JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines four Jacksonville Jaguars-related topics as the team prepares to play the Buffalo Bills at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday…
4.Boldly beyond the norm. We begin this pre-Buffalo Bills Fab Four with what may come to define the Jaguars’ offensively – and perhaps as a team. That’s Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s use of so-called “trick” plays, and as much, Head Coach Gus Bradley’s eagerness to incorporate them as well. The Jaguars in the last two weeks have scored on two such plays, with running back Maurice Jones-Drew throwing an eight-yard touchdown pass to Marcedes Lewis in Cleveland two weeks ago and rookie wide receiver Ace Sanders throwing a 21-yarder to Jordan Todman against Houston Thursday. Those were the first two touchdown passes by non-quarterbacks in the Jaguars’ 19-year history, but that’s not as significant as Fisch’s approach – that they’re not trick plays at all, but “just plays in our offense.” Fisch said he learned that approach from former Florida and current South Carolina Head Coach Steve Spurrier. “When your guys think of it like that, then you’re not necessarily always talking about specials and gimmicks and gadgets,” said Fisch, who said Bradley has told him he likes things out of the norm. “You want them to believe that that play has as much merit and you have to study it just as much you would if we just called a standard play.” Bradley said such offensive creativity fits well with how he wants the team to be viewed. “We are unique in some things, so I think that’s okay with us,” Bradley said. “We don’t want to compare to anybody else and we’re trying to find creative ways to get yards and creative ways to do some things in special teams, offense and defense. That’s okay with us because I think the image that we want to portray to our team and take on the personality is to be bold.”
3.Honing his skills. The Jaguars are feeling good these days that they didn’t give up on defensive end Andre Branch; they’re feeling good about his future, too. Branch, a second-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft from Clemson, struggled in the preseason and early in the regular season. But through 13 games he is second on the team with four sacks and is behind only end Jason Babin and tackle Sen’Derrick Marks with 16 quarterback hurries. While Bradley has talked often about Branch’s effort level improving since being challenged early in the season, defensive line coach Todd Wash said there’s more to the development. “His skill level and fundamentals have improved so much,” Wash said. “As a pass rusher, he was more of a finesse guy and a one-trick pony. He’s really started to develop a second move and he has a decent third move that’s starting to develop also. I just think he has played a lot more and has some confidence. He’s maturing. He’s not a Hall of Famer yet, and his maturity has gotten better.” Branch, who rushes predominately from the right side as the backup “Leo” end/linebacker behind Babin, ranks 11th in the NFL in pressures from the right side according to Pro Football Focus. “He understands what we expect and he has confidence now,” Wash said. “We have confidence in him. He has confidence in himself. That was a lot of it. He sees himself as a good player now. That goes a long way.”
2.Analytically speaking. The Jaguars’ run defense not only has improved since the bye, it has done so in striking fashion. They not only haven’t allowed an opponent a 100-yard rusher in the last five games after allowing all eight opponents before the bye at least 112, they are averaging allowing 70.8 yards a game after the bye after allowing 161.75 yards a game before the bye. They also have allowed opponents 2.92 yards per carry after allowing 4.79 yards a carry before the bye. The difference, as Marks sees it, is strikingly simple. “Accountability,” Marks said. “That was the big thing going into the bye week, was making sure everybody was exactly where they were supposed to be. That was the whole point.” Marks said while observers want to point to talent or physical ability when assessing blame for a team’s running struggles, it’s often not the case – and it wasn’t the case earlier this season for the Jaguars. “Everything in the run game is all run fits,” Marks said. “One guy gets out of his gap, you’ve got a big play. Running backs these days get paid so much money because they’re so good at finding that open gap. You find that open gap, that back finds that gap and he’s out. It’s all run fits.”
1.And finally, a word on the quarterback. We close Fabulous Four as always with quarterback, and it now is not only obvious the Jaguars will close the season with Chad Henne starting, it should be obvious in retrospect why. While many fans in September clamored for Henne to permanently replace Blaine Gabbert, just as many clamored for Gabbert or Ricky Stanzi or Matt Scott to replace a sometimes-struggling Henne during October and much of November. Once Bradley made the move to Henne over a healthy Gabbert in London, though, he stayed strong on the decision to a striking extent. Many wondered at the time why not give Gabbert a final look or Scott or Stanzi “a shot” to see “what they might bring to the table.” But with the idea always to put the team on the field that gave the Jaguars the best chance to win, for coaches Henne was the choice. He has rewarded that decision not by putting up otherworldly numbers and statistically, he has struggled at times. But he has thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions since the bye, and except for a long interception at Cleveland, he has not committed a turnover during the Jaguars’ three-game winning streak. He likely isn’t the long-term starter, but he has helped the Jaguars function offensively enough to squeeze four victories from a season that once seemed lost, and he has done so with the decision-making of a veteran, which is what Bradley and the Jaguars’ coaches hoped would happen when they committed to him as a starter at midseason.