NFL Playoffs 2018: Jaguars should let Bortles sling it, 7 Divisional Round stats

To pull off an AT-AT-sized upset by beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Jaguars need to turn to an unlikely source: Blake Bortles' right arm. Yes, I'm being dead serious. The Jaguars need to let Bortles sling the ball around early and often if they have any hope of departing Heinz Field with a win. I promise you, it's not as crazy as it sounds.

The Jaguars got to the playoffs by riding their top-ranked (by DVOA) defense. They advanced past the Bills on Wild-Card Weekend by leaning on that defense once again. At some point in the middle of that 10-3 win, Bortles himself realized that relying on his right arm could only lead to trouble in a low-scoring contest. So, instead of throwing the ball, Bortles didn't. He chose to use his legs and not mess up the nearly perfect game the defense was pitching.

In the second quarter, he ran the Jaguars into field-goal range.

And he kept on running in the second half. He finished with 88 yards on 10 carries, accumulating more rushing yards than passing yards (87). And it worked. The Jaguars won.

It won't work against the Steelers, though. Unless Big Ben experiences another five-pick meltdown, like he did back in October when the Jaguars thumped the Steelers by 21 points, the Jaguars will need to find a way to keep pace with an explosive and healthy Steelers offense. So, how can they do that?

Well, they can't expect Leonard Fournette and the running game to carry them to victory. One of the NFL's worst-kept secrets is that the Jaguars are actually not a great running team, even though they led the NFL in rushing yards. The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing yards because they ran the ball more than any other team, not because they were overly efficient on the ground. They ranked ninth in yards per attempt and 12th in rushing offense by Football Outsiders' metrics. Fournette might've eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, but he also averaged 3.9 yards per carry. He ranked 20th among running backs in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating, which measures missed tackles. The offensive line placed 13th in run blocking, per Football Outsiders. 

The Jaguars certainly need their running backs to contribute on Sunday, but they can't go into this game with an approach that tries to hide Bortles with their ground assault. It sounds crazy, but the Jaguars need to throw the ball early and often. They need to let Bortles drop back to pass on first down.

Here's why: Bortles is a heck of a lot better on first down than he is on second and third down.

Comp. %

YPA

TDs

INTs

Rating

First down

64.3

8.0

11

2

103.7

Second down

59.4

7.0

5

5

78.6

Third down

54.9

5.5

5

6

66.1

Fourth down

80.0

7.4

1

0

137.1

Ignore fourth down because the sample size is ridiculously small. First down compared to second and third down is what's important there. 

This shouldn't be a mystery. It's not like he's the only quarterback who's better on first down than third down. It's easier for Bortles to throw on first down because unlike second down and third down, defense's aren't as suspecting of the pass. Basically, the Jaguars shouldn't jam the ball up the middle twice and then throw the ball when everybody on the planet knows they're throwing the ball to pick up a fresh set of downs.   

This isn't a new idea. My colleague, Pete Prisco, has been talking about this for a while now. During Bortles' hot streak to begin December -- when he completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 903 yards, seven touchdowns, no picks, and a 128.6 passer rating over a three-game stretch -- Prisco noticed the Jaguars were letting him throw on early downs.

That's not what happened against the Bills. Of their 11 offensive drives (not including their final kneel-down series), the Jaguars began with a running play seven times and a passing play four times. Of the four times they started with a passing play, twice they eventually scored -- one touchdown and one field goal. Remember, they only scored 10 points all game long. 

In all, those four drives started and ended like this:

  • A 10-yard pass (punt)
  • A 20-yard scramble by Bortles (FG)
  • A 20-yard pass (punt)
  • A 9-yard scramble (TD)

Their other seven series started and ended like this:

  • 2-yard run (punt)
  • 4-yard run (punt)
  • 7-yard run (punt)
  • No gain (punt)
  • 3-yard run (punt)
  • Loss of 5 yards (punt)
  • Loss of 1 yard (punt)

It might sound insane, because Bortles is not a good quarterback, but the Jaguars should let Bortles chuck it on first down instead of jamming the ball up the middle and then hoping Bortles can bail them out on third-and-long. Bortles isn't a good enough quarterback to bail out the Jaguars. He needs to throw the ball when the defense isn't expecting it, when he can also throw short of the sticks. The Jaguars need to make his life easier by letting him throw on early downs instead of trying to hide him until the most-challenging passing down.

As someone who is required to watch that game, I can't believe I'm saying this ... but I am. It's time for the Jaguars to unleash Blake Bortles, against the mighty Steelers, in Pittsburgh, with a trip to the AFC title game at stake.

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MosEisley Chronicles

Read on for seven stats to know for the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

  1. The age gap

Tom Brady, 40, and Marcus Mariota, 24, are set to make history on Saturday when the Patriots and Titans face off in Foxborough with a trip to the AFC title game at stake. According to Elias Sports, Saturday's game between Brady and Mariota will have the largest age gap between starting quarterbacks in playoff history.

Even still, the biggest gap won't be between their ages, it'll be between their quality of play during the 2017 season. In the regular season, Brady ranked first in passing yards while Mariota finished 20th. Brady ranked fifth in completion percentage while Mariota finished 18th. Brady ranked third in touchdown passes while Mariota finished tied for 26th. Brady ranked tied for 21st in interceptions while Mariota finished third. Brady ranked third in passer rating while Mariota finished 27th. 

You get the point. The Patriots are probably going to win because they have the better quarterback -- by a wide margin.

2. Patriots run D is vulnerable

With that being said, the Patriots do have a weakness: Their run defense. The Patriots wrapped up the regular season allowing 4.7 yards per carry. Only one team, the Chargers, were worse. So, the Patriots own the worst run defense in the playoffs.

And the Titans can certainly run the ball. Against the Chiefs a week ago, the Titans racked up 202 yards on 31 carries, averaging 6.5 yards per rush. Derrick Henry did most of the damage, picking up 156 rushing yards while Mariota added 46 of his own. So no, the Titans did not miss injured running back DeMarco Murray. Instead, his injury actually became a blessing in disguise.

All year long, Henry was the better runner. He out-gained Murray by 85 yards. According to PFF, Henry totaled 33 missed tackles on running attempts and was the fifth-most elusive running back. Murray, on the other hand, totaled 24 missed tackles on running plays and finished as the 23rd-most elusive back. Yet for some reason -- it probably has something to do with pass blocking -- Henry collected eight fewer carries than Murray. 

Murray has already been ruled out, so Henry will get a chance to take it to the Patriots' weak run defense. If the Titans have any hope of upsetting the Patriots, they need Henry to experience a productive outing so that they can use lengthy drives to keep Brady away from the football.

3. Where's Alshon Jeffery?

The Eagles are (historic) underdogs against the Falcons, even though they're the top seed and they're playing at home. They're underdogs because Carson Wentz is out for the season with a torn ACL and as a result, their starting quarterback is Nick Foles. As a consequence of their quarterback change, Eagles WR1 Alshon Jeffery has disappeared.

In three games without Wentz, Jeffery caught five passes for 57 yards and one touchdown. Against the Falcons, the Eagles need to do a better job of getting their top receiver involved in the offense. Jeffery has always been the kind of receiver who doesn't need to gain separation to be considered open. Foles just needs to give him a chance to come down with some contested catches, because it's something Jeffery excels at.

And against the Falcons, they'll need to connect on some big plays.     

4. Falcons defense peaking

As a unit, the Eagles' offense could run into problems against a Falcons defense that appears to be peaking at just the right time. To get into the playoffs, the Falcons shutdown the Panthers, allowing 10 points to an offense that then dropped 26 points on the Saints last weekend. In their Wild Card Weekend win over the Rams, they held the top-scoring offense in the regular season to 13 points.

So, what's changed? One thing that shouldn't be overlooked: They blitzed a heck of a lot less in those two games. In games 1-15 of the season, the Falcons blitzed 23.2 percent of the time, which is already well below league average (29.4 percent), according to PFF. In their past two games, they've blitzed 13.3 percent of the time. Despite their decrease in blitzing, their pressure rate dropped by only 1.7 percent (33.9 percent to 32.2). 

How often the Falcons use the blitz will be interesting. Foles is better against the blitz (89.6 passer rating) than he is against non-blitzing defenses (75.7 passer rating), but he's considerably worse when he's under pressure (23.8 passer rating) compared to when he's well-protected (107.8 passer rating), according to PFF.

This might seem obvious, but the Falcons' ability to dominate the Eagles' offense might come down to their ability to get after Foles without blitzing.

5. Saints defense will force Keenum to be great

In Minnesota, Case Keenum will be starting a playoff game for the 13-3 Minnesota Vikings. What a season.

He'll face a difficult task. This is a Saints defense that required Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to consistently throw into tight windows.

One of the best matchups to watch will be Vikings receivers Stefon Diggs (849 yards and eight touchdowns) and Adam Thielen (1,276 yards and four touchdowns) against Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who posted the third-lowest passer rating in coverage (45.3) among qualified cornerbacks, according to PFF. 

The good news for Keenum is that Thielen and Diggs are better at separating than the Panthers' receiving group. 

6. Can Saints get run game going?

After a record-breaking regular season by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the Saints running back duo disappeared during their win over the Panthers, combining for 44 rushing yards on 19 carries. Luckily, the Saints still have Drew Brees and he was good enough to lead them to victory. But on the road, against a better Vikings team, the Saints need to get their running game going, because it's still the strength of their offense. 

We already know Brees will play well. Their running game is the bigger unknown, namely because they're going up against a top run defense. The Vikings allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game (83.6) and the fifth-fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.7). The Vikings are most vulnerable on runs to the outside of the left tackle, an area where they're allowing 4.8 yards per carry, according to PFF. For what it's worth, the Saints have experienced much more success running right rather than left.

7. Jaguars' CBs vs. Steelers WRs is the week's best matchup

The best matchup of the week is Steelers receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster against Jaguars cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, as you can see below:

To have a chance in this game, the Jaguars don't just need Bortles to play well. They need their defense to hold the Steelers' offense in check.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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