When the Browns took him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, they appeared to put the former Heisman Trophy winner and polarizing prospect on the franchise-quarterback track. But he struggled in a pair of starts against the Cincinnati Bengalsand Carolina Panthers, leading some observers to label him a bust.
Of course, NFL players typically make their biggest developmental gains between their first and second seasons. Quarterbacks in particular are better prepared to deal with the speed, tempo and complexities of the pro game after spending an entire offseason refining their footwork and fundamentals. The lessons learned through game experience and practice repetitions during a rookie season can help a young signal caller become a more efficient playmaker from the pocket.
Given an entire offseason to work on his game and his priorities, Manziel has looked like a different player in 2015 -- at least, based on what we've seen of him in the preseason and in early-season fill-in duty. With Manziel set to once again step into the spotlight when he starts for the injured Josh McCownon "Thursday Night Football," I thought I'd pop in the All-22 Coaches Film, to re-evaluate his game and discern how the Browns could help him succeed against the Bengals.
The book on Johnny Manziel
When the Browns drafted Manziel out of Texas A&M, there were plenty of concerns about whether his "sandlot" game would succeed in the NFL. The 6-foot, 210-pounder torched SEC opponents with his spectacular improvisational plays; few opponents were able to slow him down on the perimeter. Manziel fueled the Aggies' offense with his athleticism and mobility, exhibiting a level of quickness and agility that made him nearly impossible to contain in the pocket. Additionally, Manziel played with a fearlessness and swagger that galvanized his squad and propelled the Aggies to big wins over big-name opponents (Alabama and Oklahoma). As a pocket passer, Manziel didn't display sound footwork or fundamentals, but he was an electrifying playmaker with enough arm strength to make nearly every throw in the book. From deep outs and comebacks to various posts and go-routes, Manziel capably pushed the ball down the field in the Aggies' spread attack. He also flashed terrific delivery quickness while making an assortment of quick-rhythm throws (bubble screens, hitches and slants) to the perimeter.
It was easy to fall in love with his ability to create production in a freewheeling college system. But as an NFL rookie, Manziel struggled playing within the confines of the Browns' offense. Despite adjustments to include the pistol and zone-read system, Manziel never looked comfortable executing the zone-read or the stretch-bootleg passing game that served as the basis of the aerial attack. Disappointingly, Manziel looked lost working through his reads. This hesitancy resulted in a number of negative plays (sacks, fumbles and errant passes) with the rookie at the helm. With Manziel lacking the athletic superiority that he enjoyed over his SEC brethren, the poor pocket discipline, poise and awareness led to a dismal performance that resulted in a 42.0 passer rating and a 0:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Manziel has looked nothing like that lost soul in 2015. He is not only playing with better discipline and focus within the pocket, but he has cleaned up his footwork and fundamentals as a passer. As a result, Manziel is delivering the ball from a balanced platform, leading to better zip and velocity on his passes. Most importantly, the improved footwork has helped him become more consistent with his accuracy and ball placement, particularly on deep throws (go-routes and posts). From a decision-making standpoint, Manziel has done a better job of keeping the ball out of harm's way. He hasn't forced as many balls into traffic, and his willingness to take the checkdown has helped the offense remain in rhythm. Granted, Manziel continues to struggle with ball security (four fumbles and two fumbles lost in four games) and he must become more aware of rushers in the pocket, but he is making strides with his judgement and situational awareness.
In terms of his game, he must continue to work on deciphering coverage during the pre-snap phase, to determine which receiver should come open quickly in the progression. Additionally, he needs to work on his blitz awareness and master the act of getting rid of the ball before the pocket collapses. Whether it is by spotting a "hot" receiver on the perimeter or splitting a crease in the middle of pass protection, Manziel needs to make opponents pay for sending extra rushers in his direction. Until he masters this aspect of the game, opponents will continue to attack with a number of blitzes designed to disrupt his timing and rhythm from the pocket.
1) Keep Manziel on a low pitch count.
For all of the progress Manziel has made as a young passer, it is important for the Browns to limit his exposure to the Bengals' pass rush and exotic pressure package. They need to keep his pass attempts to a minimum (25 or fewer) and rely on the running game to carry the offense. Yes, Cleveland's ground game ranks 31st in the NFL (84.0 rushing yards per game), but the Bengals are allowing an NFL-worst 5.0 yards per carry and surrender 110.1 rushing yards per game. The Browns can feed Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell repeatedly between the tackles to soften up Cincinnati's front and keep the offense in manageable situations.
It is no coincidence that the Browns ran the ball on 30 of 47 plays in Manziel's Week 2 start against the Titans, minimizing the youngster's exposure to Dick LeBeau's exotic zone-blitz scheme. Most importantly, the run-oriented approach allowed Cleveland to control the tempo and reduce Manziel's opportunities to make mistakes. This formula has been the most effective way to win games with a young signal caller, and the Browns must follow the blueprint to give Manziel the best chance to beat one of the NFL's top teams.
2) Feature a quick-rhythm passing game to get Manziel into a groove.
The best offensive coordinators in the NFL tailor their game plans to enhance the best traits of their quarterbacks. Based on Manziel's success directing a spread offense at Texas A&M, the Browns should feature a quick-rhythm passing game. This has been a staple in the Browns' offense under Josh McCown, but it needs to be the primary component of the team's game plan with Manziel at the helm.
The All-22 Coaches Film shows that Manziel has been efficient and effective delivering the ball on time when executing "catch-and-throw" concepts. He routinely delivers the ball on time, and his ball placement has been superb on quick throws (bubble screens, slants and hitches/sticks). Thus, I would expect to see him throw an assortment of "quicks" on early downs to take advantage of run-oriented coverage (eight-man fronts vs. two-back sets; seven-man fronts vs. one-back formations).
Against the Titans in Week 2, the Browns quickly helped Manziel find his rhythm by featuring the drag-slant combination early in the game. In the play depicted below, tight end Gary Barnidge is positioned in the slot as part of an empty formation. He is instructed to run a flat route, with receiver Andrew Hawkins running a slant over the top. Manziel simply reads the flat defender drop and throws the ball to the open receiver. Barnidge snags this pass and rumbles down the sideline for a 17-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Later in the game, the Browns use the bubble screen to help Manziel maintain his rhythm, as you can see in the play depicted below. Hawkins is positioned in a stack alignment and instructed to run a "now" screen. Manziel takes the snap and fires it out to Hawkins. The shifty playmaker makes a move and picks up 9 yards on an easy "catch-and-run" concept (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against the New York Jets in Week 1, the Browns used the dig-option combination to generate an easy completion for Manziel, as you can see in the play depicted below. The team is aligned in a tight trey formation, with receiver Travis Benjamin isolated on the back side. The speedster is instructed to run a dig route, with Crowell running an option route underneath. Manziel reads the flat defender to determine whether to throw the dig or option route to the left. When the defender jumps Crowell on the option, Manziel delivers a dart to Benjamin for a 20-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
If Manziel can complete a high percentage of his layups, the Browns will be able to keep their offense in favorable situations with a ball control game plan.
3) Take deep shots from run-heavy formations and personnel groupings.
Relying on the running game not only balances out the offensive attack, but it creates big-play opportunities in the passing game off play-action.
Using the threat of the run to set up a deep-shot passing game -- an approach straight from the first page of the "Football 101" textbook -- has been effective for Manziel in the past. Defensive coordinators want to stop the run by any means necessary, and opponents routinely align in eight-man boxes when offenses trot "21" (two running backs, one tight end and two receivers), "12" (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) and "22" (two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver) personnel on the field, particularly if those groupings are positioned in classic run-heavy formations (I-formation, Ace formation, etc.).
The All-22 Coaches Film shows that Manziel has been effective pushing the ball downfield following play-fakes in the backfield. Against the Titans in Week 2, Manziel connected with Benjamin on a bomb following a hard run-action fake in the backfield, as you can see below. The Browns set up the play by aligning in an I-formation with "12" personnel on the field. Manziel takes the snap and fakes an inside handoff to the running back. The Titans are in "quarters" coverage, which instructs the strong safety to serve as a B-gap player on running plays. The run fake lures Michael Griffin to the line, giving Manziel a deep-ball chance on the post route down the middle. He lofts a perfect pass to Benjamin between the hashes, resulting in a 60-yard touchdown for the Browns(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Browns will need to find a way to produce big plays in the passing game to win with Manziel at the helm. Using the vertical play-action passing game from run-heavy sets could help the youngster deliver a few explosive plays.