Rust to blame? Manuel, Marrone split

PITTSBURGH -- After a week in which the Buffalo Bills celebrated the return of their first-round pick, EJ Manuel, it didn't take long for his "welcome back" balloon to deflate Sunday.

In a 23-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the rookie quarterback completed 22 of 39 passes for 155 yards in his first game since leaving with a knee injury in Week 5.

Following the loss, coach Doug Marrone was quick to point out Manuel's four-game absence.

"The kid missed four weeks and just came back. He's trying his best," Marrone said. "If you want to know exactly what happened out there, he's going through his footwork too quickly and [he's] not as slowed down to see things develop as quickly."

Manuel, however, wasn't one to blame rust for his performance, one in which he completed just 44 percent of his passes until the game's final drive, when he went 11-for-14 for 76 yards and a touchdown.

"I didn't feel rusty. I felt good," he said. "I don't think that is a big deal with missing games or anything like that. You have to feel. You can tell when you have pressure. You can tell when guys are getting closer to you, so I don't think missing games has anything to do with the internal clock."

Like Marrone, center Eric Wood came to Manuel's defense, saying wind -- which was particularly gusty early in the game -- played a part in the passing game's struggles.

"The elements. It was tough," he said. "Early on, that wind was really kicking."

Manuel, again, wasn't buying it.

"No, I don't think the wind was a problem," he simply said after the game.

The problem, Manuel stressed, was how the Steelers' defense -- which allowed 55 points and 432 passing yards to the Patriots last week -- tried to take away the big play.

"They did a lot of coverages that were deep and had deep safeties and things like that," Manuel said. "So at times it was tough to stretch the ball down the field. You can only take what they give you. There's no point trying to force balls down the field if it's not there."

If there's any silver lining to his outing, Manuel avoided throwing an interception until the fourth quarter. On the play, his intended receiver, fellow rookie Marquise Goodwin, got tangled up with a Steelers defender while running downfield, allowing safety Ryan Clark to step in front of the pass and return it 37 yards.

There were other instances, however, when Manuel tried to force passes into tight windows, nearly causing interceptions.

"Their coach did a good job scheming for us," he said. "Sometimes the first read was covered and the second read, too."

Manuel's replacement for three games, Thad Lewis, was healthy Sunday after missing one game with sore ribs. However, Marrone said there was never any thought of turning to their backup.

"I really didn't," he said. "No."

It's not surprising that the Bills are choosing to ride Manuel, who Marrone is confident will improve despite the Bills' dwindling chances to turn this season around.

"I will say this: He will play to a point one day where I'm going to be able to stand here and say, 'You know what? I'm proud of him,'" Marrone said. "It's awesome. He's that type of quarterback that we all want."