4.Getting him the ball.We open this pre-Bengals Fabulous Four with a word on wide receiver Justin Blackmon, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Blackmon raised expectations in the preseason by catching 10 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown, but through three regular-season games has four receptions for 31 yards. Handwringing aside, this is not entirely unexpected. Despite inevitable comparisons to Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, the No. 4 selection in 2011 who had 1,065 yards and seven touchdowns receiving as a rookie, it was not unexpected that Blackmon struggle early as a rookie. First, few draft analysts considered him as NFL-ready as Green, and most analysts did not consider him an instant-star type of player. His style is not based on being faster and bigger than his opponent; rather, he is a physical player who will have a smaller margin for error than a receiver such as Green. Nothing has happened yet to make the Jaguars believe Blackmon's not going to be productive, but rookie wide receivers typically struggle. As good as Green was – and he was very good – he had just over 1,065 yards as a rookie; not the Larry Fitzgerald/Megatron numbers of a true No. 1 in his prime. Mike Mularkey has stressed to Blackmon to remain patient, particularly in his route running. "He's speeding up a little bit," Mularkey said. "It's just different. Coverages are tighter and things happen fast. The rush is faster. Everything is faster. That doesn't mean you have to be faster, that just means you have to be more patient as a route runner. You just have to get to your depths. Don't speed up the whole process because you think the game is going to change. That's hard for receivers at this level, but in time that will all come into play in a positive way for him, I think." That's the sort of adjustment that takes time for rookie receivers. The quicker Blackmon adjusts, the better for the Jaguars, but for there to be a process isn't just unusual; it's expected.
3. Tough task.The Jaguars' secondary faces its toughest test of the season Sunday. At the same time, it may be more prepared than at any point to handle it. Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis, the Jaguars' starting cornerbacks, started opposite one another for the first time last Sunday, with Cox playing about 40 plays and Mathis playing the entire game. What was striking is each not only played, but played at a high level. Cox, out since the first preseason game with a groin injury, broke on passes with confidence and quickness that belied his six-week layoff. When he was fresh, he looked like what many believe he is – one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks and potentially a shut-down player. He left the game in the second half with fatigue issues. That's unsurprising considering the long layoff, but he is off the injury report and will be key as the Jaguars face a Bengals team with not only Green, but slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who is averaging 17.3 yards on 12 touchdowns this season. No. 2 receiver Armon Binns has caught 12 passes for 157 yards. "You can't double everybody," Mularkey said. "Somebody is going to be singled up somewhere, even in the zone coverages. You've got to be able to get onto these guys. They're all capable receivers and even man coverage and press. The one thing, especially Hawkins, that is very dangerous is yards after the catch. He's got 130 yards after the catch, very elusive. So, we'll have our work cut out for us with these guys." But while the Bengals are deep, the Jaguars now have two corners playing at a high level. Mathis, who underwent ACL surgery late last season, recovered at a remarkable rate, but still looked slower than in the past through the first game or two. On Sunday against the Colts, he broke confidently on the ball. The presence of Cox and Mathis allowed the Jaguars to play more schemes than in their early games, when they played mostly zone. That gave the coaches more play-calling freedom, contributing to more interception opportunities against the Colts – at least five – than in the first two games combined.
2.More pieces in place.The Jaguars got news they wanted on the offensive line this week when right tackle Cameron Bradfield and left guard Eben Britton returned to practice Wednesday after missing two games with ankle injuries. Though Britton was limited, Bradfield worked full, which would seem to give him a good chance of playing Sunday. If so, that could have a significant effect on what has been an area of concern for many Jaguars followers – the comparatively conservative approach in the passing game. With Guy Whimper at right tackle and Herb Taylor/Mike Brewster at guard, the Jaguars – understandably – altered the game plan, not wanting to force a patchwork offensive line to protect Blaine Gabbert longer than necessary. It also has caused the Jaguars to leave tight end Marcedes Lewis in to help in pass protection. Lewis has caught six of the seven passes thrown to him this season, but he has caught just one pass in the last two games and his absence by definition takes away an option in the passing game. Mularkey said this week he expects Lewis to be more of an option, and the guess here is that the Jaguars have Gabbert throw more downfield in fewer obvious passing situations. He is smart with the ball, not prone to mistakes and has shown he can go downfield effectively in late-game situations. As the line develops more continuity, that may happen earlier and more often.
1.And finally, a word on the quarterback. Week after week, Gabbert remains this final entry of Fabulous Four. But through 17 starts, he remains an intriguing, important subject. Three weeks into his second season, it seems to be becoming clear Gabbert is a significantly better quarterback than last season. The eye test would tell you that. He's more confident in the pocket, has better mechanics and this time last year he didn't have anything close to the signature-type plays he has turned in during Weeks 1 and 3. Yet, doubts understandably remain among observers because there are times the Jaguars' offense puts up, say, 75 yards passing in the first 59 minutes. That happened last week, and while that number wasn't all on Gabbert, the quarterback gets the blame. Gabbert wasn't great at times last week. But he made the play at the end of the game to win, and showed veteran leadership and confidence in the huddle. What Gabbert needs now is to show he can do that consistently. Some of that will be the coaches allowing him to throw downfield more and on earlier downs. Some of it will be receivers catching more consistently. Some of it will be the line playing better. Some of it will be all of that and Gabbert playing better at the same time. How soon will that happen is becoming perhaps the primary storyline of the season.