The main headline that has been taken away from the Jacksonville Jaguars first playoff performance in a decade was the insufferable nature of Blake Bortles. Bortles left Pittsburgh Steelers fans feeling as though they have a cake walk next week. The headline popping stats include comparing his rushing total to his passing total. In fact, Bortles is the first playoff quarterback out of the last 877 to throw 20 passes but finish with more rushing yards than passing yards.
While that is pretty embarrassing and Bortles deserves all of the jokes that come with the stat, it does bring a key question; can the Steelers keep Bortles contained on the ground? Let’s face it, as bad as Bortles was as a passer, his legs were what kept the offense alive. The Jaguars defense is excellent and is going to keep them in any game against any team. If Bortles can break one or two, like he did in the Wild Card game, it could be the difference. Do the Steelers have what it takes to contain Bortles on the ground?
This season, the Steelers have been strong against the mobile quarterback. In terms of rushing attempts allowed to quarterbacks, the Steelers give up the least. This means the team does a strong job of containing and keeping the quarterback in the pocket. It also could mean less goal to go situations from the one where quarterback sneaks are needed. In terms of rushing attempts by a quarterback, the Steelers lead the Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee Titans, and Baltimore Ravens as the five best. There is a correlation of good defenses containing quarterbacks from rushing.
However, when it comes to yards allowed to the quarterback, the Steelers are not quite as elite. The 171 yards rushing allowed to quarterbacks is 20 more than the Oakland Raiders, but still puts them at sixth in the NFL.
Still, allowing the least amount of attempts while allowing the sixth-least amount of yards does mean their yards per attempt is likely not in great standing. Still, even in that regard, arguably the most telling stat in terms of judging how well a team can defend a mobile quarterback, the team falls to 16th in the NFL, league average, allowing 4.4 yards per attempt.
You can argue that maybe some teams had it worse when it comes to the level of competition. Tom Brady will not run for as many yards as Cam Newton. However, this team defended DeShone Kizer twice, Andy Dalton twice, Alex Smith, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and Bortles himself, who was held to one rush for nine yards. That is at least eight games against a quarterback with the threat of mobility.
The fact of the matter is that the Steelers have been better than most at defending mobile quarterbacks in 2017.
Protect the Edges
However, there is still a reason to find concern in their defense of Blake Bortles. There is a way to run on the Steelers. The key is to let the Steelers over aggressive edge defenders overshoot their contain on a rush to get to the passer. Freeing up the edges has been the weakness of their defense in this area.
In situations where the quarterback ran up the middle, they allowed 2.7 yards per carry. In situations where the quarterback exposed an open edge, he averaged 8.6 yards per carry. Of course, the quarterback sneaks will skew the stats to make them look better up the middle. Still, it is clear if Bortles is going to attack with his feet, it is on the edges.
There is also the Ryan Shazier factor. If the team needed to spy a quarterback, it was Shazier. If someone could roam sideline to sideline and defend those edges, or have the presence in the middle of the defense to limit attempts, it would be Shazier. With that in mind, the team has not necessarily been tested in this area since the injury.
Shazier was injured early in the second Bengals game, so only holding Dalton to two scrambles is okay, but with that was 19 yards allowed. After that, the team played Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, T.J. Yates, Taylor Heinicke, and Kizer. The first four are the exact opposite of what you think when you hear the word mobile. Then, while the team did rest stud Cameron Heyward against Cleveland, Kizer got outside on them and led his team in rushing with six attempts for 61 yards.
The way the Steelers defend Bortles and contain him in the pocket will be the difference in this game. Keith Butler needs to pound the mentality into the heads of the Steelers edge rushers. The Steelers are better off containing Bortles on the edges than getting upfield and trying to create sacks. The longer Bortles has the ball behind the line of scrimmage, the better. If the Steelers can execute this, it could be the cakewalk many in the Pittsburgh area think. If they let Bortles get loose, it will be a closer matchup than any of them could imagine.