Camp Countdown: 3 ways EJ Manuel can be a difference maker

Every summer leading up to training camp examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we'll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.*

It's safe to say that the majority of eyes in the stands at Bills training camp will be squarely focused on EJ Manuel. A lot of the team's fortunes will ride on the decision making and accuracy of the Bills second-year quarterback. By all accounts from the coaches he's made noticeable strides in his game, and his work ethic is exemplary.

Obviously what happens on Sundays in the fall will count the most. Here are three ways Manuel can progress into a difference maker for Buffalo's offense this season.

Trusting what he sees

One hurdle Manuel was eager to clear in the spring practices was reading coverages efficiently and correctly to make quicker decisions with the ball. At the close of Bills minicamp the quarterback was encouraged by the steps he's taken to this point.

"I think I've done a lot of work preparing for (coverages), even seeing it pre-snap and obviously recognizing what they do after the ball is snapped," Manuel told "I think I've had a ton of progress moving forward. The biggest thing is just relaxing. Everybody else is moving fast around you, but as a quarterback you almost have to be that relaxed force and not try to do too much and I think I've made a lot of progress."

Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said standing behind the play in practice he can tell right away if Manuel sees what he's supposed to recognize in the defensive coverage. Through the spring he felt Manuel was making good identification of the defense.

"The good thing is you can tell initially, OK, he sees it," said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. "And then you can see him actually recognize that it's not there and then he's finding the running back. He did that a number of times. He feels comfortable in understanding that and that's good. It's good to give it to a running back. Going through that will allow him to now know when somebody's open down the field because it will be even clearer, and now you're making them cover C.J. (Spiller) and Fred (Jackson) and Boobie (Anthony Dixon) and all those guys."

Without the added task now of mastering the offensive system or getting used to a full cast of new passing targets Manuel can devote more time to taking that final step of trusting what he sees and letting it fly.

"When you get a quarterback in his second year, and keeping that same quarterback throughout the year, that's going to dramatically help us," said Hackett. "Being familiar with the system, being familiar with the guys he's been out there with, that's going to dramatically help him also. And he's going to have that confidence. It's not going to be something new to him. He's going to understand his reads and he's going to be able to focus on the details, focus on how the defense is responding. And he's going to be able to go about that the right way."

Completion percentage

In his rookie season Manuel's completion percentage was a pedestrian 58.8 percent. Among NFL quarterbacks who played in at least 10 games in 2013 he ranked 23rd. Manuel has worked tirelessly in the offseason to improve his accuracy in an effort to boost his completion percentage. He knows it needs to be safely over 60 percent to give his team a chance to win ball games.

The quarterbacks who ranked in the top 10 in completion percentage last season, who also appeared in at least 10 games, averaged a completion percentage of 66 percent. At the top of that list was Philip Rivers (69.5%) and at the bottom were Jay Cutler and Russell Wilson (63.1%).

To aid Manuel in making more completions more often the offensive staff has tied the footwork of the quarterback position to that of the receiver routes. The link is expected to improve the timing and precision between the two ends of the passing game.

"I know that's something that coach Hackett and (receivers) coach (Rob) Moore really implemented it for those guys when they coached the routes," said Manuel. "They're all buying into it and for us as quarterbacks it's easy. We throw it to a spot and it's on them to get there."

"We've always set it up for the receiver to get to a certain depth," said Hackett. "What we did was try to make it so there are a certain amount of steps they need to take to get that depth. Just like we would tell a quarterback to take a five step drop, it's the same thing. It's a five step drop for the receivers, what are the steps for the wide receivers? So we're all choreographed.

"We want everybody to know right where everybody is going to be every time and how we create that spacing across the field to create a more efficient passing game."

In four of Manuel's 10 starts last season he was well over 60 percent on his completions. In the season opener he completed almost 67 percent of his passes. The Week 2 game against Carolina (69.2%), the rematch against the Jets (71.4%) and the win at Jacksonville (70.8%) were all games demonstrating that Manuel is more than capable of upping his hit rate on passes.

Clutch plays

Making just 10 starts due to injury Manuel didn't have quite as many opportunities as most NFL starting quarterbacks to make game changing plays based on the circumstances of the game. There were two instances in particular where the then rookie signal caller came through in the clutch.

Week 2 against Carolina with the clock winding down and the Bills down six Manuel led a drive in which he went 6-8 passing for 51 yards, had a nine-yard scramble and threw the game-winning TD pass with two seconds left in the game.

In Week 15 at Jacksonville tied at 20 in the fourth quarter Manuel orchestrated another drive going 4-4 passing for 50 yards culminating in a one-yard touchdown pass to give Buffalo the lead for good.

He had a similar late game performance in the Week 13 overtime loss to Atlanta, which was compromised by two fumbles by his teammates.

For the season Manuel's passer rating in the final four minutes of games was 92.1 and his completion percentage was almost 76 percent (75.7%). They're all encouraging signs, but the step to be taken now is to deliver those two or three key plays on a more consistent basis.

"There are going to be some times we have to lean on him in some critical situations like last year," Hackett said. "And there are other times when he's going to be able to just turn around and hand that ball off to one of those horses in the backfield. So it's one of those things—don't do too much, just work within the system. Just keep moving the chains, keep on moving the chains, wearing down the defense, and those great plays are going to happen. So as he gets familiar with it and gets more confidence, he's going to get better and better. Just work within the system and trust it."

"I think the biggest thing is taking what the defense gives you," said Manuel. "If it's not there throw it away and be smart, especially when you're in the red zone and you're working on special situations. There's no reason to force it. As I grow as a quarterback with this team as well as the offense that we run I know better play will come."

"He just wants to be great. He wants to just put the work in and do whatever it takes. He just wants to work, work, work and become great and that's all you can ask for," said Hackett. "He's a guy who wants to prove a lot and he's got all the skills and he's going to do that."

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