Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Ravens @ Jaguars

The 2017 NFL International Series kicked off in front of a record crowd on Sunday afternoon with the first of 2 games at Wembley. The Jags were calling London their home for the 5th consecutive year while the Ravens were playing their 1st regular season game over here. Despite the Ravens having won their opening 2 games with a combined 10 points conceded, the Jags dominated from the start (other than giving away a penalty on the opening kick-off) on their way to a 44-7 victory.

The game started with a protest seen throughout the league this weekend, with almost a quarter of the players taking a knee and the rest of the players and staff – including owner Shad Khan – locking arms in a show of solidarity against Donald Trump’s recent tweets. But this is a blog about sports not politics, so back to the game!

 

Bad day for Flacco

This was not a match that Joe Flacco will look back on with much fondness. With 6-time Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda out injured, the Jags pass rush had a field day, consistently pressuring the quarterback on the way to 2 sacks. By half time, the Ravens had amassed a total 15 yards on offense, with their pass game having attributed -4 yards to this. With the win out of reach, Flacco was eventually removed going into the 4th quarter having completed 8/18 passes for 28 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Things went slightly better for replacement Ryan Mallet, who completed 6 of his 9 passes for 36 yards and a consolation touchdown to Benjamin Watson, but this is to be expected in garbage time.

Other than their second half against the Titans in Week 2, the Jaguars defense has looked a dangerous unit with a set of quality pass rushers being covered by some underrated linebackers and some top level defensive backs. They may have struggled for a number of years, but this has led to them bringing in a lot of high quality players through early draft picks such as Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler, which combined with their shrewd recruitment through Free Agency has created a defense that will keep them in games and cause problems for a number of offenses.

An upwards curve

Blake Bortles is probably one of the hardest quarterbacks in the league to judge. Often likened to ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger for his stature and his ability to stay on his feet, he has often struggled with accuracy, having never finished a season with a completion percentage above 60% and averaging just over 1 interception per game in his NFL career.

At Wembley, Bortles looked like a true franchise quarterback, completing 20 of his 31 throws for 4 touchdowns and no interceptions, before being replaced with 9 minutes remaining by Chad Henne. Bortles showed poise in the pocket and also good escapability to avoid the Ravens pass rush and keep plays alive, while also showing the maturity to check down to an open receiver short of the first down marker as opposed to making a risky longer throw. The Jaguars staff have built a strong set of targets for Bortles to aim at – Marcedes Lewis, Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee – while also putting together a strong backfield containing T. J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory and latest first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette. The quality available in the running game will put less pressure on Bortles and force him into less dangerous throws, while the receivers will give him every chance of beating a team through the air once the defense stacks the box against the run.

Home away from home

As mentioned above, the Jags have sacrificed a home game to play in London for the last 5 consecutive seasons, but is this really a sacrifice anymore? Since the 2015 season, the Jags have gone 3-0 at Wembley (their 2015 and 2016 wins coming against teams who finished the season with better records than them) whereas over the same span, they have gone 4-11 at EverBank Field. Granted the sample size isn’t huge, but it looks like London suits the Jaguars.

As a regular team in London, they have understandably built up a fan base and the local fans certainly know how to make themselves heard during a game. They will also benefit from the London trips becoming part of their season routine now, whereas for a team like Baltimore playing in Wembley for the first time, it is a very different experience. By this point the Jags know when works best for the team in terms of when to fly over, as some teams have come early in the week whereas others come towards the end of the week. If they don’t look to fully overcome jet lag, they will also be more experienced at the earlier start time than usual, as to suit UK and US audiences, the London games kick off a couple of hours ahead of the earliest games in the US. In the past there have been comments as to the quality of the Wembley pitch compared to fields in the USA, the Jags know what to expect so come prepared with the right footwear, whereas the Ravens never spent time at Wembley until the day of the game. These may be little things, but they can add up to give a team a big advantage.

The Jags are locked in to at least 1 game per season in the UK through to 2020, but owner Shad Khan seemed open to increasing the number of UK games in the future. If the Jags continue to play like this then I’m sure the local fans won’t mind, the Jags certainly won’t if they continue to get the results over here!

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