JACKSONVILLE – They became a hot team by being a tough team.
To stay hot, the Jaguars may need one of their toughest performances of the 2023 season against the New Orleans Saints at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, La., Thursday.
That's true whether or not quarterback Trevor Lawrence plays.
Lawrence, who hasn't missed a start since the Jaguars selected him No. 1 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, sustained a knee injury in a victory over the Indianapolis Colts at EverBank Stadium this past Sunday. Head Coach Doug Pederson early this week called Lawrence day-to-day.
Lawrence on Tuesday said he's optimistic he'll play and that he expects to be a game-day decision. Pederson also said he likely wouldn't know Lawrence's game status until shortly before kickoff Thursday, and that's not the only uncertainty facing the Jaguars this week.
Among major injury storylines for the Jaguars entering the Saints game: left guard Walker Little (knee), wide receiver Zay Jones (knee), cornerback Tyson Campbell (hamstring) and right guard Brandon Scherff (ankle). All are starters. Pederson has said Campbell likely won't play Thursday and the others are uncertain.
Thursday night games are tough on road teams in the NFL because of a short week to prepare and Wednesday travel. The Saints are a tough defensive team very much needing a victory to stay in the NFC South race.
Those factors would make Thursday tough for the Jaguars under any circumstances. Their injury situation makes it tougher. The good news for the Jaguars is they're becoming a tough team and tough teams can figure out ways to win in tough situations.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to do that Thursday:
- Protect the quarterback. This matters whoever plays quarterback. It's important if it's Lawrence. It's really important if it's backup C.J. Beathard. The Saints are a good defense and the Jaguars' offensive line has struggled in protection at times this season.
- Run. This is always critical for the Jaguars this season. Running back Travis Etienne Jr. has two touchdowns rushing in each of the last two games and may be the team's offensive Most Valuable Player this season. He may need to play like it Thursday.
- Pressure Derek Carr. The Jaguars have pressured quarterbacks consistently in recent weeks, not allowing Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen or Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew to get comfortable in the pocket. The Saints' offensive line has improved in recent weeks, but Carr – in his first season with the Saints after nine seasons with the Raiders – has been sacked 17 times this season with Saints quarterbacks being sacked 19 times in six games.
- Force turnovers. The Jaguars are as good as any team in the NFL this season at this, forcing a league-best 15 turnovers. They are 4-1 when forcing two or more and forced a season-high four against the Colts last Sunday. This is what the Jaguars do, and they must do it in a hostile environment Thursday.
- Score off turnovers. If they can't get a defensive touchdown, they may need short fields.
- Tighten up in the red zone. The Saints have moved effectively between the 20s this season, struggling in the red zone. The Jaguars may need to hold the Saints in the teens. Forcing them to kick field goals is a way to keep them there.
- Handle the noise. The Superdome is a tough venue for road teams. The Jaguars are 3-0 away from Jacksonville this season, but this is just their second game playing in an opposing team's stadium. How they handle the prime-time noise will matter.
- Convert from deep. Kicker Brandon McManus was perfect last week and has given the Jaguars a reliable long-range kicker. If points are at a premium, McManus' reliability could matter a lot Thursday.
- Convert in the red zone and on third down. For all the angst over the Jaguars' offense this season, the reality is they have moved well at times. The unit's issue has been mostly when close to the end zone or trying to convert big third downs. Solving these issues in Thursday's noise won't be easy, but that's the task.
- Find a way. Thursday night games often are weird, sloppy games because of limited preparation and lack of rest. The game figures to be decided in the fourth quarter. At that point, it's just about finding a way to get it done. The Jaguars have made big plays at key times in recent weeks. They're doing what's necessary late in games. That's the sign of a tough team. Tough teams have a way of finding a way.
Short week, but the grind sure does not stop. Swipe through photos of the Jaguars Tuesday practice as they prepare for Thursday Night Football against the New Orleans Saints 🏈