FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Between Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill, New England’s defense last season had its hands full trying to defend rookie quarterbacks.
They don’t have to wait very long to see if that experience will pay off.
The Patriots will once again be tested by a first-year signal caller Sunday when Buffalo’s EJ Manuel makes his debut in the season opener.
Facing a rookie, though, doesn’t necessarily translate into greater opportunities for a defense.
“My eyes light up anytime I get to play and get the chance to hit the quarterback. It really don’t matter who’s in there,” said defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who chased down his fair share of rookies during his first nine seasons in the league, all with Oakland. “We’ve just got to do our job and stay in our lanes and try to collapse that pocket.”
While practicing and preparing for a rookie quarterback has become commonplace in New England, studying Manuel hasn’t exactly been easy. The 16th overall pick out of Florida State completed 26 of 33 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown without an interception in his first two preseason games.
That’s all the film the Patriots have on him, though.
The clear-cut favorite to start the season, Manuel underwent a minor procedure on his left knee Aug. 18 and missed the Bills’ final two preseason games.
“Watch the film we have on him, and obviously the coaches do a good job,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. “I’m sure through the draft process and everything, they scouted that guy and we know what he is and we just have to be ready for him.”
The Patriots actually are ready for two quarterbacks.
Undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, the only other quarterback on Buffalo’s roster, was in line to start the opener until Manuel returned to practice Sunday and was named the team’s starter three days later.
“We know he’s a real athletic guy. Good passer, had a lot of production in college, played well in the Indianapolis game, scrambled well,” New England coach Bill Belichick said of Manuel. “We’ll have to be ready for him and Tuel — really anybody that is on the roster. We all know that whichever guy starts the game may or may not be in there the next play — injuries, substitutions and so forth.
We have to be ready, but he’s impressive.”
That’s also an appropriate adjective to describe the play of rookies last season against the Patriots.
Against a sampling of four first-year starters last season — Colin Kaepernick was a second-year player for San Francisco, while Wilson, Luck, and Tannehill were rookies — New England struggled. Those quarterbacks averaged 253.8 yards per game with better than a 54 percent completion rate.
The two strongest performances came in New England losses, and both by mobile quarterbacks. Wilson threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns in Seattle’s 24-23 victory, while Kaepernick tossed four touchdowns in San Francisco’s 41-34 win.
“Quarterbacks that can run, you’ve got to keep them in the pocket,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said.
“You want to let them throw the ball downfield and not give them big rush lanes opening up so they can just step up and run for 10, 15 yards at a time.”
Manuel certainly fits the mold of a runner, something he did plenty of in college when he averaged nearly 75 carries a season. However, Kelly doesn’t expect to see his 6-foot-4, 237-pound frame on the move that often.
“He runs a little bit but he tries to stay in that pocket. He tries to get that ball out of his hands,” Kelly explained. “He’ll run when it’s necessary, but to say he’s like Michael Vick? Nah. But he’ll run. He’s definitely a threat, though.”
Whatever Manuel does on Sunday, it will help prepare the Patriots for their second game of the season just four days later, when they host rookie quarterback Geno Smith and the New York Jets.
First, though, they’ve got to stop Manuel.
“He seems to have a good understanding of running their offense, he’s got good control throwing the ball downfield, he seems to make smart decisions,” Gregory said. “Obviously, he’s athletic, he can run and can really hurt you when he gets outside the pocket.
“We’ll have to be ready to contain him and try to limit the things that he can do.”
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