Johnny Manziel had arguably the worst game for a rookie quarterback in the 2014 season. His performance agains the Bengals was worse than any Blake Bortles or Zach Mettenberger or Derek Carr performance. Even Tom Savage looked more composed than Manziel.
But his struggles aren’t all on him. The playcalling, the poor running game, and an unfamiliarity with his receivers and blocking were to blame as well. I details those in this Sporting News article.
With that in mind, Manziel and the Browns offense have a chance to redeem themselves against the Panthers this week. Here are five ways Manziel can improve from a dreadful first start and potentially guide the Browns to a victory.
- Less Read-Option/Shotgun Set Runs, More Power Running
While his running ability may put the plan of read-option and spreading the defense into effect, it was clear from his first game that team’s aren’t scared of him yet with his legs as it relates to the passing game. The Browns tried to put Manziel in shotgun sets and ran a handful of read-option plays, which didn’t threaten the Bengals.
The Browns haven’t been a great running team all year, but trying to pick up 5-6 yards on the first two downs with clear power running can be the best way to give Manziel more manageable 3rd downs as well as take the ball out of his hands early in the game until he begins to settle in more.
- Quarterback and Running Back Draws Early in Game
When they do run the ball outside of power running sets, using the draw game, including with Manziel, should be a key part of the gameplan. Agains the Bengals, the defensive line seemed in prime contain mode, and turned to attack Manziel once they realized he was looking downfield.
Especially early in the game, when it is 2nd and long and 3rd down, using the draw game may not consistently pick up the first down, but it will prevent the defensive ends and linebackers from pure contain mode (which leaves the A and B gaps wider) to needing to pinch the inside further, thereby allowing Manziel (and the outside passing game) room to work on the perimeter.
- Focus on Footwork, Less on Evading Pressure
Cleveland clearly wanted Manziel to “do whatever it takes” to pick up first downs in his first half as a starter. However, the idea of “letting Manziel be Manziel” needs to be replaced by forcing him to develop in-game mechanics so, when the time calls for him to improvise, defenses will at least be somewhat off balance.
Manziel needs to know that, early on in his career, it’s okay to take sacks as long as he’s working to develop his pocket presence, confidence and delivery. Manziel was sacked three times, but two of his interceptions were throws he made to avoid sacks. A six or seven-sack game sounds bad for a mobile quarterback, but for one so young in his career, limiting turnovers is far more important.
- More Combined Vertical Routes
I said earlier that the Browns need to use the power running game more on early downs, to force smaller second and third down opportunities. But when they do decide to pass, giving Manziel the decision to target one of his bigger receivers in the vertical game will put him in a more comfortable position. Asking him to develop timing with his receivers on deep-breaking routes or inside slants will take time, but vertical stretching routes will be more about touch and control than focusing on his limited reps in practice.
Josh Gordon on one side, Jordan Cameron at tight end and Andrew Hawkins and/or Taylor Gabriel on opposite side, all challenging deep, will give Manziel a pre-snap hot read based on the coverage, and put less focus on his under-developed feel for NFL defenses outside of a post-snap coverage read. Four verticals will allow to find the one-on-one match-up (a lesser chance for a turnover), a chance for a big play without unjust risk, less pressure on him to focus on timing, and, if worst comes to worst, an increased running lane for him to take off if the linebackers fade.
- Finish in the Redzone
It’s the least clear of these points, but it’s probably the most important. The Browns should have more success by accident than last week, and at least a few redzone visits should occur.
Redzone success usually falls on the playcaller and less on the quarterback, because such a tight area to work in leaves less room for decision-making and more on one-read and quick plays. Kyle Shanahan should have at least a few creative options to find ways to get inside the three yard-line (where running should be the focus), but I think getting Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon involved (especially on the same side of the field) could be the key to throwing the ball with the rookie passer at the helm. No matter what, the Browns need to capitalize on the 3-4 redzone trips they get, because Manziel is sure to take an extra sack or two in the game, along with at least one turnover.