third possession of the game and thanks to a big return by fellow rookie Marquise Goodwin gave the Bills the ball at their own 48-yard line. Manuel completed three of five passes on the drive, but his biggest play came on 3rd and 6 at the Colts 48 when he scrambled for 24 yards. Dustin Hopkins drilled a 24-yard field goal to tie the game at three.

Manuel finished the first quarter completing four of six passes for 19 yards and 24 rushing yards. It was a mediocre first quarter for Manuel who too often would stare down his target and the defense would just react and break up the play. He benefited from the Bills using short, quick throws to build up his confidence and they established the running game to keep the defense balanced.

It was another inconsistent beginning of the quarter for Manuel and the Bills offense. Buffalo began the second quarter with the ball but went three-and-out , Manuel completed one pass to Robert Woods for seven yards but couldn’t convert a third down throw. Manuel got the ball back quickly though at the Colts 27-yard line after the Bills defense forced a Matt Hasselbeck interception. Manuel managed the short field completing two straight passes including one on third down and helped set up a Hopkins 23-yard field goal as the Bills trailed 6-10.

Manuel didn’t see the ball again until after the two-minute warning and it was easily his best performance on the day. Fans got to see Manuel run the two-minute drill from his own 8-yard line. Manuel worked quickly getting the offense to the line and calling plays one after another. He showed the poise of a veteran in a key situation and completed every pass as the offense marched down the field. While no pass went for more than 17 yards and he was helped out by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty, the drive was still phenomenal. Manuel completed all nine of his passes including a 17-yard strike across the middle to tight end Dorin Dickerson with just 14 seconds remaining in the half. The only run on the play came on a 4-yard scramble, proving this drive was all about EJ Manuel. The final drive gave the Bills the 20-13 lead heading into halftime and Manuel would finish the day on a high note.

Manuel was a bit of a roller-coaster for his preseason debut but when the game was on the line he delivered in a key situation with his best performance of the day. Yes, the drive came against a second string defense but the sharp throws he made and how he took control of the team stands out. He finished the half completing 16 of 21 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown with an additional 28 rushing yards.

It will take Manuel time to fix his tendency to lock-on to his target and he will have to show he can consistently make smart decisions and good throws. He benefited from a game-plan that was based on short throws and was never really tested with the deep ball. He is a work in progress but the glimpses we saw from him especially during the two-minute drill show why the Bills had confidence making him the top quarterback taken in the draft.

Manuel’s next game will come on Friday, August 16 when the Minnesota Vikings take a trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Vikings secondary has been a major concern heading into the 2013 season and gave up 306 passing yards to the Houston Texans last week so it should be another opportunity for Manuel to shine.

 

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Matt Johnson

I am a sports writer entering my first year in college. I am also a aspiring sports radio host.

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