Most of the talk surrounding Blake Bortles this offseason for the Jacksonville Jaguars has been questioning his ability as a franchise quarterback and discrediting the season he produced in 2015, in which he finished second in the NFL in touchdown passes with 35, but also first in the NFL interceptions with 18. I'm not going to re-hash the garbage time argument again, even though it cropped up again on ESPN thanks to a Bill Barnwell piece, as we've kind of established that the traditional definition of "garbage time" is ... well, garbage.
Interestingly enough, Greg Cosell put out a piece on Wednesday looking at young quarterbacks and the first part of his series was focused on Bortles. Last year Cosell took a look at Bortles rookie season in two parts (Part 1|Part 2) and studied his interceptions, coming to the conclusion that they weren't all his fault, but he did need to improve and for the most part his issues were things that are learned over time.
In Cosell's newest piece it focuses on how Bortles was as a quarterback on third down, which quite frankly wasn't very good. In 2016 on third down, Bortles completed just 50.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, four interceptions and was sacked 29 times, which ends up being the crux of the issue for Cosell when looking at the film from last year.
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.
There are a couple of nice takeaways from what Cosell says here that I think most fans would agree on. First, Bortles and the team as a whole absolutely have to get better on third down. That's how you sustain drives and that's how you control the game is getting first downs. Cosell believes that Bortles needs help from the rest of the team on a lot of these plays, though he still needs to improve himself, if certain areas are upgraded around him it could speed up that process.
The other thing that is mentioned is the failings of the offensive line on third downs, which Cosell illustrates with some snap shots from games and a lot of them focus on Luke Joeckel getting beat. Now, we know that Joeckel isn't likely to be the starting left tackle entering the season and the hope is that Kelvin Beachum can be healthy and be an upgrade there. The Jaguars potentially could have upgraded the offensive line as a whole, if everything comes up Milhouse. If Beachum is fully healthy, he will be an upgrade. If Joeckel continues to settle in at guard and is even average, he will be an upgrade and barring something weird Brandon Linder should be an upgrade at center once he settles in.
The other key here that Cosell didn't really touch on is that the Jaguars were virtually one dimensional on offense last year, meaning they were in a lot of negative situations on third down, meaning they seemed to be in third and long way more often than you'd like. Part of that was the offensive line and not being consistent enough for the Jaguars passing game to get into rhythm, but another big reason for that was how toothless the running game was.
Teams knew if they got the Jaguars in certain situations, even on second down, they would have to pass the ball to do anything. This changes so much of a team's defensive play calling as the game goes on, which is why a lot of teams try to "establish" the run early in games. It keeps defenses honest and makes them respect getting beat in the run game. For the Jaguars, teams would just for a lack of a better term, kick their ass in the trenches. Then when push came to shove on third down, they could just pin their ears back and try to tee off on the quarterback.
With the potential upgrade to the offensive line and the addition of Chris Ivory to the rotation, it's very possible the Jaguars can release some pressure from Bortles both in the figurative sense on his shoulders and by being more balanced which should help the team's and Bortles' efficiency on third downs.
"Yeah, it's hard to really define. You want to get in a grove and get moving. It would be nice to not really have to deal with a third down on the first drive and if you can go first, second down, down the field that would be sweet," Bortles said on Tuesday after the team's final practice before heading to New York to take on the Jets on Thursday in the preseason.
"I think more so it is not a good feeling going out there for the first possession, everybody is kind of amped up and ready to go and you go three and out," Bortles continued. "You go and you repeat that and you go three and out again and that is what we are trying to eliminate is how do we become consistent and moving chains and being more efficient on the third down and staying on the field."
With the addition of a workhorse like Ivory who can be a three-down back and rotate with second-year running back T.J. Yeldon, as well as the potential of the starting offensive line, we should see some more balance. If the Jaguars can establish even a mediocre running game this season, it makes everything that much better. It means less third and long obvious passing situations, meaning teams will have to somewhat respect a run play on third down. It also means things like play action and double moves off of play action will be more effective, and we all know how much Allen Robinson and Bortles love double moves.