The heat will soon be on Blaine Gabbert, and it’s not just because the third-year pro is entering a likely make-or-break year in Jacksonville.
When the Chiefs square off against Gabbert, a former Missouri quarterback, on Sunday at Everbank Field, his mettle will likely be tested by a pass rush led by outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, who teamed up for 19 sacks last season, and a revamped secondary.
“They all hate the pressure,” Chiefs safety Quintin Demps said of quarterbacks. “It’s going to make those passes high, (cause) overthrows. We like it as DBs.”
Of course, the threat of the looming pass rush is nothing new to Gabbert after a miserable 2-14 season in which the Jaguars allowed the third-most sacks (50) and quarterback hits (103) in the league.
“It’s part of the position, part of the job description,” said Gabbert, 6 feet 4 and 235 pounds. “You know what you’re getting into when you play quarterback. Regardless of the situation, you can never become gun-shy. You always got to have that mindset of ‘I’m going to make every throw.’”
Gabbert certainly tried last season, when he completed 162 of 278 passes (58.3 percent) for 1,662 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. His quarterback rating of 77.4 was higher than Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (76.5) and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (76.1).
It was a marked improvement from Gabbert’s rookie season, when he started 14 games and completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and generally earned a reputation for checking down to his secondary targets far too quickly and struggling with his accuracy when pressured.
New Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley, who was the defensive coordinator of one of the league’s most disruptive defenses last season in Seattle, has been pleased with Gabbert’s growth in handling the rush.
“We saw the opposite of maybe what was projected,” Bradley said. “We saw a guy that really stood in there and he did take some shots … he made some really good throws under pressure last year.”
But while Bradley was impressed with Gabbert’s toughness, he was less pleased with the number of times he took punishment last season. Gabbert, who only played 10 games, was knocked out of three of them and ended up finishing the year on injured reserve.
“That wasn’t impressive,” Bradley said. “We knew that we had to make some changes accordingly.”
Enter tackle Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft. Joeckel is expected to form a solid tandem at tackle with steady fifth-year pro Eugene Monroe, one designed to keep Gabbert upright more than he was last season.
“The pick-ups are going to be there,” Bradley said.
The Chiefs will likely put Bradley’s words to the test, though it actually remains to be seen whether Gabbert will be healthy enough to get the nod Sunday. He broke his thumb in the Jaguars’ second preseason game and hasn’t played since.
Gabbert has also been limited in practice this week, which means sixth-year pro Chad Henne, who has thrown 42 touchdowns and 48 interceptions in his career, could get the nod.
“We have viable options,” Bradley said. “As far as reps, yeah, it’s not ideal because we are splitting reps this week based on how Blaine is doing.”
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton doesn’t expect Jacksonville to change much. In his mind, the Jaguars’ offense will still be powered by 5-foot-7 running back Maurice Jones-Drew and 6-foot-6 tight end Marcedes Lewis, with either Henne or Gabbert in a supporting role, albeit at the head of the offense.
“There’s probably certain plays that one does better than the other in the minds of their coaches, so they’ll maybe tilt the offense a little bit that way,” Sutton said of the two quarterbacks. “But I don’t see (them being) dramatically different.”
Sutton was a member of the New York Jets’ defensive staff last December, when Henne completed 21 of 43 passes for 185 yards and two interceptions in the Jaguars’ 17-10 loss.
The Jets also racked up three sacks in that game, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs attempt to generate a similar rush against Henne or Gabbert — not that the latter isn’t used to it.
“If you’re executing at a high level and you have the ball in your hand, it nullifies it,” Gabbert said of the pass rush. “Part of every quarterback’s game plan is to find your open receiver and get him the ball because when you put the ball in the receiver’s hand, it gives them the opportunity to make a play.”