With 60 turnovers through 42 NFL games, 24-year-old Blake Bortles already is an expert witness on what not to do in terms of gameday ball security.
So the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback was asked during Wednesday’s conference call with Twin Cities media to describe the key to avoiding mistakes Sunday against a visiting Vikings team that ranks tied for fourth in takeaways (22) and second in turnover differential (plus-13).
“I guess try to throw it to my team and not theirs,” he said.
That would be a good place to start. The third overall draft pick in 2014 has thrown 33 of his 50 interceptions in the past 28 games, going 7-21 while leading the league in interceptions last season (18) and through 12 games this season (15).
“What I see is he forces passes time after time,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who leads the Vikings in interceptions with a career-high four. “But he also still makes great throws. Throws that are good for his receivers to catch.”
The key matchup in Sunday’s game isn’t an individual battle but two teams at near-opposite ends of the league’s most important statistic — turnovers — after wins, losses and injured players. While the Vikings are one notch below the league-leading Chiefs (plus-14), Jacksonville ranks last in turnover differential (minus-18).
Asked if that’s the best explanation for why the Jaguars have the league’s third-worst record (2-10) and have lost seven in a row, Bortles didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “We’re turning the ball over, and we’re not getting any turnovers. It’s hard to win doing that.”
The Jaguars have the fewest takeaways (seven) and are tied with the Jets and Chargers for the most giveaways (25). The Vikings have only nine giveaways, fewer than every team but the Bills, Lions and Patriots.
During their 5-0 start, the Vikings won the turnover battle every week. Since then, however, they’ve won the turnover battle only three times in seven games, and are 1-2 in those games. They’ve lost the turnover battle only once (0-1) and are 0-3 when the turnovers are even, including the Philadelphia game, which featured four of the year’s nine giveaways.
Overall, the Vikings aren’t getting the typical boost teams get by ranking near the top of the turnover differential list. Of the top 10 teams, only the Vikings (6-6) and Bills — 6-6 and tied for fifth at plus-6 — don’t have a winning record.
If the Vikings were to lead the league in turnover differential and not make the playoffs, they would be the first team to do so since the 1999 Chiefs were plus-21 while going 9-7. Since 2000, the team leading in turnover differential has made the conference title game seven times, advanced to the Super Bowl three times and won the Super Bowl twice. The Panthers went from a league-best plus-20 while winning the NFC last year to minus-6 and a 4-8 record this year.
Last Sunday, Jacksonville’s fourth-ranked defense held the Broncos to 204 yards, 11 punts and one third-down conversion in 13 tries. But Bortles turned the ball over three times, including his third pick-six of the year, and a game-clinching fumble with less than two minutes left in a one-score game that ended 20-10.
Bortles’ first interception was receiver Allen Robinson’s fault and a great play by Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who raked the well-placed ball out of Robinson’s hands. The second interception was a vintage mistake by a young quarterback.
With Jacksonville trailing 10-3 and driving near midfield, Bortles had time to throw a short crossing route on third-and-4. He clearly thought Robinson was wide open over the middle, but should have let the play develop because of all the traffic in that part of the field.
Bortles never saw cornerback Bradley Roby trailing Robinson. As Bortles released the ball, Roby undercut the route for an easy 51-yard pick-six midway through the third quarter.
Denver’s defense and Bortles’ mobility made it a 17-10 game early in the fourth quarter when Bortles ran for first down on third-and-7 and 22 yards for a touchdown on fourth-and-5. But the turnovers once again were too much to overcome.
“There have been some bad decisions and some bad throws,” Bortles said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how you eliminate some of that stuff. The tipped balls and the stuff like that are going to happen. That’s part of football. But how do you eliminate the boneheaded turnovers? The complete bad decisions and bad throws.”