Steelers wary of Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles' running ability
Leonard Fournette punctuated the Jacksonville Jaguars' 30-9 upset of the Steelers in October with a 90-yard run inside the final two minutes.
However, it was a seemingly innocent 9-yard run earlier in the game -– and not by Fournette -– that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's highlighted Tuesday when discussing Sunday's rematch at Heinz Field in an AFC divisional playoff game.
The Jaguars, leading 7-3 midway through the second quarter, faced a third-and-9 from their own 9. With the Steelers pressuring from the edges, quarterback Blake Bortles stepped up in the pocket, ran 9 yards and dived for the first down.
Instead of forcing a change of possession and getting good field position, the Steelers watched the Jaguars run 11 more plays and consume 6 minutes, 30 second of the clock before punting.
That type of run -– a scramble by a mobile quarterback -– was the only attempt for Bortles that afternoon, but it's illustrative of the rushing threat he presents for the Steelers defense this weekend.
"You've got to make sure you account for Bortles," linebacker Bud Dupree said. "We've got to make sure we don't let him scramble, that we're disciplined in our rush lanes and make sure we bring him down.
"He's a great athlete. He runs fast. He can make you miss. He's big, and he even tries to run you over sometimes."
Listed at 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, Bortles is 4 inches taller and 3 pounds heavier than Fournette, perhaps the best big back in the NFL. While Fournette finished eighth in the NFL with 1,040 yards rushing in his rookie season, Bortles ranked No. 7 among quarterbacks with 323 yards on the ground.
In the Jaguars' 10-3 wild-card win against the Buffalo Bills, Bortles rushed for a game-high 88 yards on 10 carries. He had one more yard rushing than passing.
"Minimizing their run is more than focusing on Leonard," Tomlin said at his weekly news conference. "We have to do a good job there, but we have to do a good job for 60 minutes and in all areas if we want to minimize the way they run the ball and the ways they possess the ball and control the game and are in manageable third downs because of it."
Bortles led the Jaguars to a 10-6 record, AFC South title and wild-card win by being efficient with the football. His 13 interceptions and 24 sacks were career lows. He also exceeded 300 yards rushing for the fourth year in a row, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
"He might not be the fastest guy in the world," cornerback Joe Haden said, "but it you get a first down on third-and-8 or third-and-9, those kill a defense."
While the Steelers are concerned about Bortles breaking long gains on third down, he did his best work in the regular season earlier in drives. He gained 144 of his 323 yards on first down, often setting the table for short down-and-distance situations. Only two quarterbacks were more successful running on first down.
"His mobility is a factor in the game whether it's by design, which they have several things to keep you off balance on first and second down," Tomlin said. "He also does a great job of creating as plays break down on possession downs with his legs."
Behind Bortles, the Jaguars finished fifth in the NFL in time of possession, one spot lower than the Steelers. They also led the NFL in rushing. Which is why the Steelers would like to keep Bortles — and Fournette — contained and force the Jaguars into passing situations while sealing the running lanes.
"That's the game plan for this week, trying to stop the flow of what they want to do," nose tackle Javon Hargrave said. "That's big, trying to stop Bortles from getting out of the pocket and picking up first downs."
The Steelers don't have to go back far in the archive to study another opposing quarterback who presented problems with his mobility. In the season finale, Cleveland rookie DeShone Kizer had 61 yards rushing on six attempts. In the second half, Kizer gained 16 yards on a third-and-15, and he also had a 20-yard scramble on a first down.
"That's very critical to our success," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "Last game, we gave up some rush lanes that were huge that allowed them to run the ball (and get) advantageous yards. If we can keep mobile quarterbacks in the pocket, we can have more success. We can shut down the lanes, make them think about the (pass) rush than throwing down the field.
"If you give them wide-open lanes, they are going to exploit you, and that's more critical in the playoffs."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.