Kevin Nogle, The Phinsider (KN): Obviously this year for the Jaguars is all about developing Blake Bortles. How is the UCF product looking?
ryanday, Big Cat Country (RD): Better than advertised, which is big considering he was the No. 3 pick of the draft.
In his first four games (including the one where he came in at halftime against the Indianapolis Colts) he carried the team on his back. And although he had a subpar performance against the Cleveland Browns last week, that's to be expected. Casual fans may look at his box score and see twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, but that's part of the learning process -- and a majority of his interceptions weren't because he threw a derpy throw, but instead came as a result of him taking shots downfield or not reading a defense correctly.
The game has looked slow for Bortles, and that's the most surprising thing. He doesn't look panicky, he's patient in the pocket, and he's a gifted runner (more so than I thought he'd be) when receivers aren't open. Bortles gives us hope, and that's not something we've had in Jacksonville in a long time.
KN: A lot of talk this week has been about the Jaguars turning to Denard Robinson as the main running back. Is he now established as the number one guy? Will he be able to live up to the beating a feature running back takes?
RD: I don't know. I know that's a crappy answer, but I honestly don't.
From his sample size of last week, I can tell you Denard didn't shy away from inside runs. And he's run inside regularly over the course of his short career, but not to the extent of last week. There's a big difference between 3-4 inside runs per game and 13-14... and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants the feature guy to get a lot of carries. He said recently that he only wants his two best guys carrying the load.
I think the reason I say "I don't know" is because I can't tell if using Denard was a deliberate plan, or if the team was running out of options and turned to him thinking, "What do we have to lose?" If it was the former, I have faith they've seen something which tells them he has what it takes to live up to the beating. If it's the latter... well, at least it's a good draft for running backs.
KN: Jacksonville's defense has tightened up over the recent weeks and played a dominating game against the Cleveland Browns last week in route to the team's first win. What has led to this turn around, and will they be able to overcome the loss of linebacker Paul Posluszny and defensive end Andre Branch?
RD: Two things: the secondary getting settled and the linebackers playing well in pass coverage.
If you'll remember, our secondary -- especially at the safety position -- was a revolving door. And in Gus Bradley's defense, safety is an important position. We just didn't have it settled and that was causing major breakdowns. Now that Johnathan Cyprien has settled into his role and Josh Evans has stepped up as the free safety in recent weeks, you're seeing a better product. Mind you, these are both second-year players and they're still learning the game. But settling on who would play safety and how they'd fit into the broader scheme has helped them allow just one touchdown in three games. Cornerback Demetrius McCray's elevated play also can't be overlooked. Several weeks ago, he faced Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, I think, won the day.
As far as the linebackers, rookie Telvin Smith looks like one of the steals of the draft. His athleticism, especially in covering the tight end, fills a much-needed gap that teams were using to exploit us over the middle.
Paul Posluszny's injury is bad, and he was a good guy to have on first and second downs, but his pass coverage skills left something to be desired. The interior of our line, led by Sen'Derrick Marks, is good enough to overcome his not being at middle linebacker and his replacement, J.T. Thomas, is better at defending the pass.
KN: The Jaguars have allowed the most sacks in the league at 29 so far this year, though it was only two last week (and 10 of those came in Week 2), and the protection seems to be getting better. Where is the weak point on the offensive line, and how are the Jaguars adjusting to get better as the season progresses?
RD: Well, you have to remember that 10 of those sacks came in Week 2 alone against Washington, and many of them were Chad Henne's fault -- holding the ball too long, stepping up into the pocket and into a sack, etc... We also hadn't settled on the interior of our line, with guys like Jacques McClendon putting in bad performances as well.
Now that the five guys who should have been playing together are playing together, you're seeing a cohesive product. Rookies Luke Bowanko (another steal in the sixth round!) and Brandon Linder are opening running lanes, left guard Zane Beadles is getting it together, and tackles Luke Joeckel and Austin Pasztor are improving, especially in run blocking.
If there's a weak point, I'd say it's the left side -- Beadles and Joeckel. They've both improved in recent weeks, but Linder is so good at right guard that he anchors that side and makes it better.
KN: Eight weeks into the season, what has been the biggest surprise for you about the 2014 version of the Jaguars? The biggest disappointment?
RD: The biggest surprises have been Henne starting for so long, Bortles' play, and the defensive line. I didn't get why head coach Gus Bradley didn't start Bortles right out of the gate. Henne didn't have a bad preseason, but he sure didn't have as good a one as Bortles. Was it because our offensive line was still shuffling things around? Maybe. Was it part of a plan they wanted to stick to no matter what? I guess. But it was obvious to even the most casual of observers that Bortles was better and his sitting was a big surprise.
As far as the defensive line... you can't say enough good things about how they've come together and how defensive coordinator Bob Babich has made the lineman-by-committee approach work without a stud pass rusher. Sen'Derrick Marks is one of the best interior defensive linemen, we're about to match last year's sack total and it's only Week 8, we're allowing one full yard less per carry, and more.
The biggest disappointment? The running game, obviously. I thought Toby Gerhart would be better, and maybe he will be behind a more stable offensive line, but Denard Robinson literally matched Gerhart's entire season in just his game against the Browns. I don't think Gerhart turns it around this year, but you'll never see a guy more happy to be wrong if he does.
A big thank you to Ryan for taking the time to answer my questions. Check out my answers to his questions over on Big Cat Country.