We’ve all watched Jared Goff light the league on fire over this season’s first quarter. THERE is a testament to what good coaching can do for a young quarterback, we’ve said. Indeed, the Goff-Sean McVay marriage is as strong as any right now. But there’s a less sexy, though equally impressive union on the other side of the country, too: quarterback Blake Bortles and offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett, of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Hackett, who incidentally is a close friend of McVay’s, has figured out exactly how to play with Bortles. He’d never say so publicly, but Hackett knows his fifth-year QB is imperfect. He’s heard it not just from fans and media but—more convincingly—from fellow offensive coaches over the years. Bortles has that slow, windup delivery and low release point, which leads to accuracy woes and balls deflected at the line of scrimmage. (He had a few in Sunday’s win against the Jets, including one from linebacker Avery Williamson that resulted in a Darryl Roberts interception.) Sometimes, Bortles’s confidence will waver, and he’ll overthink his carefully cultivated throwing mechanics, which is a perfect way to lose your command and start misreading the field.
A bad coach sees Bortles and says, “He can’t run my system.” But a good coach says, “What kind of system can he run?” Because here’s what is also true about Bortles: When he’s right, he throws a pretty ball. There’s some touch and velocity. He can hit moving targets outside the numbers. He’s more athletic than you’d guess, capable of hurting opponents with scrambles and the occasional read-option.
Bortles’s talent, like most QBs’, becomes most evident when he’s throwing under comfortable conditions. Hackett has figured out how to create those. The offensive coordinator must respect the “smashmouth, run-first” wishes of head coach Doug Marrone and front office czar Tom Coughlin, who want to play to a defense that, right now, is easily the best in football. But no NFL team, no matter how dynamic its defense, can win by handing the ball off 50 times a game. Hackett and Marrone understand that being a run-first team means, in large part, having a passing game that derives from your running game. It’s not so much about running the ball, it’s about operating from formations that look like you might run the ball. Defending those formations, and all the run possibilities they present, renders a defense predictable.
Two things happen against a predictable defense: (1) You can craft designer pass plays that beat those predicted coverages, and (2) You can tell your QB exactly what to expect. This makes it easier for him to work through progression reads. And perhaps no offensive coach believes more in progression reading than Hackett.
This season, Bortles has thrown the ball on 49% of Jacksonville’s first downs. Some of that is on play-action—the ultimate form of building your passing game off your running game. That’s an especially shrewd tactic with Bortles because the fake run-action creates a slower-developing play, accommodating Bortles’s slow windup and release. But Hackett has also called plenty of straight dropbacks on first down, and Bortles has responded well.
Where once these first-down passes may have been almost strictly to simplify things for the QB, in Jacksonville they’ve now become a measure for featuring him. Take Sunday, for example. Bortles dropped back on first down 12 times, completing 7 of 10 passes for 68 yards (with a five-yard scramble and a sack).
Most telling was what happened in the fourth quarter. With just under 13 minutes remaining against the Jets, leading 25-6, Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon had the ball stripped by Avery Williamson. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, whom Bortles earlier had beaten on a fade throw to Donte Moncrief for a 67-yard touchdown, scooped up the fumble and returned it to the 5-yard-line. New York’s anemic offense found the end zone a few snaps later. Now up just 25-12, the Jaguars on the next series saw Yeldon get stuffed for gains of two and zero en route to a quick three-and-out.
That was all the inspiration Marrone and Hackett needed to go back to throwing the ball on the next series, even with a double-digit fourth-quarter lead. They put the game in Bortles’s hands, having him drop back on seven of their next 11 plays. Bortles completed six of those seven throws for 73 yards. Overall, he continued to succeed on first downs after entering Sunday with an astronomical 123.8 first-down passer rating, according to Football Outsiders.
This is not dissimilar to how the Rams are playing with Goff, who is feasting on play-action passes. Like L.A., Jacksonville has a well-coached receiving corps that plays with the attention to detail necessary for running multi-receiver route combinations. This really comes into play on third down—the most critical down in football, and one that’s extra critical for the Jags, who still run the ball with great frequency, which naturally creates more third downs. Most of those are third-and-medium/short situations, which brings man-to-man coverage, as it’s the best way to defend the sticks. Hackett has been brilliant with his man-beater designs. Jags receivers align in stacks and bunch formations and run intersecting routes off the snap, usually with one going on a shallow cross. It’s the same stuff that high-powered veteran offenses like the Patriots, Saints and Chargers have mastered over the years.
These man-beater plays, like the first-down passes, define the read for Bortles. Third-and-medium/short also brings more blitzing. Bortles, who could once be counted on to tuck the ball and become frenetic under pressure, has remained calm from crowded pockets this season, moving confidently within them and keeping his eyes downfield. When those eyes haven’t spotted comfortable throws, Bortles has relied on his legs to either take off or buy more time. Very rarely this season has he forced throws into coverage.
Most encouraging is that Bortles played this way Sunday against the Jets, seven days after playing like his old ugly self in a home loss to the Titans. Two years ago, a game like the Titans loss would have precipitated a multi-week slump for Jacksonville’s QB. Not anymore. With the best defense in football and now a clear identity on offense, it’s reasonable to classify Jacksonville as “The Team To Beat” in the AFC.
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