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Blake Bortles Is the True Wild Card of the NFL Playoffs

The Jaguars quarterback has looked everything from horrific to downright competent this season, and on the days when the good Bortles shows up, Jacksonville can be a playoff force

Blake Bortles throwing a pass Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Blake Bortles is the starting quarterback for a divisional-round playoff team. That’s not meant to be wry, necessarily, yet most NFL fans will probably read it that way. The Jaguars’ fourth-year signal-caller has become, more than any other player in the league, a punchline. His name is synonymous with ham-handed quarterbacking, and “getting Bortles’d” or “Bortles’ing it” carries the same kind of connotation as getting Munsoned out in the middle of nowhere.

Bortles doesn’t pay much attention to the jokes, but there have been plenty of times this year that he’s played down to his reputation as a passer. That includes last week’s performance in the Jaguars’ 10–3 wild-card win against the Bills, when Bortles threw for just 87 yards on 23 attempts and somehow picked up more yards on the ground (88) than he did through the air. But the thing that makes Bortles one of the most interesting quarterbacks in this year’s postseason — yeah, I said it — is that the Jaguars’ signal-caller actually did put together a few games this year where he looked like a legit, playmaking franchise quarterback. That streakiness and elusive competence make him the wildest of wild cards in this playoff field.

For most of the year, the Jags won in spite of their quarterback, and built their strategy around a dominant defense and productive run game that allowed them to limit what they asked Bortles to do. But in a few games, it was the former third-overall pick that carried the offense. He threw the ball with confidence and tossed perfectly placed bombs downfield to his receivers. He looked … pretty good! And in those games, the Jaguars were just about unstoppable.

There’s no telling when the good version of Bortles is going to show up, though, and the odds of that happening this weekend against a tough Steelers defense feel pretty long after Sunday’s showing, a game in which Bortles, to quote Ringer colleague Tate Frazier from this week’s GM Street pod, “looked like he’d never thrown a football.” Sadly, that’s not even much of an exaggeration; Bortles missed badly on even the most basic throws — check-downs, screens, and quick slants — and that performance underscored a question I’ve had all year: How can Bortles play so well one game and so atrociously the next?

There’s no smoking gun, but a lot of Bortles’s issues derive from poor mechanics. His elongated windup has been a concern since his college days (and it seems to come up every single offseason), and that problem has been exacerbated at times by less-than-fundamental footwork and an exaggerated follow-through motion where it looks like he’s trying to aim the football instead of just throw it. All that manifests in a lack of any semblance of touch — it almost looks like he’s got a case of the yips. On one play, he’ll put way too much mustard on a short pass, like this one:

On the next, he’ll try to take some velocity off of it and it’ll end up off target.

To liken it to taking a shot in basketball — if you let the ball go thinking that it won’t go in, most of the time, it won’t. All too often, Bortles looks like a guy who knows his throws aren’t going to go where he wants. On this play last week, he stepped up into the pocket, and after an ever-so-subtle hesitation, let it fly. It was a wobbly duck that missed too high.

Bortles has spent the better part of his four seasons in Jacksonville trying to refine his throwing motion, but when the pressure mounts, it’s way too easy to revert to bad habits. This week’s matchup with the Steelers will be the biggest game of his career — that’s pressure enough — but when Pittsburgh’s pass-rushing defenders like Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, and Bud Dupree get in his face, all those offseason drills meant to speed up his release and clean up his footwork could go out the window. His footwork often gets sloppy, he doesn’t reset, and you end up seeing awkward throws like this:

Bortles’s tendency to panic under pressure means the Steelers will surely look to get him off his spot and force him into rushed throws. But a bevy of blitz packages can be a double-edged sword — as the Bills found out, you want to pressure Bortles, but you can’t let him loose and out of the pocket, because he’s proved he’s athletic enough to do damage on the ground.

Of course, it’s not just throwing mechanics that are holding Bortles back. His decision-making has been suspect, too, and he’s had far too many predetermined or over-aggressive throws into double-coverage.

But for all those head-scratching throws, Bortles played a few brilliant games this year, too. Take the Week 3 win against the Ravens, when he threw for 244 yards and four touchdowns. Or the Week 7 win against the Colts, when he threw for 330 yards and a score, or the next game, when he completed 24 of 38 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown in the team’s win against the Bengals. There was that three-game stretch starting in Week 13, when it looked, just for a little while, like maybe Bortles had finally turned a corner and left his mechanical issues in the past. In the Jaguars’ three consecutive wins against Indianapolis, Seattle, and Houston, Bortles completed 71 percent of his passes for 903 yards, seven touchdowns, and no picks — an average of more than 300 yards a game. He looked comfortable and confident stepping into his throws and passing in rhythm to hit his playmakers down the field; good balance, no extra hitch steps, just pitch-and-catch.

He even freelanced a little, dropping his arm angle on a few throws to get passes off against pressure. Normally, this unorthodox technique would be a no-no, but considering Bortles’s most basic throws lack fundamental form, I want to just shrug and say, “Whatever works.”

Bortles even threw a few, dare I say, dimes in those games, too. Against Houston, after maneuvering in the pocket, he kept his balance, reset his feet, and, drove this pass downfield over a defender. It settled softly into receiver Keelan Cole’s outstretched hands.

Against the Seahawks, he hit Cole on a deep bomb again, beating Seattle’s secondary downfield with a nearly perfectly placed ball. The pass didn’t force Cole to break stride for a second, a crucial factor that allowed the speedy receiver to beat Earl Thomas to the sideline for a score.

Bortles wasn’t done: Holding a 27–17 lead with just over seven minutes left in the game, he got aggressive and lofted a ball down the sideline to receiver Dede Westbrook on a crucial third and 3 from midfield. That play led to a Jacksonville field goal.

Bortles is clearly most comfortable when he throws on time and in rhythm, and some of his best throws this year have come off of play-action fakes. Play-action can affect second-level defenders, and suck them in closer to the line of scrimmage and simplify reads — this shrinks down some of the whole-field progressions. This allows him to turn his head downfield, find his receiver, step up, and release the ball. Bortles averaged 2.8 more yards per attempt on play-action throws than that of non-play-action plays this season — the fourth-highest differential, league-wide. He threw for 1,135 yards (seventh league-wide) at 9.2 yards per attempt (fifth), with a 106.8 QB rating (seventh), eight touchdowns, and just two interceptions on those plays. Compare that to his 77.8 rating on non-play-action plays, when he threw 13 touchdowns (17th) to 11 picks (tied for sixth) at just 6.4 yards per attempt (15th). The Steelers are likely to load up and try to stop the Jaguars’ physical rushing attack behind Leonard Fournette, so Jacksonville should have a good chance to take advantage of an aggressive run-defending front in the play-action passing game this weekend — which means we could see Bortles take a few shots downfield. If he can connect on a few, look out.

But when it comes to avoiding getting Bortles’d this Sunday, the Jaguars need their quarterback to take care of the ball, above all else. The turnover battle will be key — the last time these two teams played, Bortles threw for 95 yards with a pick … and the Jaguars won running away, 30–9. It helped that the defense picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times in that one, though, and that type of turnover-fest could be tough to replicate this time around. So whether it’s off a play-action fake or on a traditional drop-back pass, Bortles must avoid costly turnovers if the Jaguars can hope for an upset on the road.

At his worst, Bortles is a game-wrecking presence for his own team, a turnover machine that, throughout his career, has all too often nullified the best efforts of the run game and defense with untimely picks or fumbles. Because of this, no matter how well he plays, Bortles will probably always be a punchline, and that’s something he seems to have already accepted.

But at his best — when he’s playing like he did a few times this year — he makes Jacksonville look like an AFC buzzsaw. And if Bortles can take care of the ball, hit on a few deep shots, and play confidently and efficiently on the big stage — he’ll be the one who’s laughing. At least this week.