Why success of Leonard Fournette-led run game is even more impressive

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars wanted to build their ground game to the point where it was good enough to gain yards even when the opponent knew they were going to run the ball.

It has taken only five games.

The Jaguars lead the NFL in rushing (165.2 yards per game) behind Leonard Fournette's 466 yards, which is an impressive turnaround from the past five seasons, when they averaged the fewest yards per game over that span. What makes it even more notable is that the Jaguars are doing it against defenses stacked to stop the run.

No team has faced more eight-plus-man boxes than the Jaguars, yet they're still able to consistently move the ball on the ground. It's a testament to just how committed coach Doug Marrone is to the run game -- and to minimize the reliance on Blake Bortles, a strategy that's almost unheard of in this quarterback-driven era.

The Jaguars have faced eight or more men in the box on defense on nearly a third of their carries (54 of 175), and more than a third of Fournette's 109 carries (35) have come against that alignment. The closest another player has come to that is the 26 of Carolina's Jonathan Stewart.

Nearly half of Fournette's 466 yards have come against eight-plus-man boxes: 175 yards, by far the most by any player in the NFL. The next closest is Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott (105 yards).

The players know what they're going to face from opposing defenses, and yet offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett sticks with the run. Somehow, the Jaguars are making it work.

"At the end of the day, we just try to go out there and block it the best way we can," guard A.J. Cann said. "We just try to go out and the running backs put their head down and we end up getting yards every single time. It's been working out for us, but I know defenses are picking up on what we're doing and they're continuing to stack the boxes. But hopefully we continue to have good gains like we've been having and not worry about it."

The fourth quarter of the Jaguars' 30-9 victory over Pittsburgh last Sunday was a verification of the strategy. The Jaguars ran the ball on all 18 of their plays in the quarter, including 12 snaps in a row to drive the ball to the Pittsburgh 29 and set up Jason Myers' 47-yard field goal for a 23-9 lead with 6:43 to play.

After the Jaguars intercepted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the fourth time, they ran the ball on three consecutive snaps before punting. Interception No. 5 gave them the ball back on their 2. Two more carries brought the ball to the 10, and Fournette then went untouched for a 90-yard touchdown.

Eighteen plays. Eighteen runs. The Steelers knew it was coming and they couldn't stop it.

"That's what we want around here," Cann said. "A lot of people don't respect us. And we're starting to get a little respect, but at the end of the day, people still don't respect us. We just continue to do what we're donging and hopefully we'll earn more respect."

This was the plan that Marrone and executive vice president of football ops Tom Coughlin devised when they were hired in January and it's why they drafted Fournette in April. In addition to creating a tougher, more physical team mentality, it also is the best way to hide Bortles' flaws.

From 2014-16, Bortles led the NFL in turnovers (63) and had as many pick-sixes as victories as a starting quarterback (11). He averaged 37.1 pass attempts per game in that span, and the Jaguars wanted to cut that number to less than 30. He's averaging 27 attempts per game so far this season, which puts him on pace to attempt a career-low 432 in 16 games.

He is still averaging a turnover per game and completing only 54.8 percent of his passes, four percentage points below his career average, which is partly why the Jaguars aren't taking the normal approach and throwing the ball against stacked boxes. Not having Allen Robinson (torn ACL) hurts, too.

Bortles said after the victory over the Steelers -- in which he threw only 14 passes, just one in the second half -- that he's fine with fewer attempts if it means the Jaguars can win games. At some point, the Jaguars are going to get stuffed in the run game and need Bortles to carry the offense.

"When you're running for 200-plus yards, maybe we can keep running it and they can keep adding people to the box, but eventually you're going to have to throw it," Bortles said. "Eventually you're going to have to beat people throwing the ball because you can only block so many guys.

"We know that; we understand that. We're obviously going to continue to find ways to run the ball even against loaded boxes, but we're going to have to be good when we get the opportunity to throw the ball down the field and work off of the play-action and stuff like that."

In other words, pick their spots in the pass game. This team was built to run it, though, and the Jaguars are getting it done even when defenses are stacked against them.