Jaguars protect Bortles, clear path for Fournette in road win

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

Everything seemed set for the Texans to roll over the punchless Jaguars in Week 1. The home crowd. The added emotion as a result of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the region. The return of J.J. Watt.

The only problem was, Jacksonville packed plenty of punch.

While the Jaguars‘ defense got the deserved credit for Jacksonville’s 29-7 romp over the Texans, its offense wasn’t too shabby, either. Quarterback Blake Bortles doesn’t inspire confidence in most, but he wasn’t the major hurdle he tends to be in Week 1. Plenty of that had to do with two new factors: rookie running back Leonard Fournette and a retooled offensive line.

After one game, it’s already apparent Fournette is going to make this offensive line look better than it might actually be, which is already above average. When Houston’s designed slants and stunts jammed up running lanes, Fournette used his eyes to find an alternative path, often resulting in gains of four yards or more. It happened on an iso play that was headed left into a mass of human, as Fournette spotted a backside opening thanks to the Texans flowing with the play.

It happened again later in the quarter, when the running back used his eyes and a jump cut to bounce an inside run outside for a gain of four. The play was eventually negated by a holding penalty, but still served as an example of how a back like Fournette truly is a game-changer.

Fournette is also a back who isn’t easy to bring down — he averaged 3.76 yards after a defender was within a yard of him in Week 1, per Next Gen Stats — which makes the slightest of creases all the more important.

Fournette’s early success (26 carries, 100 yards, one touchdown) also can be attributed to an offensive line anchored by a center who was recently given a raise.

One of the surprise contract extensions of the offseason was that of center Brandon Linder. Who knows much about a center, right? But Linder is worth the money.

In Week 1, the center showed an ability to block a gap over with quickness, and to move to second level and sustain a block, driving linebacker Benardrick McKinney out of a play entirely on one Fournette carry. Linder also is as close as you’ll come to a brick wall in pass protection, rarely giving up ground to defenders.

Jacksonville’s pass protection against Houston was a case of decent execution and better planning. Matched up against menacing edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt (as well as the rest of Houston’s fearsome front seven), it was expected that Blake Bortleswould have a rough day in the pocket. The Jaguars thought ahead, though, implementing plenty of three- and five-step drops with quick reads and throws. Bortles missed his fair share of throws that should have been completed — a pass in the flats to Marcedes Lewis, another in the flats over Chris Ivory‘s head and a short out to Lewis, which was tipped — but he also managed to limit major mistakes. Getting the ball out cleanly was almost as important as throwing the ball well.

Plenty of credit also is due to Jacksonville’s protectors, though. Bortles’ time to throw was 3.4 seconds or longer on four of his 21 attempts, and he finished with an average of 2.9 seconds, which was longer than all but one qualified passer from the 2016 season. (Side note: Time to throw is a tricky measurement to use, because it can indicate great protection, or an indecisive and/or long-armed quarterback. In Jacksonville’s case in Week 1, it was mostly the former.)

Jacksonville’s offensive linemen showed great discipline in the face of many stunts and twists, rarely chasing defenders across gaps and keeping their heads on swivels to maintain a relatively clean pocket. Right tackle Jermey Parnell excelled in most of these situations, though he occasionally got lost in the wash. Right guard A.J. Cann was noticeably effective, and it sure doesn’t hurt to play next to a center like Linder.

The group’s collective excellence shined on this play, a third-quarter completion from Bortles to Allen Hurns.

Pass protection was also a good barometer for rookie Cam Robinson, who looked like a rookie at times (occasionally trying to react to defenders’ movements instead of trusting his own technique, which made him look like a dancer who was a half beat behind his partner), but also showed attributes that made him a first-round pick. Robinson was exceptionally quick in his first few steps of a pass drop, often having to win a race to a point to meet Clowney, who was lined up wide. Even when again trying to match his opponent’s steps, Robinson didn’t lose balance, keeping with Clowney and taking him out of the rush on this second-quarter completion.

Pass protection was also a good barometer for rookie Cam Robinson, who looked like a rookie at times (occasionally trying to react to defenders’ movements instead of trusting his own technique, which made him look like a dancer who was a half beat behind his partner), but also showed attributes that made him a first-round pick. Robinson was exceptionally quick in his first few steps of a pass drop, often having to win a race to a point to meet Clowney, who was lined up wide. Even when again trying to match his opponent’s steps, Robinson didn’t lose balance, keeping with Clowney and taking him out of the rush on this second-quarter completion.

If Jacksonville continues to block as it did in Week 1, don’t be surprised to see the Jaguars emerge with more wins than expected. It’s a long season, though, and teams have the same game tape we just explored. We’ll wait and see on this one.

Pass protection (and sack totals) weren’t exactly uniform in another game played well northeast of Houston.

With rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, Cleveland’s offensive line — the most expensive unit in the NFL in 2017 — gave up seven sacks in a 21-18 loss. But after reviewing the tape, it wasn’t really all on the offensive line. NFL Network’s Marc Istook takes us through each sack to show who is really to blame.

Blocks of the Week

 

Here’s how we’ll end this piece every week: a section dedicated to giving shine to some big fellas. We have two this week, but promise to have at least three per post in the coming weeks.

» First up, it’s Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, whose edge cut block on Malcolm Butler was so fantastic (as were the blockers preceding him), Kareem Hunt‘s run path resembled a video game on this jaunt.

» The other nominee comes on an inspiring run for Jamaal Charles, who has been through the injury ringer in recent seasons. It was nice to see him back in action, and nicer to see his center and guard, Matt Paradis and Allen Barbrepull out in front of him to lead the way.

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