What if I told you that, statistically, there’s a defense this year that's comparable to the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, 2013 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos? You might guess (correctly) that it's the Jaguars, but it would take you second to get there. That’s because most of the discussion when it comes to the 2017 Jaguars still revolves around Blake Bortles.
But with the 10-4 Jaguars returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, does the Bortles narrative—that he is, to put it bluntly, terrible—built up over the previous two seasons still hold true?
This team has won seven of its last eight games, including its last three. In those three games, Bortles has completed 71% of his passes and thrown for 903 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating is 128.6. It’s not just Bortles’ results that are encouraging, it’s his process. He has played with better pocket poise, moving subtly within it and only when necessary. His decision-making has improved. His precision accuracy has stabilized, including at the more challenging intermediate levels, where he's made some tough, critical throws.
The Jaguars are still an unabashed run-first team. In training camp, head coach Doug Marrone said—jokingly, but only sort of—that he wishes they could run the ball on every snap. They have wound up running on 50.6% of their snaps, highest in the NFL. It's as meat and potatoes as a ground game gets, with the ballcarrier often working behind double-team blocks.
But in Week 13 against the Colts, that ground game was uncharacteristically futile, amassing an ugly 96 yards on 27 attempts as the O-line struggled to get movement. Bortles pushed the offense ahead with a few improvised throws, and then preserved the lead by dinking and dunking against Indy’s zones. The next week against Seattle, Jacksonville rushed for 156 yards on 39 carries, exploiting a Seahawks front seven that was without run-stopping enforcer Kam Chancellor all game plus Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright for the second half. But the rushing yardage was ancillary in deciding the outcome; Jacksonville's lead was built by downfield throws to Dede Westbrook and a 75-yard touchdown on a designer deep shot to Keelan Cole. And against Houston last Sunday, Bortles’ three first-half touchdowns helped give Jacksonville a 31-0 lead, which the running game preserved.
This isn't to suggest that Jacksonville should tweak its approach and feature more Bortles. If the Jaguars are to reach Super Bowl LII, they'll have to be the first team since the 2005 Steelers to do so with a quarterback who is purely a complementary piece in a run-based offense. The Jaguars are built for power, and with the three-headed monster of Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon (who has lately supplanted Corey Grant) Jacksonville’s backfield will have fresh legs throughout the postseason.
More importantly, much of Jacksonville’s aerial attack comes from its ground game. Yes, Bortles has converted on some critical third-and-long scenarios, but his comfort comes from throwing out of condensed formations and off of play-action. Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett have built a stellar bootleg game, featuring finesse receivers like Westbrook and especially Marqise Lee on crossing patterns and allowing Bortles to throw while on the move. (Lee hopes to be back from an ankle injury for the playoffs.) This creates more time and space for Bortles, compensating for the elongated windup and slow release that has hindered his career. These tactics also help Bortles make wise decisions. When you fake a handoff or roll outside of the pocket, you slice the field in half, leaving the quarterback with only high-low reads on one side. It becomes easier to hit a checkdown or scramble, which inherently limits mistakes.
Jacksonville’s road to Minneapolis will likely go through Pittsburgh, New England or both. Those are veteran coaching staffs and fundamentally sound defenses; they’ll force Bortles, not Jacksonville's ground game, to beat them. The Patriots saw Bortles up close in joint training camp practices. The Steelers faced him in Week 5, when he had 95 yards passing in a 30-9 Jaguars victory that the defense created. Those are different Patriots and Steelers defenses now, but Bortles is also a different QB.
FILM TWEET ELABORATION
I was baffled at the outcry over my claim that I’d take Matthew Stafford over Russell Wilson. I can certainly understand how people—even a majority of people—would disagree with it. But it’s not like Stafford is some run-of-the-mill, game-managing quarterback.
Stafford’s Lions are 8-6, just like Wilson’s Seahawks. Stafford, like Wilson, has a so-so supporting cast, and no consistent running game behind him. Stafford’s defense is less dynamic than the one Wilson has played with for most of the year. And, if you want to get statistical:
You must factor Wilson’s 521 yards rushing into the discussion. But you also must consider that Stafford has, perhaps next to Aaron Rodgers, the best pure throwing arm in football. He can attempt passes that other QBs (including Wilson) cannot. These are two terrific and unique quarterbacks in their prime. Debating who is better can be smart and fun, but it’s not ridiculous.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
The Chargers’ loss to Kansas City last Saturday night was spawned by turnovers where Philip Rivers and his receivers were not on the same page. This happens way too often with L.A., and particularly with third-year receiver Tyrell Williams. L.A.’s playoff hopes are not dead, but if Rivers and his receivers don’t jell, they might as well be.
KEEP AN EYE ON
The Rams defense. It’s one of the fastest in football, particularly at linebacker, where Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron bring range and flexible matchup coverage ability (both played safety in college). With a disruptive front four and upper echelon cornerback (Trumaine Johnson), the Rams can win with an aggressive man coverage approach or a more cautious zone-based one.
Let’s say Antonio Brown’s torn calf keeps him out of a playoff game. Can the Steelers survive? As valuable as Brown is, the answer is yes. Keep in mind: Pittsburgh’s postseason run last year was on the strength of Le’Veon Bell and a power running game. The Steelers, regularly using six-man offensive lines, extra tight ends and fullbacks, rammed the rock. Now that Carson Wentz is out in Philadelphia, the Steelers are the one offense that can win by throwing 55 times one week and running 40 times the next week.
NON-FOOTBALL THING ON MY MIND
Whistling should be outlawed. You come across as an uptight killjoy if you complain about it, and so no one does. But privately, we’re all annoyed. We’ve tacitly agreed that it's O.K. to look at someone cross-eyed if they’re humming too loudly. Whistling is just a shriller form of humming.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.