NFL1000 Week 15 Notebook: How Good Has Blake Bortles Become?
The AFC postseason picture became a bit clearer on Sunday, though the way in which the New England Patriots were able to pull a victory away from the Pittsburgh Steelers to put themselves in the conference's pole position was a bit muddier.
With 56 seconds left in the game, Pats running back Dion Lewis sliced through Pittsburgh's defense for an eight-yard touchdown run, and with Tom Brady's two-point conversion to Rob Gronkowski, New England had a 27-24 lead.
The Steelers weren't done, though. Ben Roethlisberger completed a 69-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 28 seconds left in the game, and then, a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James seemed to point things in Pittsburgh's direction. But the ruling by official Tony Corrente was that James did not "survive the catch," and the touchdown was null and void.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw a pick to safety Duron Harmon intended for receiver Eli Rogers on a goal-line slant, apparently not learning anything from the Seattle Seahawks' goal-line slant foibles in Super Bowl XLIX.
Speaking of the Seahawks, there's a new champion of the NFC West, and it's certainly not them. The Los Angeles Rams came into CenturyLink Field and demolished Pete Carroll's squad 42-7. Running back Todd Gurley scored four touchdowns, placing himself in the NFL Most Valuable Player conversation, and the Rams proved once again that they are an amazing turnaround story, and there's nothing about this team that's a fluke.
And speaking of blowouts, the Jacksonville Jaguars blew out the Houston Texans by a 45-7 total. More disconcerting to the rest of the league is that Blake Bortles, the usually inconsistent quarterback, has been among the NFL's most effective signal-callers over the last three weeks. We'll get more into what this could mean for the Jaguars in this week's Notebook.
It was an action-packed Week 15 in the NFL, and B/R's NFL1000 scouts were all over the tape in every game.
Our team of scouts:
Lead scout: Doug Farrar
Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
Running backs/fullbacks: Mark Bullock
Receivers/tight ends: Marcus Mosher
Offensive line: Ethan Young
Defensive line: Justis Mosqueda
Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
Secondary: Ian Wharton
Here's what our scouts found most fascinating during Sunday's Week 15 action.
How Good Is Blake Bortles?
They say it's not how you start, but how you finish. There have been many positive examples of that throughout NFL history, and if things progress in Jacksonville as they have been over the last three weeks, we're about to see another one.
We know that the Jaguars' 10-4 record is primarily constructed on the best defense in the league and a power running game led by Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory. But over the month of December, there's been an additional and wholly unexpected factor that could make this team scary once the playoffs come around: Blake Bortles has thrown aside his usual inconsistency and is playing at an alarmingly high level. Over his last three games, he has completed 65 of 91 passes for 903 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
As the 9.9 yards per attempt average would indicate, Bortles isn't dinking and dunking his way to better numbers. Against the Houston Texans on Sunday in a 45-7 thrashing, Bortles completed all three of his passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus, for 114 yards. And on those throws when he wasn't pressured, he completed 14 of 16 passes for 230 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
How is Bortles doing this? First, he's excelling in play action, understanding that the Jags face more stacked boxes than any other offense when Fournette is in the backfield, per NFL NextGen stats. And every defense facing this team is reading run all the way. Bortles has developed a good feel for throwing quickly off the play fake, and he's starting to dial up big plays downfield when linebackers and safeties cheating up off of run-action blocking.
Even without play action, Bortles is benefiting from one-on-one matchups on downfield throws because linebackers and safeties are still selling out to the run. Add that head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are designing route concepts that help Bortles check into easy reads, and you have a dynamic passing game that's more than simple game management.
We'll see how this changes if enemy defenses start to take Bortles and his receivers more seriously and attack with more complex coverages. Of course, removing those run defenders could open things up for a ton of smashmouth football with Fournette and Ivory.
That's the conundrum teams face when dealing with the Jaguars. It's a problem that might be complicated enough to send this team to the Super Bowl.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
Anthony Lanier II Is a Blossoming Superstar
- You can fold up the tents and play out the string, hoping nobody gets hurt and nobody gets fired.
- Or, you can look to the talent you have, and try your best to uncover hidden stars who can help you in the seasons to come.
When teams find themselves out of the playoff race late in the season, there are two ways to respond:
The Washington Redskins stand at 6-8 after their 20-15 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, and one of the players making an impact for the franchise (which would need a miraculous confluence of events to hit the postseason) is defensive lineman Anthony Lanier II. An undrafted free agent out of Alabama A&M, Lanier played in just four games in his rookie campaign and suffered a leg injury late in the season, but as his 2017 has unfolded, he's shown a lot.
Lanier had two sacks against the Cards, bringing his season total to five, and the first sack set things up nicely for Washington's offense. On Arizona's third play of the game, Lanier absolutely roasted center A.Q. Shipley with an outside foot-fake and then a rip move inside to bring down quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Lanier forced a fumble, which linebacker Preston Smith recovered and returned to the Arizona 6-yard line. Two plays later, Washington scored its first touchdown of the day on a five-yard pass from Kirk Cousins to receiver Jamison Crowder.
Lanier's second sack came with 4:31 left in the first quarter, and ended any hopes the Cardinals had for a touchdown on their second drive. In addition, he batted down three passes and had two more quarterback hits.
It was a standout game for a player whose stock is rising. Lanier is starting to realize his potential as a hybrid pass-rusher from both the one- and three-tech positions.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
How the Eagles Set Up Nick Foles for Success
During last Monday's press conference when he announced that Carson Wentz was lost for the season, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was asked if he would stay as aggressive on offense with backup Nick Foles in the lineup. Pederson was adamant that he would.
It seems Pederson is a man of his word.
Foles completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 and four touchdown in Philadelphia's 34-29 victory over a game New York Giants squad. Foles was successful throwing from the pocket on downfield concepts, but it was the usage of some of the other elements of the Eagles playbook, such as run/pass options, screens, rub concepts and fade routes from the slot that helped Foles to the big day.
A prime example of how the RPOs helped Foles came early in the second quarter. With the Eagles trailing, they faced a 2nd-and-10, but Foles was able to find Zach Ertz on a deep crosser, thanks to the RPO design. As Foles met the running back at the mesh point, the linebackers and the strong safety all crashed downhill on the run action. That allowed Ertz to work behind the defenders and into a big throwing window for the reception.
Two of Foles' four scoring passes came on a similar concept. Late in the second quarter, Foles hit a wide-open Trey Burton for a touchdown pass. The Eagles lined up with three receivers to the left, with Burton the middle receiver. They showed a designed slant route to Alshon Jeffery, who was the outside receiver, and that movement got both the cornerback and the safety to bite toward Jeffery, leaving Burton wide open in the end zone for an easy six.
Foles then rounded off his day on a fade route to Nelson Agholor out of the slot for six points. On that play, they showed the Giants defense a rub route. Agholor started to the outside as if he were going to get in the way of the cornerback covering the outside receiver on a slant route, but rather than look for contact, he cut upfield on the fade and looked for the ball. Foles hit him and the Eagles were on the board again.
It's just one week from Nick Foles, but it would seem as if maintaining aggression as a play-caller has put the backup quarterback in position for success in the passing game.
—NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield
Kenyan Drake Emerging as Legitimate Threat for Dolphins
Many questioned the Dolphins' decision to trade star running back Jay Ajayi to the Eagles for just a fourth-round pick. But one of the benefits of the deal has been giving Kenyan Drake more opportunities to carry the ball. Just after the trade, Drake split carries with Damien Williams, but he has since established himself as the featured back in Miami.
Since the trade, Drake has 487 yards and three touchdowns on 96 carries at 5.2 yards per carry. He put up back-to-back 100-yard games against the Broncos and Patriots in Weeks 13 and 14, respectively. Drake has an additional 217 receiving yards and a touchdown on 26 catches since the Ajayi trade.
Drake has thrived under the increased workload in recent weeks. He's been able to show off his quick feet that enable him to make lateral cuts in a flash without losing speed. With that ability, he's eluded defenders in the hole and bounced runs to the edge for positive gains that should have been dead at the line of scrimmage.
That's precisely what he did on his 31-yard run against the Bills this past weekend. On a power run to the right, Drake was met behind the line of scrimmage by a defensive lineman who won his block. But Drake calmly cut laterally to avoid the defender and adjusted his track to the edge. He then broke contain, ran around a defensive back on the edge and burst down the sideline for a big gain.
He's also been effective as a receiver. The Dolphins are starting to get him more and more involved in the passing game, moving him out of the backfield and lining him up in the slot or outside. His quickness allows him to run strong routes that create plenty of separation against linebackers and safeties.
The early signs are certainly positive for the Dolphins as Drake becomes more and more of a legitimate threat with each passing week.
—NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock
Tyreek Hill Continues Ascent Toward Top of WR Ranks
One of the more shocking moves of the 2017 offseason was when the Kansas City Chiefs released their No.1 receiver in Jeremy Maclin. That transaction forced second-year receiver Tyreek Hill to assume the No.1 role on the outside.
For a player who had just 31 career catches in college and fewer than 600 receiving yards in his rookie season, that jump seemed awfully steep. Despite scoring 12 total touchdowns as a rookie, many viewed Hill as just a gadget player.
But Hill is certainly not a gadget player. He is a special talent still learning how to play the receiver position. He is a raw route-runner who doesn't often catch outside the framework of his body, but he is one of the most physically gifted receivers the NFL has had in some time. His ability to consistently create big plays each week is otherworldly.
Hill already has four touchdowns of over 60 yards this season. According to Pro Football Reference, no other player has more than two this season. His game-breaking speed and ability to track the ball in the air will allow him to continue to be one of the best deep threats in the league.
Hill still has a long way to go before he can be considered a polished receiver, but the fact that he is performing at this level already in his career shows us just how high his ceiling is. While there are certainly many other receivers who are more well-rounded, few scare defensive coordinators as much as Hill. And at just 23-years old, we have no idea what Hill may still become.
—NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher
Cardinals OL Continues to Struggle
The Cardinals offensive line has been one of the worst in the league this year, and that continued this week as they got dominated by the Washington front. Arizona's ability in pass protection has been the biggest issue, and it has hamstrung the offense all season.
Injuries to D.J. Humphries and Mike Iupati have played a part in the Cardinals' issues up front, but this unit needs widespread personnel changes this offseason as it doesn't have many other promising long-term pieces. Even the younger options shouldn't be relied on as more than competitive depth going forward.
Evan Boehm is a nice piece in the run game and can drive guys off the ball, but he is not a good enough pass protector to be a starter. And although I liked what I saw from Will Holden at the Senior Bowl last year, kicking him back to tackle has clearly not worked.
Of the other three remaining starters (John Weztel, Alex Boone, and A.Q. Shipley), not only are all three playing significantly below starter level, but the first two have expiring contracts and will need to be replaced anyway. While Shipley has struggled, he will probably be back next year, meaning the Cardinals won't address the center position. With the injured Jared Veldheer likely a cap casualty this winter, the Cardinals will need a completely new right side of their line, and they must make that a priority if they want a chance of protecting Carson Palmer for one last hurrah, or whoever ends up under center next season.
—NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young
Dom Capers Still Can't Defend Mobile Quarterbacks
On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers gained 387 yards with only 44 of those yards coming from wide receivers. In a 31-24 win, Carolina was able to record 29 separate first downs, and Cam Newton was the primary instigator, with four passing touchdowns and 58 rushing yards. And the latter stat points to a major issue with the Packers' defense.
While there is plenty of blame to go around for the Green Bay Packers' loss, it's impossible to overlook the defense's performance in Week 15. Since 2009 with Dom Capers as the Packers' defensive coordinator, Green Bay defenses have given up 10 separate 50-yard rushing efforts from quarterbacks.
In 2013 and 2014, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick combined for 279 rushing yards in two playoff wins over the Packers. In 2015, the Seattle Seahawks went to the option late in the NFC Championship Game, opening up passing lanes to come back from a 12-point deficit with four minutes left in the fourth quarter to spring an overtime win.
After surviving the Brett Hundley experience with a 3-4 record, despite the fact that Hundley never threw a home passing touchdown, the 7-6 Packers needed to win their last three games to have a significant chance to make it through a competitive NFC and land a wild-card spot. When the team needed him most, Capers reverted to a mush-rush approach in the passing game, while still allowing Newton to rush for 58 yards on the ground.
To go with Capers' lack of adjustments, Newton sent 214 passing yards to his tight ends and running backs, as he had time to get to his second and third reads in his progression. When he did throw the ball to his receivers, 50 percent of his completions resulted in touchdowns.
One of the biggest mistakes that NFL defensive coordinators are making in 2017 is making passers out of talented dual-threat quarterbacks. Against a passive defense, Newton recorded a 128 passer rating and a win against the Packers, which effectively ended Green Bay's season. Egg, meet face.
—NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda
Seahawks' Diminished LB Corps Exposed Against Explosive Rams Offense
Injuries have ravaged the Seattle Seahawks defense. A once-feared unit has been stripped down by the losses of cornerstone players, including Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. On Sunday, a diminished linebacker corps left the Seahawks defense grasping for air trying to defend Todd Gurley.
Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright have been battling injury the past couple of weeks. Wright was deemed inactive this week, leaving Michael Wilhoite and Terence Garvin to pick up the slack. Wagner was given the green light to play, but it was clear heading into kickoff that Wagner was not feeling 100 percent. Rams head coach Sean McVay made sure to attack the Seahawks weakness.
Gurley, who has been in the MVP race this season, further solidified his case for the famed award. He carried the ball 21 times for 152 yards and found the end zone on four separate occasions (once on a catch). McVay often worked Gurley off-tackle and to the perimeter, forcing the Seahawks linebackers to flow wide and play in space.
Gurley was able to find cutback lanes when the linebackers overpursued, as well as bounce plays outside at will to generate missed tackles.
The Rams offensive line was outstanding in paving a path for their running back, but the way Gurley was able to manipulate a weakened linebacker corps was exactly what one would expect of an MVP candidate.
With a loss this weekend, the Seahawks need to win out and hope for a miracle to get into the playoffs. Not being able to count on their linebackers at all is going to plague them in the home stretch. If Seattle's linebackers put up another performance like this over the next two games, it is tough to imagine the Seahawks finding themselves in the postseason.
—NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen
Panthers Secondary Forces Uncharacteristic Turnovers to Seal Win Against Packers
The Carolina Panthers have been the best under-the-radar team this season. Now sitting at 10-4 on the season, they are in the driver’s seat of their NFC playoff hopes.
This week against a hopeful Green Bay Packers team that got superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers back from his shoulder injury, the Panthers responded with a terrific performance by their secondary. Second-year cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley combined for three forced turnovers with the former also forcing a fumble, and journeyman backup safety Colin Jones caught his second career interception.
Rodgers was clearly rusty as he seemed to rush back from his recovery to give the Packers a fighting chance to make the playoffs, but the Panthers made him pay for that decision. Bradberry and Jones both took advantage of underthrown vertical passes for their interceptions, which is a scheme design made to create deceiving passing windows. Counting their three interceptions, the Panthers increased their season total from just seven, ranked 27th in the league, to 10.
Veteran safeties Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams also came through as linebacker Shaq Thompson was out with an injury. The team's leading four tacklers were secondary members. The starters finished with 30 total.
Coleman was beaten by Packers receiver Davante Adams for his 13-yard score, but the unit otherwise limited an explosive passing attack. This was the type of performance that should instill confidence that they can step up with game-changing plays when the team needs it most.
—NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton