This should be Blake Bortles’ only Christmas wish, or maybe just his version of Fantasy Football – to play against the Indianapolis Colts every week for the remainder of his NFL career.
If Bortles could make that happen, there might not ever be a disparaging word said about his mechanics, accuracy or whether he’s the Jaguars’ long-term answer at the position. The front office would lock him up right now to a $100 million-plus contract extension without even blinking.
Put the Colts’ defense in front of Bortles and he’s suddenly a different, invigorated quarterback. It’s the equivalent of feeding spinach to Popeye. Bortles turns into such an unstoppable force, there’d be no reservations about voting him into the Pro Bowl.
It happened again Sunday at EverBank Field. One week after the Jaguars’ offense put up an anemic 219 yards total offense, all it took for Bortles to remedy the situation was to survey the field and see those horseshoe helmets lining up across from him.
You’d never know the Jaguars (8-4) were the league’s 29th-ranked pass offense by the way Bortles operated in a 30-10 victory against Indianapolis. The Colts — already playing with a thin secondary that was further depleted by losing starting cornerback Pierre Desir to a second-quarter shoulder injury — got dissected for 309 yards and two touchdowns. It continued Bortles’ recent trend of dominance against the one opponent that brings out the best in him.
Bortles completed 26 of 35 passes for a 74.2 percent accuracy rate, the second-highest completion percentage of his career besides that second-half garbage time outing in a 38-19 loss two years ago at New Orleans (27 of 35, 368 yards). Against the Colts, almost every completion was thrown on time and with pinpoint accuracy, save for Marqise Lee’s acrobatic, one-handed grab on a 22-yard pass thrown slightly behind him.
It was one of those rare days where Bortles looked every bit the part of a top-five draft pick. Not surprisingly, his victim was the Colts.
The last five meetings with Indianapolis has been one highlight reel after another. Bortles has won four of those games (the lone exception being a 24-20 defeat last January when Jack Doyle’s 1-yard TD catch won it with nine seconds left), and his numbers are off the charts: 104 of 163 passing for 1,687 yards, nine TDs, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 116.8.
To put that into proper context, Bortles had a career completion percentage of 58.7 entering Sunday and a quarterback rating of 79.5. Then the Colts show up and he morphs into Tom Brady Light.
“I feel like that’s a game every year [Bortles] gets his confidence up high,” said Lee. “That’s what we need, the type of mentality he came out with today and competed with is big for us.”
Anybody seeing Bortles play for the first time witnessed a poised quarterback with minimal flaws, getting the ball into tight windows and making it easy for his inexperienced receiver corps to turn into playmakers.
Rookie Dede Westbrook had his best game, catching six passes for 78 yards. Another rookie, Keelan Cole, caught a 32-yard rainbow down the left sideline, even though he knew safety Darius Butler would be delivering a monster hit. Cole also caught a beautiful 8-yard fade pass in the right corner of the end zone, a throw Bortles has repeatedly struggled with in his career.
“We had some options on the other side, they decide to play [man] coverage, but they brought everybody [on the pass-rush] so that was our answer,” Bortles said. “Throw them the ball to the pylon and give [Cole] a chance to go up and make a play.”
That play toward the end of the first half was a microcosm of Bortles’ day. The fourth-year QB pushed all the right buttons and his own depleted receiver unit might have had its best game of the year.
“Whenever we had opportunities in the passing game to make it happen, Blake was very vocal about that in the huddle,” said tight end Marcedes Lewis. “He kept saying, ‘Let’s go, keep it going, keep your foot on the pedal. Don’t take it easy. We’re going in the air.’
“We put a lot of work into this thing and Blake takes a lot of heat and pressure when things don’t go well, so it’s really good to see him have some success because I know how hard he works at it. He’s somebody that cares. What can you say, man? The proof is in the pudding today. He did his thing.”
Once Bortles saw the plan of attack early in the week, a greater emphasis on the passing game against the Colts’ worn-out secondary, he couldn’t wait to start slinging the ball around.
“It’s exciting,” said Bortles. “You go through the week and you see the plays that are being repped and you’re like, ‘there’s kind of more passes here than usual.’ So I know I get juiced up about it.”
Without a viable pass rush, the Colts’ thinning secondary couldn’t do anything to keep Bortles from lighting them up. Indianapolis (3-9) broke up only one pass and gave up four pass plays of 20-plus yards.
“We knew we were going to have the opportunity to throw the ball a little bit,” said Lee. “With [cornerback Rashaan Melvin] out, they didn’t have too many options as far as players. Then [Desir] went down and it made it even worse for them as far as who to put in. We knew we had some opportunities and came out and took advantage of it.”
For Bortles, the degree of difficulty seemed only slightly harder than a 7-on-7 practice drill. Receivers were able to get better separation than usual and make defenders miss, including Lewis sidestepping linebacker John Simon and safety Matthias Farley to convert a 3rd-and-13.
Just don’t expect this to be an every-week occurrence. Head coach Doug Marrone hinted afterwards the Colts’ secondary issues, even though he wanted to get Leonard Fournette going in the run game, made it necessary to get away from their ground-oriented attack.
“We’ve got to show we can throw the football,” said Marrone. “Obviously, from some of the things that have gone on during the year, I think probably a little bit of both as far as what was going in there. We thought we had some good matchups on the outside.”
That may not be the case Sunday when the Seattle Seahawks bring their top-10 defense to Jacksonville. We’ll see how much the first-place Jaguars feel compelled to dial back the passing game against the “Legion of Boom.”
It’s too bad for Bortles that not all NFL defenses can be like the Colts. Then every football Sunday would feel like Christmas.
Gene.firstname.lastname@example.org: (904) 359-4540