Young quarterbacks helping Browns, Jaguars to improve

Published 12:24 am Monday, October 20, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Before the season, this game was widely expected to feature Johnny Manziel and Chad Henne at quarterback.

It’s Brian Hoyer and Blake Bortles instead.

Cleveland and Jacksonville are seemingly better off because of it heading into Sunday’s game.

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Hoyer beat out Manziel during Cleveland’s quarterback competition and has exceeded expectations, completing 60 percent of his passes for 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s thrown one interception and been sacked just six times, helping make the Browns (3-2) competitive in every game.

The Jaguars (0-6) insisted Henne would be their starter and that Bortles, the first quarterback selected in the draft, could spend the entire season on the bench. They made the switch after 2 1/2 games, turning things over to Bortles for the foreseeable future.

Bortles has been exactly what the Jaguars thought when they drafted him third overall. He’s completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,004 yards, with four touchdowns and seven interceptions.

He’s been sacked 11 times and made a bunch of rookie mistakes, but he’s improving with every start and the team is slowly getting better around him.

“It’s weird how things have played out,” Henne said. “With us, we wanted to get Blake in there, and for them, Brian’s been playing well.”

Bortles is playing alongside as many as seven other rookies on offense, and it shows. The Jaguars have the league’s worst rushing attack and are last in the league in total yards and average points (13.5).

“As a whole, it’s getting slower,” Bortles said. “The more game-time reps, the more game-time experience and exposure that you get, the easier or better job you’ll be able to do.”

Hoyer, in his sixth season and playing for his fourth team, has taken advantage of the league’s third-best running game. He leads the NFL in yards per completion and is tied for third with six completions of 40 or more yards.

“Most of the people here are not surprised,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “He can make all the throws. He’s got a better arm than you would think. … He’s a confident kid who loves football and is very passionate about it. For us, it’s really not a surprise that he’s playing at a high level.”

CLOSE SERIES: The past eight games in this series have been decided by six points or fewer, including a thriller that Jacksonville won 32-28 in Cleveland last year. The teams combined for 19 fourth-quarter points, including Josh Gordon’s 95-yard TD reception that Jacksonville answered with an 80-yard scoring drive in the final minutes.

GETTING DEFENSIVE: After giving up an average of 451 yards and 38 points in the first four weeks of the season, Jacksonville’s defense has stiffened the past two weeks. The Jaguars allowed an average of 331 yards and 13 points in close losses to Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

The group could face a tougher task against Cleveland, which is one of only three NFL teams (joining Eagles and Seahawks) to score at least 21 points in every game this season.

WHAT A RUSH: Cleveland’s early success can be attributed to an improved ground game. After scoring just four rushing touchdowns in 2013, the Browns lead the NFL with eight this season. The Browns also are averaging 146.4 yards rushing and are the only NFL team with three players — Ben Tate (243), Isaiah Crowell (237) and Terrance West (235) — with more than 200 yards rushing.

RISING ROOKIE: Jaguars rookie receiver Allen Robinson missed most of training camp and the preseason, leaving him way behind heading into the opener. The second-round draft pick from Penn State has caught up in a hurry. He leads Jacksonville with 30 receptions for 311 yards, which also are tops for AFC rookies. Robinson also leads the NFL in consecutive catches without a drop.

MISSING PIECE: Pro Bowl center Alex Mack’s broken leg is not only a major blow to Cleveland’s offense but ends an impressive streak of continuity for the line. Mack had played 5,279 consecutive snaps without missing a play before breaking his left leg last week against Pittsburgh. Left tackle Joe Thomas has played in all 7,242 snaps since he was drafted in 2007, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz enters Sunday’s game riding a streak of 2,353 consecutive snaps.


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