Greg Cosell's QB Study: Blake Bortles needs some help

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Greg Cosell
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Blake Bortles took some big hits on third downs last season for Jacksonville. (AP)
Blake Bortles took some big hits on third downs last season for Jacksonville. (AP)

Last year, we did a two-part series looking at Blake Bortles’ interceptions as a rookie. And the main takeaway from that project was not all of the interceptions were his fault.

This year we’re going to look in-depth at some of the NFL’s most interesting quarterbacks, leading up to the regular season, starting with with Bortles.

This summer I looked at all of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ third-down passes last season. And, like the interceptions, it’s easy to see that when there was a breakdown, it was not all on Bortles. Bortles has to get better on third down, but more important the entire Jaguars offense has to get better on third down.

Bortles’ numbers on third down last season weren’t very good. He completed just 50.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, four interceptions and an amazing 29 sacks.

The last number is important. There were too many third-down plays in which Bortles had no chance because the Jaguars didn’t protect him well enough. There were significant pass-protection issues and they were both schematic and individual breakdowns in one-on-one matchups. Too often the Jaguars linemen blocked the wrong guy, and there were far too many free rushers.

As a result, Bortles didn’t have enough rhythmic, structured completions on third down — drop back, hit your back foot, throw to the primary receiver or start your progression and deliver the ball.

Here’s a one-on-one breakdown. Luke Joeckel, the second pick of the 2013 draft, doesn’t look like a left tackle. He has a light lower body so he can’t anchor. He doesn’t have enough lower body strength and his feet aren’t fast enough, a bad combination. He might not be able to transition to guard, because he’s too light.

On this play, Whitney Mercilus of the Houston Texans beats Joeckel with an inside spin move. Bortles has no chance.

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Here’s another sack that’s more schematic. This is a window into all the work NFL coaches do to identify tendencies and how they scheme to beat them.

When opponents show double “A” gap pressure (or “double mug” front), with defenders lining up in the gaps on either side of the center, the Jaguars would move their running back up near the line to block. They didn’t want to mess around, they just wanted to protect up the middle. The Jaguars walked their running back toward the line against the “double mug” look all season.

The New Orleans Saints knew that by the time they faced Jacksonville in Week 16. So when Denard Robinson moved up in response to the “double mug” front, the Saints dropped those players on either side of the center into coverage on the snap. Safety Kenny Vaccaro was unaccounted for blitzing off the edge and got a sack.

That’s good coaching by the Saints.

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The Jaguars have the weapons to get better on third down. They use a lot of stack releases and bunch concepts out of the three-receiver side of 3-by-1 sets (three receivers to one side, one receiver to the other). That’s their preferred alignment on third down. The key is the “X iso” receiver on the other side. We’ll see in each of these next two plays how the Jaguars created a one-on-one matchup for their intended receivers in space.

Usually the Jaguars line up with Allen Robinson on the “X iso” side. And he’s tough to defend. Against Tennessee in Week 13, the Jaguars came out in a 3-by-1 set, they got Robinson in man-to-man coverage with no safety help and Bortles got him the ball for 31 yards. It’s exactly what the Jaguars wanted.

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The Jaguars started incorporating tight end Julius Thomas as the “X iso” in these sets when he got healthy from a preseason hand injury. He’s a matchup problem as an athletic tight end. Here’s a good example of how the Jaguars can use him in 3-by-1 sets, on a 34-yard catch against the San Diego Chargers.

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Expect to see a lot more of that set from the Jaguars on third down this year, with Thomas being a big part of the “X iso” role now that he’s healthy.

You have to be good on third down to be a high-level quarterback. Last season, some of the protection issues might have been cumulative for Bortles; he started to anticipate pressure before it even got to him. That happens when you take 29 sacks on third down. Bortles didn’t make many bad decisions. But the passing game itself was not comfortable to watch. There wasn’t a rhythm and smoothness to it. Not all of that is on Bortles, though.

Bortles has the weapons and the talent to take a nice step forward this season, especially on third down. It’s safe to assume third-down offense was a big priority for the Jaguars this offseason.

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.