JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines four Jacksonville Jaguars-related topics as the team prepares to play the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday…
4. Showing signs.We begin this Texas-bound Fabulous Four with a player who became a fan favorite in training camp, and who shows more signs by the week of becoming a productive player on offense and special teams. We speak of rookie wide receiver Ace Sanders, who had his best game last week. If that wasn't absolutely clear statistically, it was in the eye test, with Sanders showing more quickness and decisiveness than at any other time during his rookie season. Sanders, a fourth-round selection from South Carolina, has 24 receptions for 243 yards this season. He had eight receptions for 61 yards Sunday. Sanders has 16 punt returns for a 5.4-yard average this season, but had an eight-yard average Sunday, and came close to breaking several returns. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts III said this week Sanders has shown since training camp he is capable of big plays, and Sanders said the improvement was a matter of becoming more confident as the season has continued. "It's like you try to test different things," Sanders said. "Do I make this guy miss or do I just hit it and gain extra yards? You'd be surprised how if you just hit it how much faster you'll play and how many extra yards you'll get. That's what I've been working on – just going: 'Just trust your speed." He added, "You gain trust in what the other guys around you are doing. It's like you don't have to worry about what they do. You know they're going to do their job. I know they're taken care of. Now, I've got to worry about what I need to do."
3. Suddenly stuffing.The Jaguars' improvement against the run the last two weeks not only has been eye-catching, but surprising to some – particularly compared to the first half of the season. Entering the bye, San Diego ran for 158 yards on 40 carries against the Jaguars and San Francisco ran for 221 yards on 38 carries. That capped a first half of the season in which five opponents rushed for more than 150 yards and two – San Francisco and Oakland – surpassed 200. In two games since the bye, the Jaguars held the Titans to 83 yards on 27 carries and Arizona to 14 yards on 24 carries. "We can continue that and keep moving forward to that," Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "We said, 'You know, we're going to play these couple of defenses and we're going to play them really well and play them really fast. Coming out of the bye, that was kind of our emphasis. We wanted to make things a little more simple and know that we could really execute well. In the run game, that has shown the last couple of weeks. We need to make sure we continue to do that, but we feel we're definitely on the right path." Said defensive coordinator Bob Babich, "Guys are doing an excellent job of lining up and playing and finishing. They're not just playing their responsibility; they're getting their hands on the guys. If the ball goes away from me, my gap is taken care of … boom, I'm getting off running to the ball. That way, we're getting a lot of people to the ball and if somebody is out of their gap, it's really helped us. We're very pleased with that aspect of our game."
2. Analytically speaking…If the eye test told you the Jaguars' defense played perhaps its best game of the season Sunday . . . well, the eyes were right. At least according to the analytics. The Jaguars' defense graded out as well as it has all season in the 27-14 loss to Arizona, with just three players and one starter – cornerback Dwayne Gratz – missing a positive score. And Gratz only played a little more than a half. Defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Roy Miller, cornerback Alan Ball, defensive lineman Jeremy Mincey, cornerback Mike Harris, defensive end Andre Branch and safety Johnathan Cyprien all had their best-graded game of the season, and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks scored a positive grade. That has been the norm for Marks this season, and linebacker Geno Hayes graded positively for a second consecutive week. Cornerback Will Blackmon, Marks and Ball continue to be the highest-graded defensive players for the Jaguars, while wide receiver Cecil Shorts III and tight end Marcedes Lewis are the highest-graded players on the Jaguars' offense.
1. And finally … a word on the quarterback.We close again with a word on the quarterback, which is as much habit as opportunity to break new ground. Observers continue to speculate about a possible change at the position, and Head Coach Gus Bradley again was asked about the issue a day after a two-interception, one-touchdown performance from starter Chad Henne Sunday. Bradley's response this week was not as expansive as the previous week, but no less certain – that's that Henne will remain the starter, with Blaine Gabbert remaining the backup. While there are as many observers wondering why Gabbert doesn't get a "final chance to start" as there are observers wondering why Ricky Stanzi or practice squad guy Matt Scott don't "get a shot," the feeling within the organization remains strong that Henne is clearly the best option. There's a level of performance you must have at the quarterback position to allow the rest of the team to function, and Henne is the player in the quarterback room who gives the Jaguars that. So, the gist remains the same this week as last week and the week before and the week before: Barring injury, Chad Henne is the starter – with a change seeming unlikely.