I spent a good amount of time breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Hall of Fame Game last week, so this article will be more Jaguars-heavy, outside of a few observations.
BLAKE BORTLES BLAKE BORTLES BLAKE BORTLES
I was surprised by just how much scrutiny second-year Jaguars QB Blake Bortles has received from the media. Sure, his statistics were pretty miserable, but anyone who was actually watching the games could see a leader who desperately wanted to get better, and was getting better as evidenced by him cutting down his interceptions the second half of the season. How quickly people forget that GM Dave Caldwell and the Jaguars did not even want Blake to see the field last season, but plans change. All in all, it looks like the decision to let him take his bumps and gain some experience will pay dividends this season, especially stacked on top of an offseason that Blake put extra work in throwing to his wide receivers and refurbishing his technique and throwing motion with California-based throwing specialist Tom House.
And the gains were noticeable, as Blake finished the game 11/15 for 118 yards and rushing for a TD. Three of his incompletions were bad drops by receivers Clay Harbor, Allen Hurns, and Bernard Pierce, and the fourth was a throw that sailed on Bortles after he did an outstanding job of stepping up into the pocket to avoid the rush. If this is a preview of 2015 Blake, Jaguars fans are in for a real treat. My favorite throw of the night, however, was that incomplete throw to Harbor, which was put on a dime.
Former scout Daniel Jeremiah probably summed Blake's performance up the best in his tweet:
JAGUARS FREE AGENTS MAKING A MARK (GOOD AND BAD)
The groans on #Jagstwitter were audible when CB Davon House got beat deep by Steelers WR Martavis Bryant for a TD, and then got called for defensive holding on the play to add insult to injury.
House got burnt pretty badly, but bounced back nicely for the rest of the game, which is an important trait for a CB to have, especially one who has a contract like the one the Jags gave. In the second quarter, house does an excellent job in press coverage on Darrius Heyward-Bey and almost picks the pass off.
LB Dan Skuta was another offseason signing that many were excited about, as his versatility seemed like a good fit to play the Jaguars "Otto" position. Skuta has been working extensively with both the linebacker and defensive line groups in camp, as the Otto spot requires for him to have elements of both rush and cover. It is obvious that Skuta is still learning his role, showing hesitancy on some plays, but the preseaon should be good for Skuta to work out the kinks.
A signing that was a little under-the-radar was ex-Dallas Cowboys RT Jermey Parnell. Parnell has been excellent in training camp, and he certainly carried that momentum into this game. The time that Blake had to throw was night and day from last season, and credit for this goes as much to new offensive line coach Doug Marrone as it does Parnell. Marrone's new gap blocking scheme looks very good early, as evidenced by the nice showing in the running game, as Toby Gerhart finally looked healthy.
Julius Thomas made a nice play before getting hurt, and thankfully for Duval, it doesn't appear that the high-profile free agent will miss any regular season time. Following the game, HC Gus Bradley stated that Julius was imploring him to wrap it up and allow him to go back out there, which strongly contrasts with the reputation he earned in Denver of sitting out games "when he was 90%," so that is a good sign.
Oh, and Bernard Pierce hurdled a guy.
I just talked about how good the offensive line look for the Jaguars. Well, most of the line anyway. LT Luke Joeckel has been a major storyline coming into this season, as the former second overall pick of the 2013 Draft has been somewhat of a disappointment to this point of his career between injuries and poor play. There was hope that the injuries would be the root of the poor play, and Joeckel spent a lot of work this offseason adding weight to his frame to better withstand a 16-game NFL season. Based on his performance in this game, however, it is hard for Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell not to be slightly concerned. Watch what James Harrison does to Joeckel on this play to force a sack/fumble.
Despite some bad plays, however, there are some elements to Joeckel's game that should have Jaguars fans holding on to some semblance of hope. For example, you can see Joeckel's acceleration and athleticism on this screen play to Allen Robinson for a first down as he gets to the flat in a hurry (although he doesn't make great contact on the defender).
SHAZIER PLAYING LATE
The third quarter was winding down and I was surprised to see Ryan Shazier still in the game for the Steelers. I'm uncertain if Tomlin wants Shazier to see extended action after missing some time due to injuries last year, but it certainly is a gamble based on his injury history.
GREG OLSEN'S OFFENSE IS FUN
Last year, Jedd Fisch inundated a young Blake Bortles with too-much too-fast. Fisch is gone now, and when the Jaguars hit the market to find his replacement, they pretty much found his opposite in Greg Olson. Many Jaguars fans were concerned about the hire, as Olson's offense finished at the bottom of the NFL last year, but it was exactly what an offense infused with as much youth as Jacksonville needed. Olson is renown for tailoring his offense around the strengths of his players, and he even made Josh Freeman look good in Tampa Bay. Most importantly, it seems that Blake has a good handle of Olson's offense - something he never really quite got last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS LOOK SPECIAL
Special Teams were a huge concern last year for the Jaguars, and outside of Josh Scobee earning the fanbase an occasional free sub, fans were simply starving for a field goal or punt not to get blocked. Gus Bradley has been vocal this offseason about there being a strong competition for the returner positions, and early indications are promising. Denard Robinson returned a kick all the way to the 40 in the first quarter, and that was followed up by a 37 yard punt return by rookie WR Rashad Greene.
Also, there seems to be a punting battle heating up, as P Kasey Redfern was booming kicks into the night. If I'm Bryan Anger in the last year of my contract, I'm on edge. #TeamRedfern
-YES WE CANN! The position battle between Jaguars rookie LG AJ Cann and Zane Beadles is going to be a close call. Cann had a nice debut, giving Henne ample time in pass protection and showing the power and drive that he demonstrated at South Carolina, but Beadles didn't have a bad game, either. Besides a holding penatly at the end of the first quarter, Beadles showed some good pulls in the run game for Toby Gerhart and gave Blake the time he needed to throw.
-Steelers WR Sammie Coates is so frustrating. Last week he had a drop where he just had a lapse in concentration, and then this week he pulls off these shenanigans. Pretty much sums up his Auburn career.
-I, along with what seemed to be all of the draft community, was shocked when Jaguars DT Michael Bennett was still around when the Jaguars took him in the sixth round. Bennett was a perfect fit for the type of pass rushing 3 technique that is built into this defensive scheme, and Bennett did well in his debut to create disruption as you can see here as he gets into the backfield for a 5 yard tackle for loss.
Seriously, though. Look where Bennett is in this freeze frame. Whew.
-Every year in preseason, we get a storyline here and there of an undrafted guy who comes in out of nowhere and just plays lights out. In this game, that was Jaguars DT Cap Capi, who earned 2 sacks and really played like a man possessed. Defensive line is the deepest position on this Jaguars roster, but if Capi continues to generate pressure like this, it will be very difficult to let him walk.
-Jaguars RB Corey Grant should comfortably beat out Storm Johnson for the final RB spot on the roster. Storm was a disaster in this game, getting no burst in his runs, showing zero awareness running straight into the back of his blockers, and fumbling a kick return that led to points for the Steelers. Grant also shows special teams ability, showcasing his 4.24 speed to return the kick to start the second half.
-Steelers TE Jesse James bounced back from a brutal opening night vs. Minnesota. James laid out for a ball even though he knew he would get destroyed. He knows he has some ground to make up.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Blake Bortles' TD scramble in the second quarter may have had all of Duval holding its breath, but it's the kind of play that he has to make at full speed. If you play hesitant of getting hurt, that's when you get hurt.
JAGUARS GAME BALL: Blake Bortles (11/15 118 yds 1 TD (Rushing))
STEELERS GAME BALL: Martavis Bryant (3 rec 55 yds 1 TD)
Jaguars TE Julius Thomas (hand fracture - out for preseason)
Jaguars SS Jonathan Cyprien (broken finger - out for preseason)