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28 Nov 2017

Any Given Gabbert: Cardinals Over Jaguars

by Rivers McCown

The very first Any Given Sunday of the season was about the Jaguars, hypothesizing that the defense and run game could make them contenders in the AFC South. Nearly three months later, we have reached the point where the Jaguars are the favorites rather than the underdogs.

Our first look at the Jaguars turned out to be rather prophetic. Betting on Blake Bortles to be bad, of course, did not take much of a leap of faith. But this team does have a good rushing offense... or at least it did until Week 7.

The Jaguars had a negative rushing DVOA in Week 1. They did not have another game with another negative rushing DVOA until Week 7. However, since then, they have had four straight weeks with a rushing DVOA in the double-digit negatives. Now, granted, this is against four top-12 run defense DVOA units. But still, that hadn't stopped them against Baltimore or the Jets, two other top-13 run defense units by DVOA. They actually faced a better run defense, on average, before Week 7.

The Amazing Disappearing Rushing Offense

Offense DVOA
Average Run
Defense DVOA Faced
Weeks 1-6 10.9% (4th) -14.3% -4.0%
Weeks 7-12 -23.3% (27th) -13.5% -31.8%

Against the Cardinals, the Jaguars managed just 29 rushing yards on 16 non-Bortles carries.

Jacksonville's tumble matches up quite well with some personnel turnover. Leonard Fournette missed Weeks 7 and 9 with what has been called a foot injury, and his status has been questionable in recent weeks. The Jaguars also have had both starting tackle Cam Robinson and starting guard A.J. Cann sidelined at various points over the last month.

Another possibility, and one that Jaguars fans won't want to hear, is that powerful running games over the past couple of years have tended to fade in and out rather easily. Kareem Hunt had a great month to start the year but has since gone AWOL. Todd Gurley had four tremendous games early in his career, but then he disappeared for his entire second season. Extenuating circumstances seem to fell running games all over the place. The Bills finished first in rushing DVOA last year and are 20th this year. The Cowboys have fallen off even with Ezekiel Elliott healthy. About the only thing we can consistently count on at this point with running games is that great running quarterbacks can elevate them.

Bortles' scrambling, athleticism, and ability to make plays under pressure are what the Jacksonville season will eventually come down to. Nobody expects him to make downfield throws. Nobody on his coaching staff wants him to do that anyway. But perhaps, as the Jaguars did in the red zone in this game, they can increase his role in the running game and on designed rollouts to help keep teams from keying on Fournette.

Where the Game Swung

As you can see, the Cardinals were in control for most of the game. What brought the Jaguars back? As usual this year, it was defense.

The first of our roller coaster segments happened on third-and-10 from the Arizona 15, when Calais Campbell's #RevengeGame narrative came alive as Yannick Ngakoue strip-sacked Blaine Gabbert and Campbell returned it for a touchdown.

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This was quickly answered (!!) by Gabbert (!!!), who took advantage of the secondary biting on an underneath route to spot Jaron Brown deep downfield, wide open, for seven. Look at how underthrown this ball is, and look at how Brown has to wait on it.

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Arizona hit the two-point conversion to Larry Fitzgerald to restore the lead to seven.

The Jaguars answered with a long return by Corey Grant to the Arizona 38 that changed the field position dramatically. Three plays later, the Jaguars ran some read-option with Bortles, who found his way to the end zone.

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Then, the game began to become what you'd expect a Blake Bortles and Blaine Gabbert game to become. Gabbert was picked just before midfield, but then Bortles matched him with this exquisite gem of an interception on third down at the Arizona 38.

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It's a great play by Tyrann Mathieu, obviously. But it's also just another wonderful highlight-reel pick for Bortles, who can't seem to avoid them. This was the play that completely shifted the game, moving the Jags from long field goal range or go-for-it territory to completely out of the right zones.

The teams traded punts, and Arizona got the ball with 16 seconds left and completed two passes to get into long field goal range, where Phil Dawson won it with a 57-yarder.

By the VOA

JAC -40.3% -2.0% 3.1% -35.2%
ARI -6.4% -44.2% 9.9% 47.7%
JAC -46.8% -12.9% 3.1% -30.8%
ARI -25.7% -42.9% 9.9% 27.0%

By VOA, the Jaguars actually got curbstomped. This is actually not all that surprising. The Jaguars had just 219 total yards. Most of their offensive field progression was helped by 98 yards in Cardinals penalties.

Wait ... is Blaine Gabbert Acceptable?

Gabbert has started the last two games for Arizona, and both games were very competitive. Carson Palmer is likely out for the rest of the season. Arizona has been sent to the zone of Colin Kaepernick Is Making Me Say Nice Things About My Available Quarterbacks, and they've been good for a few humdingers.

Blaine Gabbert has now been talked about as a potential long-term solution. Blaine Gabbert.

Now, to be fair to Gabbert, the Cardinals haven't been bad. This is the best passing offense DVOA result against the Jaguars all year. To be more fair, though, the throws that Gabbert has been asked to make have been open as a result of the offense. It's not like he has been hitting tight-window throws. You saw how he hit a deep touchdown over an exposed safety. Let's look at what else Arizona was doing against Jacksonville that worked.

The Cardinals targeted wide receivers on 13 of Gabbert's 38 throws, completing just four of them for that touchdown and about 26 extra yards. The Jaguars don't really have a weakness as a pass defense, but while they have been dominant against wide receivers, they are only slightly above-average against tight ends and running backs. They rank 14th and 12th, respectively, in DVOA allowed to tight ends and running backs.

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If this looks to you like the kind of play where Ricky Seals-Jones is open because of Barry Church, then we're in agreement on who is to blame here. This isn't exactly a tough throw.

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Here's Troy Niklas finding a soft spot in zone coverage and settling down.

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Here's the touchdown to Seals-Jones. Look like a coverage bust to you, too? Are we seeing a tough throw for Gabbert yet?

Look, the Jaguars blew some coverages in this game and it cost them. I'm not here to pile on to Gabbert's career, because I can't say anything that Gabbert hasn't already said about himself through his five years in the league. I just want to point out that a few blown coverages against a good defense shouldn't change a lot about what we think about him or the Jaguars.

Arizona's passing offense is well-designed and exploited to stretch the field, which is something I think a lot of modern NFL offenses ignore a little too much. It's also a scheme in which Drew Stanton has been able to play at roughly a league-average level despite his glaring deficiencies as a quarterback.

It should be sort of obvious why Gabbert is getting talked up: it's the same reason he was drafted in the first place. He looks the part and he's got a hose. But as far as actual evidence that he's maturing into Arizona's quarterback of the present? We're not seeing a lot of that yet.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 28 Nov 2017

2 comments, Last at 29 Nov 2017, 11:39pm by MC2


by billprudden :: Tue, 11/28/2017 - 2:37pm

If Larry Fitz is gonna finish his career in Arizona, no no no Gabbert!

by MC2 :: Wed, 11/29/2017 - 11:39pm

In Gabbert's defense (can't believe I'm typing those words!), despite having the worst career DYAR ever, he's certainly not the worst QB ever, or even the worst of the DYAR era. The truly terrible QBs (like the Terrible Trio of Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, and JaMarcus Russell) don't stay in the league long enough to accumulate that much negative DYAR.

Gabbert is more like Joey Harrington; nobody really wants him on their roster, but due to the severe shortage of QB talent, somebody always gets stuck with him anyway.