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!

NFL 2017: The UK Games

The NFL has today announced the 4 games from the 2017 season that will be played in the UK. A roaring success over the years, this will be the most games played in the UK as part of the International Series so far, with games being played at Wembley in Weeks 3 & 4 and Twickenham in Weeks 7 & 8.

With this in mind, here is a quick look at the games that UK fans can choose to see next year. The beauty of the NFL is that the league is always trying to keep a level playing field for all 32 franchises, so a team’s fortunes can completely change from one season to the next. For this reason, a game that this year looks completely unappealing could very easily be a potential game of the season this time next year.

So without further ado, let’s have a look at the UK’s upcoming fixtures (2016 records correct as of the end of Week 14):

Week 3/4 – New Orleans Saints (5-8) @ Miami Dolphins (8-5)

At first glance, this is my pick for the best game of the 4. They may not be having the best of seasons in 2016, but with future Hall of Fame Quarterback Drew Brees playing, there is always a good chance of victory on the day. The link between him and speedy Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks can lead to a touchdown from anywhere on the field and will keep fans excited whenever the New Orleans offense is on the field.

2016 has seen Miami quietly put together a very good season. One of the most impressive young Head Coaches, Adam Gase has done a great job taking the Dolphins offense to the next level, helped greatly by some breakout performances from Running Back Jay Ajayi. Being a London-born player, I can already see the UK media putting heavy focus on the Jay Train in the build-up to this game.

If this game comes down to a shootout between the two offenses, fans are in for a real treat!

Week 3/4 – Baltimore Ravens (7-6) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)

We always knew that the Jags would be returning to the UK again this year. With talk of a future UK-based franchise continuing, the Jags remain the favourites to make a permanent base here. Unfortunately my dark horses for the AFC South Division title this year have not performed as would be expected for a team with the quality of players they have. Could 2017 finally be the year that everything comes together for them? As a fan of the divisional rival Tennessee Titans, I went to the Jags’ Wembley game against the Bills the other year hoping for a Bills win, but by the end I was cheering as loud as anyone when they got the winning touchdown. If they can get things right in 2017 this could be a great team to watch live, if not then at least we still get to watch the ROAR of the Jaguars again.

While Jacksonville may currently be trying to decide if Blake Bortles is the right man under center for 2017, the Ravens know they have their man in Joe Flacco. Though he may not always be the most reliable,  Flacco has arguably one of the strongest arms of any NFL QB, which seems to be helping WR Mike Wallace get back to his best form. With top quality players like Terrell ‘T-Sizzle’ Suggs and Eric Weddle on defense, this is a team that could – and probably should – be pushing for the playoffs each year.

If both teams play to their potential, then this could be a fantastic game. If one team is struggling though, this could easily turn into a horribly one-sided game.

Minnesota Vikings (7-6) @ Cleveland Browns (0-13)

NFL bosses must have known how fond us Brits are for an underdog when picking the Cleveland Browns. While they are not helped by being in a division where at least 2 teams will frequently be fighting for a playoff berth, it is safe to say that Cleveland have a long way to go before they can consider a playoff run. While there are a couple of high quality players in the roster – Terrelle Pryor, Joe Haden and Jamie Collins being the most notable – there are a lot of holes that need filling. Above everything, Cleveland need to find a franchise QB, arguably the most important player in professional sport!

To think that the Vikings currently hold a winning record having lost their starting Quarterback and star RB Adrian Peterson, also with sub-par play from the offensive line, just shows how good this team could be. Teddy Bridgewater was being considered as a franchise QB before this season, but could be in a battle for the starting spot if Sam Bradford remains on the roster next season. The Vikings were the last team to lose their unbeaten start in 2016 and could theoretically be even stronger next year, but keeping Peterson healthy or finding a quality backup to him is vital.

At first glance, this looks like the least enticing of the 4 games. The big draw for this game will be a chance to see Adrian Peterson in the flesh, a treat for any NFL fan.

Arizona Cardinals (5-7-1) @ Los Angeles Rams (4-9)

Coming into this season, the Cardinals were widely tipped as a potential Super Bowl contender, now they are fighting to finish the season with a winning record. After a disappointing season, there is a good chance that Arizona will be moving on from Carson Palmer at QB, but any replacement will have a good arsenal of weapons, most noticeably RB David Johnson, who could have been a candidate for league MVP had the team been more successful this year. With a secondary that contains Patrick Peterson and ‘The Honey Badger’ Tyrann Mathieu, this is a team that can be exciting to watch on offense, defense and special teams.

A poor first season back in LA has seen the Rams fire Head Coach Jeff Fisher, so expect a very different team at Twickenham compared to what we’ve seen this season. They have some good players on offense – Recievers Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin, RB Todd Gurley – but need much better play from their Quarterback moving forward. It’s been a tough season for 2016 number 1 draft pick Jared Goff, having played 2nd fiddle to Case Keenum for the 1st 9 games and not greatly impressing since. Hopefully with another offseason under his belt, 2017 will be a much more productive season for him. The strength of the team at the moment is their defensive line, led by Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn. With the right person at the helm, the Rams could be one of the most improved teams in 2017.

It’s very easy to suggest that this is a matter of how many points Arizona win by, but at this point we just don’t know what to expect from the 2017 Rams. The good news here is that being a Divisional game, there will be an extra incentive for LA to get a result.