Why relying on Blake Bortles more (on first down) makes sense for Jaguars

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When coach Doug Marrone looks back at the Jacksonville Jaguars’ loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game, one of the things that bothers him the most is that the Jaguars couldn’t run the ball effectively in the second half.

He and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett tried to salt away a lead behind Leonard Fournette and the league’s top-ranked rushing offense during the regular season. It may sound funny to critics, but maybe the Jaguars could have held on to beat the Patriots had they relied on quarterback Blake Bortles instead.

At the very least, the Jaguars could have been less conservative on first down, especially since Bortles has been especially successful throwing the ball on first down. He was the NFL’s seventh-rated passer on first down (64.9 percent completions, 11 TDs, 2 INTs, and 1,499 yards) during the regular season, ahead of some of the game’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson.

The Jaguars relied on Bortles heavily in the first half of the AFC title game. He was 8-for-8 for 102 yards and 1 touchdown on first down to give the Jaguars a 14-10 lead at the half. However, Bortles threw only five first-down passes in the second half -- and two of those came on the Jaguars’ final possession, trailing by four points with 2 minutes, 48 seconds remaining. He completed just two passes for 23 yards.

The Jaguars were hit and miss in terms of allowing Bortles to throw a lot on first down throughout the regular season, but the team went 6-3 in Bortles’ nine games in which he posted a passer rating of 100 or better on first down. That included games against Seattle and Baltimore, and both Houston games.

If the Jaguars want to keep Bortles trending in the right direction, Hackett needs to continue to be aggressive with first-down play calls. Defenses focused on stopping Fournette -- he had more carries against boxes of eight or more defenders (82) than any other player in the league -- and there’s no reason to expect them to approach the Jaguars differently in 2018, especially if the team doesn’t bring back receiver Allen Robinson.

Bortles certainly had his issues last season but he seemed to be at his best and most comfortable when the game plan allowed him to throw the ball on early downs. Doing that sends a message to the quarterback that staff trusts him to make good decisions.

The team sent the opposite message when they elected to take a knee and run out the final 55 seconds of the first half against the Patriots, despite having two timeouts and the ball on their own 25-yard line. Bortles had completed 13 of 15 passes up to that point and had yet to commit a turnover in the postseason.

“You have to give New England credit there and they did a better job of executing, a better job of coaching than we did at times,” Marrone said. “I put that more on me than anything else. I have to do a better job for our coaches and our players to give them an opportunity to perform or execute at a better level.”