A weekly analysis of the Bills' quarterback play.
Rewind: Making his NFL debut, EJ Manuel had one statistic that stood out over all others: zero interceptions. Avoiding critical mistakes remains the key for Manuel (and any other rookie quarterback), and with three games under his belt (including two preseason contests), Manuel has yet to be picked off in live action. He completed 67 percent of his passes (18-for-27), but only for 150 yards. Manuel relied heavily on his running backs, targeting C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson six times each. Of his five completions to wide receivers, two were touchdown passes, and both were arguably his best throws of the game.
Fast-forward: The Panthers boast a stronger run defense than they do pass coverage. Carolina has a weaker secondary than the norm, with Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn manning the cornerback position. The biggest problem for Manuel may be the Panthers' pass rush, which is among the better ones in the league. Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks in 2012) and Greg Hardy (11) could pose problems for the Bills on the edge. In addition, the Panthers have a pair of linebackers (Luke Kuechly and Jon Beason) with good range, which could help take away Spiller as an outlet for Manuel in the passing game.
Opening it up: Outside of his two touchdown passes, Manuel rarely targeted his wide receivers in the opener. That will need to change if the Bills' offense wants to move the ball more than it did against the Patriots. The Panthers run a heavy dose of Cover 2 on defense, which could take away the deep ball but help the Bills in the intermediate range. If Manuel wants to progress as a quarterback, he will need to target his receivers down the field, showing off his arm strength and accuracy. On Sunday, he looked slow at times to get the ball to his receivers across the middle of the field.
Prediction: What we saw out of Manuel on Sunday may be par for the course this season. Save for a big gain after a catch, his yards per attempt will be on the lower end. Anything over 250 yards will be a surprise. On the flip side, expect Manuel to continue his streak of not throwing an interception. He's shown good decision-making skills for a rookie quarterback.