The Jacksonville Jaguars started off the 2017 regular season doing well on opening drives, considering the fact they lost arguably their best skill player in Allen Robinson on the third play of the year. In fact, when you look at the season as a whole, they were largely efficient in the first half of the season — coming away with points in six of their first eight games.
But then they slumped, scoring points in just one of their final eight games on opening possessions. Fortunately, the team only lost three of those eight games and put together the most impressive playoff run this franchise has had since 1999.
Newly installed offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett played up the strengths on offense — running early and consistently, limiting Blake Bortles’ deep throws, and relying on his strong, overperforming offensive line. But as the season wore on, the Jaguars weren’t able to take advantage on their opening drive.
Why is that?
If the Jaguars, who doubled down on their run-heavy and control-the-clock philosophy this offseason, are to have any success in 2018 they’ll need to score points early and often like they did in the first half of last year.
So, what can we learn about this offense from how the opening drive game script evolved over the course of 16 games? Are they poised to solve the problems that plagued the second half of the season and put the team in a better position to win down the stretch?
Let’s find out.
Plays: 39 total (9.75 plays per opening drive)
Third down conversions: 5-for-8 (62.5 percent)
Yards: 240 total (60.0 yards per opening drive)
Turnovers: 0.0 total (0.0 per opening drive)
Time of possession: 18:35 total (4:39 per opening drive)
Points: 16.0 total (4.0 points per opening drive)
There are two things that jump out and they are the most obvious — zero turnovers and points scored in every game. This is Doug Marrone football. This is Tom Coughlin football. They want efficiency and if they could have points — even just a field goal — on every drive with zero turnovers by the end of the game, I guarantee you they would take it.
Another thing that stood out — three out of four of these games opened with a run up the middle by Leonard Fournette behind the left guard. Not surprising, but not insignificant — and it’s why Andrew Norwell was so coveted by this front office. The left guard is setting the tone not just for rushing the ball but the entire offense early in the season.
And what was the lone game that didn’t go behind the left guard? It was a Fournette run behind the right guard.
Speaking of the offensive line, they were superb. They “allowed” one sack in four games, but it came in Game 4 against the New York Jets when Bortles ran outside of the pocket to the right and didn’t find anyone open. It was basically a coverage sack on a chaotic play. Other than that, there were zero sacks and just two pressures.
Third down conversions were good, with the offense going 5-for-8 (61.25 percent) over the course of Games 1-4. On these third downs, they called a pass all but one time because they faced four yards or more to go on all but one third down. Who they went to on those third downs was a mixed bag — four times a wide receiver, once a tight end, and three times a running back.
This is a part of the answer as to why Chris Ivory was allowed to go in free agency. In addition to not offering anything that Fournette doesn’t already do better, T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant are faster and better at gaining yards after the catch. All Jaguars running backs finished the season between a 73 and 75 percent catch rate, so one of the determining factors for why the Jaguars kept the running backs they did in the offseason was speed.
In terms of rushing the ball, the Jaguars were efficient but not productive. They had just two of their 17 opening drive rushes go for negative yards and 11 of their 17 rushes went for at least five yards. Between the tackles, running backs carried the ball 12 times for 44 yards (3.8 yards per carry). But outside the tackles, they had five rushes for 29 yards (4.8 yards per carry).
Blake Bortles was also efficient. He connected on 61.1 percent of his passes in opening drives for Games 1-4 is markedly better than the 53.4 completion percentage he posted for the rest of the games.
How did Bortles’ 61.1 completion percentage compare to other quarterbacks on opening drives in Games 1-4?
Note: I used yards gained per pass attempt to qualify which quarterbacks to use here. I’m sure there are valid reasons to use other statistics or compare other quarterbacks.
Drew Brees went 18-for-25 (72.0 completion percentage)
Alex Smith went 5-for-8 (62.5 completion percentage)
Jared Goff went 10-for-15 (66.7 completion percentage)
Tom Brady went 16-for-22 (72.7 completion percentage)
Philip Rivers went 1-for-8 (12.5 completion percentage)
But when you look at what passes Bortles was making and which ones he was missing on, it was the short passes that extended drives for this team through the first four weeks — Bortles went 7-for-10 for one touchdown and completed passes of 10 yards or more on half of his attempts.
His mid-range throws were where he struggled most, going 2-for-5 on throws going somewhere around 15 yards in the air. And he only threw three deep passes in four opening drives but connected on two of them, with the lone incompletion coming in Game 4 where he wisely threw it out of the end zone and scored two plays later anyway.
In short, the Jaguars were very good on opening drives in Games 1-4. But as we’ll see in their remaining 12 games, the wheels sort of came off. They were efficient, took a good amount of time off the clock, and averaged 4.0 points per drive.