Johnny Manziel has been the most impressive SEC quarterback the past two seasons. The 2012 Heisman winner who beat the eventual national champion as a freshman is statistically having a better season than last year, and leading up to this weekend was in the mix to once against be in the Heisman discussion.
However, one team has proven to be the consistent kryptonite to Johnny Football’s superhero like performances: the LSU Tigers defense. And while NFL evaluators watched Manziel against LSU this weekend, they left disappointed in his performance and once again questioning whether he can be a top tier quarterback in the NFL.
In Manziel’s Heisman campaign last year, he boasted a 26:6 touchdown to interception ratio and a 70% completion percentage against team’s not named LSU. But his 2012 battle against LSU lead to a 29 for 56 struggle, amassing under 300 yards and throwing three interceptions.
In Manziel’s 2013 season so far, he’s been playing at an even higher level, pushing the coveted 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio and a 73% completion percentage. But this past week, he was once again held to far below his usual standards: 16/41, 224 yards, and two interceptions to go with just one touchdown.
This past week’s performance was his lowest yardage output in a game where he through at least 30 passes since his first career start against Florida in 2012.
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Looking beyond just the basic stats, Manziel lead a passing game that was consistently out of sync against the physical LSU secondary that wins with active man coverage downfield and a willingness to engage and battle with receivers down field.
Despite ample protection provided by two eventual Top 10 offensive tackles (Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi), Manziel wasn’t able to muster up consistent drives by hitting receivers on mid-field routes or having success when forced to make plays with his arm outside the pocket.
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While much credit must be given to the play of the LSU cornerbacks and the physicality they displayed (especially against tight end-like Mike Evans), it was Manziel’s pre-snap mistakes and field vision concerns that limited the A&M success and lead to a brutal loss for the Aggies and Manziel’s draft stock.
Play #1 – Manziel Stands in the Pocket, Switches Field Against Zone, Fires Strong Throw (3)
One of the better throws by Manziel on the day, this was one of the few NFL reads/throws that he was able to utilize his arm strength and pick up a first down. In the play below, you’ll see how Manziel has a clean pocket (as usual), and most likely could have stepped up if he needed to (though he rarely does). On a 3rd and 10 from his own 36, Manziel checks the middle of the field, sees the safeties and linebackers setting up in a zone, and quickly finds his in-breaking receiver. The throw is over the top and quick, both improvements over last season, his lower body mechanics are solid, and he delivers a strike and a ball that allows for his receiver to finish the catch, not take a big hit, and get a few more yard after catch. Again, this was one of the few plays where Manziel impressed, as things quickly went downhill in the second half.
Play #2/3 – Manziel Targets Mike Evans Only on 3rd Down, Leads to Failed Conversions (1,4)
For the first of these two plays (although there were many more examples), Manziel falls into the bad habit he’s grown into especially this season: over-targeting Mike Evans. Evans has the size, physicality, and strong hands to make plays in traffic and in pressure situations, but Manziel has begun to rely on him for nearly all 3rd down passes, and defenses have begun to defend appropriately.
For the play below, you can’t see the Mike Evans deep comeback route wide to Manziel’s left (where he looks as soon as the ball is snapped), but you do see Manziel pass on a wide open drag route in the middle of the field as well as throwing window to lead his receiver appropriately. Manziel instead never looks at any other read, and the pass rusher is able to finish the sack on Manziel.
As for the second play, the poor read here is even more obvious. On a 3rd and 10 (A&M was in a lot of 3rd and longs throughout the game), Manziel has plenty of protection upfront, and has a good 4 seconds to find his receiver. While Evans does have a one on one match-up on the outside, Manziel rushes his throw to the deep comeback despite having at least a second or two left. Manziel is forced to make a tough throw, slightly off balance, and misses Evans. Notice how he has his receiver #15 wide open in the middle of the field. Based on the Cover 3 look Manziel should have read pre-snap, this deep in against a safety like Craig Loston may have been a touchdown pass.
Play #4 – Manziel Stares Down Inside Slant Route, Single High Safety Intercepts for Win (2)
On the last meaningful drive for the Aggies, Manziel finished with arguably his worst decision of the night. With his two inside receivers to his left running a double slant and his favorite target Mike Evans wide to the right running a slant, the play’s design was to either deliver a strike to Evans as he boxes out his defender, or hit the trailing slant receiver (#6) after the safety was cleared out.
Instead, Manziel stares down his most inside receiver, throws a late pass across the middle, right where the lone-safety is waiting for the pass. Manziel both misread the safety’s leverage and decided on the wrong receiver pre-snap. An inexcusable decision and throw to cap off Manziel’s worst performance as a college quarterback.
This is just one game in the grand scheme of Manziel’s performance as a college quarterback. And, despite his major struggles pre-snap and on third downs, he actually showed a strong arm, vertical touch, and adequate mechanics.
However, it’s the mental aspect of Manziel’s game that should keep quarterback-needy evaluators up and night. He can make plays with his feet. He can make plays with his arm under pressure. He can make quick decisions when forced out of the pocket. But can Johnny Manziel make the pre-snap reads to make plays from the pocket in the NFL?
That’s the concern that LSU took advantage of for two years in a row, and what NFL team’s will need to see pass if the hope to groom him as their franchise quarterback.