Last week it was Cam Newton, this week it’s Blake Bortles.
Tampa Bay defenders face their second straight quarterback that can hurt them with his legs if given the opportunity. Jacksonville’s second-year signal caller may not be as much of a mobile threat as Newton, but it’s an attribute that can’t be ignored, said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
“He’s one of those run-pass option guys,” McCoy said Thursday of Bortles. “[He’d] rather throw first but I think last week he had 47 yards [rushing] or something like that. And that was with a hurt ankle. We have to keep him in the pocket; he’s a big guy and not easy to bring down. If we rush him the right way I think we’ll have a big day.”
McCoy overshot Bortles’ rush total by 16 yards during the Jaguars’ 16-13 overtime loss at Indianapolis but the former UCF Knight is averaging 7.0 yards per attempt and his season totals of 91 yards on 13 attempts ranks second on the team behind running back T.J. Yeldon.
Of primary concern for Tampa Bay this week is still Bortles’ 996 yards on 85 of 156 passing (54.5 percent) and six touchdowns, Frazier said. So when the Bucs defense has the chance to get Jacksonville off the field, it can’t help the young quarterback out by losing track of No. 5 and letting him extend drives with first-down scrambles.
“He’s a strong-armed quarterback who’s pretty accurate with the football, and the one thing that kind of stands out is his mobility,” Frazier said. “He’s more mobile than you probably thought and we have to have a handle on that when we play him on Sunday.”
While Bortles has shown signs of progress since last year’s 11-touchdown, 17-interception performance over 14 games last year, the Bucs defense is holding its own against the pass right now. Tampa Bay’s 185.2 passing yards surrendered per game puts the team in a tie with the New York Jets for the second-best mark in the league.
The Bucs held Newton to just 124 yards through the air in last week’s home loss and Drew Brees’ 255-yard game Week 2 in New Orleans marks the most given up so far this season.
“I think our rush has been a little more consistent, especially the guys inside [and] Gerald in particular,” Frazier said when asked to explain Tampa Bay’s positive results against the pass. “Also, you can’t discount the talent on the back end. I think our safety position with Chris Conte has really upgraded our defense. And then having Tim [Jennings] out there also. [He’s] a guy who’s capable of making plays, taking some throws away. Having Mike Jenkins definitely helps, but it’s really a combination of our rush and coverage working together. Hopefully we can keep improving as the year goes on.”
Whatever the reason for Tampa Bay’s early success in that department, playing-time consistency is not one of them. Free safety Bradley McDougald is the only member of the secondary to start all four games. Comparing starters from last week to Week 1, McDougald’s name is the only one on both.
Jennings, a preseason acquisition, began stealing playing time and starts from cornerback Alterraun Verner two weeks ago. Conte, signed in the offseason, has started three straight games at strong safety since opening day starter Major Wright got injured. Jenkins got his first start of the year against Carolina after Johnthan Banks exited Week 3’s game at Houston with a knee injury.
Although Frazier gave credit to both the Bucs’ pass rush and the secondary for disrupting opponents’ passing attacks, splash plays are still lacking. Tampa Bay’s nine sacks are still lower than desired and the same goes for the defense’s two interceptions.
Bortles is on pace to flip his touchdown and interception totals from 11 and 17 to 24 and 12, respectively, but is far from being a finished product and upper-echelon type NFL quarterback. He’s struggled with accuracy this season, completing only 54.5 percent of his passes. That ranks him next to last in the league among starters, better than just Houston’s Ryan Mallett. After being sacked a season-high five times in the Jaguars’ opener against Carolina, Jacksonville’s offensive line has limited that number to three over as many games.
According to McCoy, the defense won’t elevate to the disruptive level it desires until the pass rush gets better still. That can be even more significant against a 23-year-old, still-developing quarterback like Bortles.
“You always want to get a quarterback off his spot and not let him get comfortable,” he said. “With him being a young guy, he’s still trying to learn, so if you can throw a little bit at him and get him thinking a bit that helps. But really, our four-man rush needs to come alive. I think that should be enough for us.”