In the offseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars made a lot of changes. Tom Coughlin was brought in as executive vice president of football operations to work with Dave Caldwell on building the roster. Doug Marrone was made the permanent head coach after taking up the interim reigns last year when Gus Bradley was finally fired.
The Cerberus at the top of the Jaguars structure began to put together a game plan for finally competing. They extended the investment of 2016 in the defense by adding AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell, and Barry Church in free agency. In the Draft they focused on trying to create a running game, taking the monstrous running back Leonard Fournette and then Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson.
All of this was done in the name of winning without Blake Bortles having to do anything even approaching good play. And it’s all worked like a dream so far.
Defending the pass at a historic rate
Defensively the Jaguars have been other-worldly against the pass this year. Football Outsiders has them at #1 in pass defense, with the gap to #2 being bigger than the gap between #2 and #16. They have the Jags pass defense a hair behind the brilliant 2002 Buccaneers and 11% better than the great 2013 Seahawks.
While their run defense hasn’t been great, the ridiculous pass rush and the incredible work of Bouye and Jalen Ramsey has made life almost impossible for opposing quarterbacks. The Jags are allowing just 5.7 yards per attempt, have a 60.0 QB rating against, have picked up 23 sacks already (inflated by ten sacks in Week 1) and have 10 interceptions.
Let’s just compare that to the 2015 Broncos. Why them? Because they did what Jacksonville are trying to do; Win without a passing game. Denver allowed 6.2 yards per attempt, had a 78.8 QB rating against, had a very similar number of sacks per game (3.25 to JAX’s 3.83), and finished the year with 14 interceptions.
Those numbers alone show the kind of level of play the Jaguars have achieved against the pass so far.
Running through souls
I was concerned about the Leonard Fournette selection for Jacksonville, not because of his ability but because of his probable longevity. There is no doubt though, that the Fournette selection has been a wild success through the first six games.
The rookie is picking up 4.6 yards a carry and 99.3 yards a game so far, together with six touchdowns on the ground. His performance, together with the improvements up front that Cam Robinson has provided, has also trickled down to Chris Ivory who is going at over four yards a carry.
The Jaguars ground game has kept the chains moving, chewed clock, and most importantly it’s taken the ball out of Blake Bortles’ hands.
Fournette has given the Jaguars the kind of dimension they haven’t had before, and it has given the offense enough to get by.
Everything still rests on Bortles
Given better field position by the defense and a good ground game you would think that Blake Bortles would be having his best season in the NFL. After all, that should all help him right?
Well, not so much.
Bortles is posting his lowest completion percentage so far (57.1%), a higher interception rate than last season (2.9%), and a very low yards per attempt (6.3). None of those things are really what you would expect.
With defenses having to crash in on Fournette, you’d think there would be easy passes, and bigger chunks of yards, available for Bortles, but he just hasn’t been able to take advantage of those things. Some of that can be put on Allen Robinson’s injury, but the fact remains that despite a superior supporting cast, Bortles has not shown any improvements in 2017.
His only multi-touchdown game was in London against a Ravens team that didn’t show up. In three games he has thrown for less that 150 yards. In those games the Jags are 2-1, with both wins coming on the back of enormous defensive displays.
While there are examples of teams winning via defense, it has only really happened once in the last 15 years, which was Denver in 2015. Every other team has needed a quarterback along the way to put up numbers at some point.
In his 12 300+ yard games, Bortles is 1-11, indicating that he is doing nothing more than amassing yards in garbage time. His 7-17 record in games decided by fewer than seven points also points to that fact.
with Denver, Peyton Manning’s ability to control the line of scrimmage and out-maneuver defenses was vital in the offense keeping it’s head above water. Bortles can’t do that.
For all the brilliance they have on defense and on the ground, in the end they are going to need and effective passing game if they are really going to compete consistently and into January and February. They will go, in the end, as far as Blake Bortles can take them, and as ever that will not be very far.
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