Jaguars play-caller Hackett needs to take the shackles off

Nathanial Hackett may have the toughest job in the NFL.

He’s the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team whose offense has all the explosiveness of a Model T.

So when the Jaguars have the lead in the second half, he tends to call running plays rather than risk having Blake Bortles throw because the offensive line isn’t protecting him well and the receivers are noted for dropping passes.

And Bortles is noted for turning it over. He leads the league in interceptions and turnovers since he entered the NFL in 2014 as a first-round pick.

What they hope for is that even the Jaguars have to punt with the lead, their defense can hold that lead.

But it didn’t work in the AFC title game last January, and it is not working now with the team at 3-7.

Which is why Hackett has a target on his back and has been the subject of much criticism.

Warren Sharp of the website Sharp Football did a post this week detailing their failures trying to run with the lead in the second half when defenses are stacked in the box to stop the run.

He noted that the Jaguars attempted 17 runs behind center in the second half when leading going into Sunday’s game against Buffalo. They averaged 1.7 yards per carry.

Things got worse against Pittsburgh last Sunday when they blew a 16-0 lead.

Sharp noted they had four drives after leading 16-6 with 1:17 left in the third quarter.

They ran the ball seven of eight times on early downs, always from under center, always from right up the center, always setting up third-and-long. All four drives were three-and out.

On the four first down runs with heavy personnel (one wide receiver), they averaged 1.25 yards per carry.

And they kept running it even though they lost starting center Brandon Linder during the game.

On the four second downs, they ran three of four plays and averaged 0.0 yards per carry. On the second drive, they tried to pass and were sacked.

On their final drive, they had a third-and-five and didn’t make it. Bortles had the option of keeping the ball and running around left end and he might have walked for a first down because the defensive end crashed inside. But he still handed off.

In defense of Hackett, the Jaguars are worried about letting Bortles throw with the lead. And that is understandable, so it is easy to cut Hackett some slack. They know Bortles is always a risk to turn it over.

So the question is why is Bortles starting Sunday against Buffalo?

Do they have no confidence in Cody Kessler? Or are they holding out hope against hope that Bortles will suddenly find a groove?

It is not like the Jaguars are the only team that doesn’t think Bortles can throw.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin decided to accept a penalty on third-and-1 to make it third-and-11 instead of making it fourth-and-1.

He was hoping for a splash play. Sure enough, Bortles was sacked.

The Jaguars are favored at Buffalo, a team that has issues of its own at quarterback, especially after rookie Josh Allen got hurt.

Allen is back this week, but he is likely rusty.

Meanwhile, the teams figure to have another low scoring game like the one in Jacksonville in the playoffs that the Jaguars won 10-3.

If the Jaguars get the lead in the second half, it’ll be interesting if Hackett lets Bortles throw on early downs.

And it isn’t his call that Bortles is still the starter, so it is like he is calling plays with one hand tied behind his back.

But Hackett needs to open it up for Bortles if they get the lead in the second half.

If Bortles turns it over, Hackett can’t be blamed for depending on their quarterback to do what most quarterbacks do.

Their conservative approach with the lead hasn’t worked. It’s time to try the alternative against the Bills if they get the lead.

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