J.J. Watt won’t succeed against Blake Bortles like he has in the past


J.J. Watt is a terrifying defensive lineman and I love watching him play. Twice a year I cringe watching him play, though, because the Houston Texans lineman sets up and demolishes the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year, Blake Bortles had a rude welcoming to the AFC South when J.J. Watt and company came after him. Watt has six sacks on Bortles in just two meetings.

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Of course, those sacks came against Bortles in a season when the Jaguars surrendered over 70 total sacks on the season.

In 2015, we won’t see Watt make that kind of impact.

It’s bold to bet against the reigning defensive player of the year and the first true defensive consideration for MVP in decades. Yet I’m doing it, and for good reason.

That reason is quarterback Blake Bortles. We’ve seen tremendous growth from Bortles through the 2015 season, far surpassing where he was as a rookie. That growth is through a number of notable elements and some that are less noticeable. We’ll look at one in particular.

Dec 7, 2014; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) scrambles out of the pocket against the Houston Texans at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Richard Dole-USA TODAY Sports

Time in pocket

Blake Bortles no longer holds onto the ball like it’s some sort of safety blanket, waiting to be sacked. That was a rookie mistake, holding the entire offense hostage as defenders barrelled down on him.

J.J. Watt and the better defenders in the NFL took advantage, naturally. Bortles found his butt on the grass far too often as a result.

In 2014, Bortles had 3.28 seconds until he was sacked. That was the 10th shortest time in the league. Guys above him, like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan (numbers one through three) were much better quarterbacks who have quicker releases (time until attempt) and had low “time to sack” numbers by virtue of the only time they were sacked needing to be fast.

Ideally, a quarterback would be getting the ball off faster than 2.5 seconds on every snap and it would be a nice quick read that gained solid yardage. That isn’t always the case, unfortunately. The 2014 version of Bortles took 40 sacks when he held on the ball for 2.6 seconds or more, according to Pro Football Focus. He only took 14 when holding onto the ball for 2.5 seconds or less.

The key here isn’t so much that he held onto the ball too long, but that when he held onto the ball too long he wasn’t keeping his eyes down field, but was running for his life. PFF marked 37 percent of his dropbacks as lasting more than 2.6 seconds.

The 2015 version of Blake Bortles will be under less threat from guys like J.J. Watt because he has improved in this element of the game.

Dec 28, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) throws over Houston Texans defensive end Jared Crick (93) during the game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, Bortles is holding onto the ball just 2.83 seconds before he is sacked (fourth lowest in the league). But he’s improved in getting rid of the ball. He has faced 10 sacks when holding onto the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer, compared to just four when holding onto it for less than 2.5 seconds. That’s with an increase in the percentage of his dropbacks (48 percent) increasing with more than 2.6 seconds hanging onto the ball.

As a proportion of dropbacks, we can see that on 40 of 206 dropbacks with more than 2.6 seconds in 2014, Bortles was sacked. That’s 19.4 percent of dropbacks holding onto the ball more than 2.6 seconds. In 2015, that percentage is just 10%.

Blake Bortles is improving as a quarterback and his ability to feel pressure and make decisions when under duress. Last season he only threw away nice total passes, according to PFF’s measurements. This season he has already made the decision to throw the ball away seven times in just five games. That’s growth as a quarterback.

I’m not saying J.J. Watt will be shut out in this week’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but I do think that he’ll have a much harder time repeating his past performances against a quarterback who has greatly improved when it comes to negative plays.

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