JACKSONVILLE – The Jacksonville Jaguars (3-3) stand at a crossroads as they enter today's game against the Houston Texans (3-3).
At .500 along with the Texans and the Tennessee Titans, the Jaguars are third in the standings with an 0-1 division record following an earlier loss to the Titans. The Titans are 2-0 in the division while the Texans are 1-1. Obviously overall record is the top standard for a division championship, but the Jaguars cannot afford to get too far behind in division record, even with nine games remaining after today.
We have heard people this week say it is a "must win" game for the Jaguars. I say no, since it will not knock them out of playoff contention today if they get a losing result.
That said, this game darn sure has that familiar crossroads feeling.
Last season, the Jaguars were 3-3 and trying to figure out which way the team would trend. They had flashed some outstanding offensive performances and knew they had the game-wrecking defense that could carry them. That confidence turned into four consecutive wins and victories in seven of the following eight games, a run that that turned the season and surged them to the AFC South title and into the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
Another similar run would be nice, but the performances over the last two weeks have raised some doubts of where this team is headed.
Two weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs knocked off the Jaguars 30-14 as the Jags turned the ball over five times and converted only once in five chances in the offensive red zone. The defense recorded two interceptions, but it was not enough to turn the tide.
Last week the Dallas Cowboys beat the Jaguars 40-7 and dominated the game from the opening drive. The Cowboys scored on all four first-half possessions to open a 24-0 lead, producing 17 first downs in the half compared to the Jaguars' 19 total plays. In the second half the Cowboys capitalized on short fields set up off turnovers in the second half and pulled away.
Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone has not hit the panic button but knows things must turn quickly.
"Obviously, we haven't performed well," Marrone said in his Monday press conference. "When you don't do that, especially in this league, you get so much speculation of answers, you want things done, sending messages … Sit this guy or do this with this coach or whatever. Those are the things that go on.
"We're looking at a lot of different things. We're doing all of those things because obviously it's not good enough. If it was just as simple as 'this' or 'this' or 'this,' it would be easy."
There have been injuries and there have been losses on the field, but the schedule will not slow down.
Next up, the Houston Texans – a division rival at TIAA Bank Field that has won three straight games to get to 3-3.
Win it, and things feel much better around here. Post an L, and you're behind the eight-ball as the halfway point draws near.
A crossroads indeed.
The Jaguars executives, coaches and players will not use injuries as an excuse as a reason for the issues the last two weeks.
"I think it's easy to see or easy to say or easy to stand up here and talk about the 'woe is me' aspect of injuries, I really do," Marrone said in his Monday press conference. "I think when you look around the league, you see a lot of them here and there. Maybe not as many at a position or one side of football, but at the same time, there has to be some sort of rally, meaning that whatever those clichés are … The common one is 'next man up.'"
"Next man up" is correct, but let's review what has happened to decimate the Jaguars offense over the last few weeks.
Last week alone, the Jaguars placed three offensive starters on the reserve/injured list, including left tackle Josh Wells, running back Corey Grant and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Add them to starting wide receiver Marqise Lee who was injured in the preseason and starting left tackle Cam Robinson who are done with knee injuries, and what the team envisioned as the offense at the start of the season changes a bit.
Starting running back Leonard Fournette has played in only the first half of two games so far while battling a hamstring injury, and the Jags could use his presence to get closer to their identity.
Tight end Niles Paul injured his knee in the first quarter last week in Dallas and could likely see time away from the team.
The Jaguars are on their third left tackle of the season in Josh Walker, who made his first career start last week in his fourth NFL season. The Jaguars signed Ereck Flowers as another potential player at the tackle position after he was cut by the New York Giants. The rest of the offensive line has been battling through nicks the last few weeks, showing up on the injury report during the week.
"I believe that you have to rally, meaning that the people that are coming in there, [they have to] support them, help them, get them in the situation," Marrone said. "Level of awareness steps up. Everything kind of steps up a little bit. Getting those guys in there and truly being excited about it and truly wanting to go out there and be able to perform with the players that are on the field.
"Make something happen rather than to say, 'Well, we are in trouble because of this or we are in trouble because of that.' Once you start thinking like that, you are never going to be able to fight your way out of it. Right now, we are trying to fight our way."
Point being, this offense is absolutely banged up right now. Does it matter though? No, because the show must go on. For this team to get back on track, they need players – no matter who they are or where they started the season on the depth chart – to play at a high level on offense. It is an offense that must start fast and open an early lead to let the defense go to work.
The Jaguars offense has proven that they can do that: Look at the earlier wins over the Patriots and Jets. The offense played at a high level both days with certain starting players missing the games, and the Jaguars won with ease.
It needs to trend back in that direction on offense and it needs to happen quickly.
The Dallas Cowboys offense did pretty much whatever they wanted last week against the Jaguars defense.
They ran for over 200 yards as a team, they scored on every offensive possession in the first half and cashed in second-half turnovers for scores on short fields. An offense that averaged under 17 points a game entering the game left with 40 on the board, the first 24 of those in the first half when the game was still young.
Even after that performance, the Jaguars defense still ranks second in the league in total defense and No. 1 against the pass. They slipped to No. 22 against the run.
Marrone chalked up some of the issues from a week ago to miscommunication.
"There is a point as a coach where you can give someone too much information," Marrone said in his Monday press conference. "Those guys that go out there and play, you want to be able to say, 'Here is your read, here is you key, go play.' When you start saying 'Here is your read, here is your key, but if they do this, watch this or do this and watch that and that.' That is going to slow down a player.
"That comes back to us again, starting with me, doing a better job of making sure we do not have that. We are good when we line up and just say, 'Here is your key, go play. Here is the play. Do your job. Go.' Then there is a point. The other thing you have to look out for is people trying to do too much. You appreciate that, but you wind up getting yourself out of position at times when you are trying to do too much."
This Jaguars defense has eight players with Pro Bowl experience and multiple All-Pro selections. True, they have not had the disruptive totals from a year ago – the takeaways and sacks. But this should still be a good enough defense to win football games more weeks than not, and it should improve as the season goes on.
Injuries have hit here as well. Long snapper Carson Tinker and punt returner Jaydon Mickens have been placed on the reserve/injured list. Matt Overton returned to the Jaguars last week as long snapper while Dede Westbrook could be a leading candidate for the punt return role.
Jaguars Players to Watch
Here are J.P. Shadrick's key players to watch in today's game against the Houston Texans:
· #5 QB Blake Bortles: Blake needs a good performance after a couple of sub-par offensive days the last two weeks. They struggled situationally against the Chiefs (1-of-5 in the red zone) and struggled to move the ball at all against the Cowboys. Can Blake make big throws? Yes. Can he lead an offense on a sustained scoring drive? Yes. We need to see more of all that.
· #20 CB Jalen Ramsey:Ramsey vs. Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins. Get the popcorn ready, as usual.
· #27 RB Leonard Fournette: The Jaguars need him on the field. It might not be a cure-all, but they just need him on the field.
· #50 LB Telvin Smith: Texans QB Deshaun Watson, even after the knee injury last year, is still very much a mobile quarterback. Telvin's ability to chase will be a key today.
· #73 LT Josh Walker: Walker made his first career start last week against a good pass rushing team in Dallas. Here come Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt this week.
· #75 T Ereck Flowers: He was signed last week late as a free agent after being cut by the Giants. Is he a better option than what the Jaguars have at tackle? Time will tell.
· #91 Yannick Ngakoue: Ngakoue had the best game of any Jaguars defensive player last week in Dallas. This Texans offensive line has not performed well in 2018. Get to Deshaun Watson, whatever it takes – you too, Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler Jr., Malik Jackson…