Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars shocked the world last weekend when they defeated the New England Patriots 31-20. Bortles threw for 376 yards and 4 touchdowns on 45 attempts in the AFC Championship rematch. The oft-maligned quarterback was incredible and made throws that neither NFL fans nor the Patriots would expect him to.
New England came into the contest with a clear game plan. They were not going to let Bortles get easy dink and dunk passes over the middle and they were not going to get beat on any deep post or seam routes. They congested the middle of the field and forced the Jaguars passing offense to operate outside of the numbers.
Bortles has a history of being incredibly inaccurate and reckless with the ball and forcing him to play outside the numbers makes a lot of sense. These throws are hard to complete and if Bortles makes an ill-advised throw outside then a corner back can usually get in position to jump the route and intercept it. The quarterback played one of the best games of his career, though, and was only intercepted one time.
The Jaguars wide receivers were given 1-on-1 coverage deep outside the numbers. Even if the receivers were to get open it would still force the quarterback into a challenging pass. Bortles was able to complete those passes all game and it led to a lot of chunk plays for the Jaguars offense.
These well placed outside the numbers passes by Bortles were responsible for three of his touchdowns on the day, including this touchdown to Keelan Cole late in the first quarter.
Cole was split wide to Bortles left in single coverage. He ran a simple go route and the speedy receiver got a step on his man. The defensive back played it well but a perfect pass from Bortles linked up with his receiver for the touchdown.
The Jaguars took advantage of the Patriots sideline defense in the red zone as well.
On this play, Donte Moncrief was split out wide to Bortles left. He got 1-on-1 coverage and the Jaguars threw a fade to him in the corner of the endzone. The defensive back played this pass perfectly but an even better ball from Bortles ended up winning out.
Corner end zone fades are plays that have a very low success rate. They are hard for a quarterback to land and the receiver usually needs to make a great grab to bring it down. Majority of these passes ended up getting thrown out of the back of the end zone.
This makes it even more impressive that Jacksonville was successful trying the fade twice in the same game. It was a little different the second time around, though.
The two most outside receivers on the left of the Jaguars formation ran slant routes inside against man coverage. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was in the slot against 1-on-1 coverage. Jenkins ran a corner route towards the back pylon and his defensive back got caught in the traffic of the two slant routes. Bortles dropped a perfect ball over the top right into his receivers’ hands for a touchdown to end the first half.
Jacksonville used these shorter routes on the outside, sometimes accompanied by screens, all over the field. New England’s corner backs were so afraid of getting beat deep that they surrendered too much room in the shorter areas. In zone coverage, there were many times that not a single linebacker went out to cover the flats as they were all busy filling up space in the middle of the field. Jacksonville took advantage of this and continuously used these short, quick, out routes to get yards after the catch and move the chains.
New England refused to budge from their game plan, though, and continued to leave the flats uncovered to take away the middle of the field. They wanted Bortles to throw his passes outside the numbers and that’s exactly what he did. The touchdown that would inevitably decide the game came on one of these passes.
Jacksonville used a screen to get Dede Westbrook open underneath. With all the Patriots dropped back into deep zones over the middle the shallow area across the field for him was wide open. All the receiver needed to do was beat one man and he was off to the races for a long touchdown.
It was not just the passing game that benefited from the Patriots strategy. Bortles had 35 yards on 6 carries and was able to scramble for first downs off the edges when given a chance.
One interesting wrinkle to the Jaguars win is that they did it without running back Leonard Fournette. This poses an interesting question. Is Jacksonville’s offense better without their star running back on the field?
The running back ran for an inefficient 3.9 yards per carry last season and at times the offense looked better without him on the field. On Sunday Jacksonville was forced to play TJ Yeldon and Corey Grant, running backs who’s style does not give way to the power offense the Jagaurs like to run. This forced the Jaguars to play aggressively. If Fournette was in the game they most likely would have attacked the Patriots by trying to bulldoze them down with Fournette on the interior to free space for the deeper passes. A lot of the shorter, quicker passes that added up for huge gains would have been replaced with less efficient runs.
This was an issue for Jacksonville much of last season as well. When Fournette was out the offense played well as they were forced to be more aggressive with Chris Ivory in the game. Bortles obviously played better than he usually does but would the Jaguars look better in the future without using Fournette as a crutch for the offense?
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