EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills Rookies Take a Step Back in Loss to Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There was reason for EJ Manuel to hang his head after a poor performance Sunday. (Photo: Kim Klement — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone at least publicly stated Friday that he believed his team was still in the playoff hunt, but that became a serious long shot after Buffalo lost to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 13. That led to the suggestion from some media members and Bills fans that the team should turn their focus away from making a playoff run, and toward developing its young talent as much as possible in preparation for 2014.

But regardless of what the Bills’ goal was Sunday, it wasn’t accomplished, unless that goal was to tank for better draft position.

Buffalo’s on-field play went from bad to worse Sunday as it lost, 27-6, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who came into the game with just three wins for the season.

The Bills offense was as out of rhythm as ever. It failed to score any touchdowns, and in fact reached the red zone just once, while finishing the day with just 14 first downs and 214 total yards. The defense actually had a great second half, holding the Buccaneers to just 28 total yards and three points, but that came after allowing two 80-yard touchdown drives and a 57-yard touchdown drive in the first half.

The Bills’ problems were emphasized by both penalties and turnovers. With a whopping five turnovers, and 114 penalty yards on 11 penalties, the game was littered with costly mistakes that kept Buffalo from ever making this game competitive.

While any team ever still in playoff contention should never want to lose a game, losing should not be Buffalo’s biggest concern after this game. As aforementioned, the loss may actually help the Bills as they move up in the draft order, and even if they were still technically alive in the playoff race, their team was clearly not capable of contending in this year’s postseason.

The reason for concern in Buffalo is that it did not even keep the game competitive. For a young team trying to build positive momentum for 2014, the opposite is happening. Furthermore, it was a very rough day for many of the Bills’ promising young talents, especially quarterback EJ Manuel and his fellow members of the team’s rookie class.

Manuel has had more downs than ups in his rookie season, but Week 14 may have been his worst game of the year. He only completed 18 of 33 passing attempts for 184 yards and threw four interceptions.

As one of three Tampa Bay Buccaneers to intercept EJ Manuel on Sunday, Johnthan Banks had a better day than Buffalo’s rookies. (Photo: Kim Klement — USA Today Sports)

He might not have been at fault for all of those interceptions, as the two made by Buccaneers outside linebacker Lavonte David were deflected off of Buffalo receivers’ hands. The other two, however, were simply inaccurate throws jumped by Buccaneers defenders (cornerback Johnthan Banks and middle linebacker Mason Foster).

Manuel also took seven sacks. While this had as much to do with his offensive line giving up a great deal of pressure as it had to do with the quarterback himself, many of those sacks were a result of Manuel failing to recognize pressure and/or holding the ball too long. A typical trait of a young quarterback, Manuel needs to develop better pocket awareness and learn when he needs to throw the ball away to avoid losing costly yardage.

Manuel’s development will continue to be the focus of Buffalo’s final three games of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, because Buffalo’s long-term plan is heavily reliant on his potential to materialize into a franchise quarterback. It was an additional focus on Sunday because of his noticeably poor play, but Buffalo will be expecting him to not only play better than he did Sunday, but improve upon his entire body of work.

Still, even with a turbulent quarterback situation that has suffered from both injury and poor play by Manuel, there are many other issues with the Bills that have led to losses. That makes it important for not only Manuel, but the rest of the Bills’ rookies and young talent, to come along quickly.

Sunday was a step back for the entire Buffalo rookie class.

It would be unfair to cast much blame upon second-round pick Robert Woods for the interception that went off his hands, as he was lit up by a clean but explosive hit from Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis that caused the ball to ricochet out of his grasp and into David’s arms. Nonetheless, it was another poor performance for the rookie who has not 50 or more receiving yards in a game since Week 5. He only caught three passes for 20 yards, while he was flagged for a costly hold on what would have otherwise been an 83-yard touchdown run by Bills running back C.J. Spiller.

After a missed tackle from poor positioning, Kiko Alonso could only watch as Bobby Rainey celebrated his 80-yard touchdown run. (Photo: Kim Klement — USA Today Sports)

The clear standout among the Bills rookies this season has been fellow second-round pick Kiko Alonso, who has emerged as a star middle linebacker and Buffalo’s leading tackler. But while he has been touted by many as the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, Sunday’s game cost him some serious momentum. He finished the day with six tackles, including one screen pass to Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey that he dropped for an 8-yard loss. But he was also out of position on a number of running plays, including a missed tackle on an 80-yard rushing touchdown by Rainey on Tampa Bay’s second play from scrimmage of the game.

Alonso might still win Defensive Rookie of the Year, but if he does, it is going to be a statement of total tackles being an overrated statistic. While Alonso has been very impressive in his ability to cover ground and make plays all over the field, recent weeks have shown that he still has significant develop to make in terms of his positioning and angles as both a run and pass defender. He has certainly looked like a steal of a second-round pick, but he would be making a steal of his own by winning that award over New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who has already established himself as one of the league’s best players at his position.

The most pleasant surprise of the rookie class this season has been undrafted cornerback Nickell Robey, who has emerged as a standout slot cornerback, but he has also started to be exposed in recent weeks. While he has continued to have mostly lockdown coverage in the slot, he has been exposed when he has been lined up against bigger, faster receivers.

That was the case again Sunday when Vincent Jackson beat Robey for a 38-yard touchdown. Robey got burned badly on the play and for the second consecutive week, got flagged for defensive pass interference on a pass going to the end zone. Even despite Robey’s penalty, Jackson still made the play.

Another rookie who has been coming along to make an impact in recent weeks is third-round pick Marquise Goodwin, but he did not show up well often Sunday. He had at least 50 receiving yards in three of his previous four games, but he was not even targeted with a pass against the Buccaneers. He was flagged for a holding penalty, however, and continued to be underwhelming as a kickoff returner, averaging just 15.7 yards on three returns.

All in all, it was a bad day for the young Bills. There were a few positives, most notably the defense’s dominant second half. The biggest positive as it pertains to Buffalo’s important young players, however, may have been the performance of second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

After missing the first five games of the season with a fractured wrist, and failing to play his usual physical, aggressive style of coverage since, Gilmore appeared to be back at his best for the first time this season on Sunday. He consistently shut down his opponent with physical man coverage and made a massive play when he intercepted a pass intended for Jackson at the 1-yard line. Gilmore needed to get healthy to get his physicality and his confidence back, and it appears he has finally done so.

For the most part, however, this was a game the Bills do not want to duplicate in any way as they finish their season against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. If the Bills are going to inspire confidence as a team and in their fan base going forward to next season, they need their young players to improve and finish the season strong.

Tags: Buffalo Bills, EJ Manuel, Game Reviews, Kiko Alonso, Loss, Marquise Goodwin, Nickell Robey, Postgame Takeaways, Reaction, Robert Woods, Rookies, Stephon Gilmore, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Week 14

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