Back in June during offseason workouts, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone joked with reporters that if he had his druthers, he’d go back to “the old way” of playing football and just run the ball on every down.
Of course that’s not possible in the 2017 edition of the NFL, which is increasingly becoming a passers’ game, but it seems that Jacksonville is trying to throw it back as much as it can.
In Sunday’s 30–9 win against the Steelers, Blake Bortles completed eight passes on 14 attempts for 95 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. That’s the kind of stat line that makes you think the game was played in inclement weather or the quarterback was benched with the team was trailing by three or four scores—definitely not a game in which the quarterback’s team is taking down the team that reached the most recent AFC title game.
But the Jaguars’ rushing stats will explain it: Rookie Leonard Fournette and backup Chris Ivory combined for 222 rushing yards and two scores against the Steelers last Sunday.
“We wanted to be able to run the football and that’s been said since I’ve been here,” Bortles told reporters on Wednesday, “and this is the first year that it’s actually been put into action and been able to do it and execute it.”
With Marrone at the controls and Nathaniel Hackett in as the first-year offensive coordinator, Bortles is clearly in a system that is most friendly to his skills while hiding his flaws. An interception machine in his first three seasons, all under coach Gus Bradley, Bortles has thrown just four picks in five games in part because the volume of his pass attempts has dramatically decreased.
Bortles is tied for 24th among all passes in attempts and tied for 30th in completions. His 54.8 completion percentage is 31st in the league, and his average pass length of 7.26 yards per attempt is 26th. The Jaguars have effectively taken the ball out of Bortles’ hands and put it into the hands of the league’s best rushing attack. And when Bortles is forced to keep the ball, they’ve asked him to throw shorter, less risky passes.
No one has rushed the ball more through five weeks than Fournette, whose 109 carries outpaces Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley. His 466 rushing yards (aided by the 90-yard killer against the Steelers—the longest of the season by a running back) are the second-most in the league behind Kareem Hunt. Ivory has found his spots, too, rushing 38 times for 159 yards, good for 37th overall in the league. To boot, these two backs are getting yards against stacked boxes from defenses knowing that they prefer the run over the pass.
Indeed the Jags topped the Steelers primarily because Ben Roethlisberger turned the ball over five times—two resulted in pick-sixes—and the Steelers abandoned a running game that had worked with moderate success in the first half. Jacksonville’s defense, and especially corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, has helped the Jaguars to the best turnover ratio in the game today at plus-10.
Not all opposing quarterbacks will be as charitable as Roethlisberger was last week, though, and the onus will fall on Bortles to make plays with his arm like every other quarterback in this league.
“When you’re running for 200-plus yards, we can keep running it and they can keep adding people to the box,” Bortles said. “But eventually you’re going to have to throw it and you’re going to have to beat people throwing the ball. You can only block so many guys. We know that and understand that and we’re going to continue to try to find ways to run the ball, even against loaded boxes. But we’re going to be good when we get the opportunity to throw the ball down the field and work off the play action.”
The Jaguars have beaten Houston and Pittsburgh—two division favorites—with fewer than 20 combined completions from Bortles and 220 combined passing yards.
Perhaps most impressive in Sunday’s win was not that Bortles won by three scores with fewer than 10 completions and 100 yards, but rather that he attempted just one pass on two dropbacks in the entire second half, coming on a three-and-out midway through the third quarter with Pittsburgh leading 9–7. Roethlisberger followed that with his two pick-sixes on back-to-back drives, and Jacksonville’s offense didn’t return to the field until the start of the fourth quarter. At this point it was still just an 11-point game with a full quarter left to play, but Marrone and Hackett opted to take the ball out of Bortles’ hands almost entirely. The Jags put together a 13-play, 67-yard drive that consisted entirely of rushes before kicking the field goal.
“I think you need discipline,” Marrone said Thursday. “I think you have to have a good discipline about yourself as a play-caller and what you want to do game-plan-wise, and what goes in. …I think it’s a matter of sticking with things.”
Up next, the Jaguars face the Los Angeles Rams, another surprising 3–2 team. This is the first time Jacksonville has had a winning record in Week 5 since 2010, and the Jags are gunning for consecutive wins for just the third time in the Bortles era.
And interestingly, it seems the formula to reaching 4–2 in the Bortles era is to have as little of Bortles throwing as possible.