The Jaguars closed the 2012 preseason as they wanted. They closed it with momentum. That meant closing it with a victory.
They got the victory in front of the home crowd at EverBank Field Thursday, and it not only came by a score of 24-14 over the visiting Atlanta Falcons, it came with a lot of reserves and young "bubble" players trying to make the 53-man roster making a lot of critical plays.
With the victory, the Jaguars finished the preseason 3-1, and for Mike Mularkey – in his first season as the Jaguars' head coach – a winning preseason record hardly was insignificant.
"We're in this business to win football games," Mularkey said. "Any way you can find to win football games, we're going to do it, I don't care what game it is."
The Falcons took an early lead when running back Jacquizz Rodgers scored on a 5-yard run. That came one play after the Falcons recovered a botched pitch between Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert and running back Rashad Jennings on the game's opening play.
"I was very pleased that we came back and responded to those bad things," Mularkey said.
The Jaguars not only turned in an 18-play drive with the first-team offense, a possession that ended with a failed pass on 4th-and-goal, they later tied the game with a 14-yard run by reserve running back Jalen Parmele.
Rookie wide receiver Kevin Elliott's 77-yard touchdown in the third quarter gave the Jaguars a 14-7 lead, and kicker Josh Scobee nudged Jacksonville ahead, 17-14, 40 seconds into the fourth quarter. With 3:21 remaining, reserve running back Richard Murphy's 5-yard run gave the Jaguars a 24-14 lead, and when cornerback Antonio Dennard intercepted with 2:30 remaining, the Jaguars' third come-from-behind victory of the preseason was all but secured.
"I'm very proud of this bunch," Mularkey said as the preseason ended. "It's a very close team, I feel, based on the way they've come together, and based on some of the things that take place on that sideline. I've been on the sidelines in fourth preseason games: they're done and they're thinking about anything but football.
"These guys were into the game all the way to the end, and supportive of the guys who were in there. That says a lot about this football team and the guys in the locker room."
The Jaguars must trim the roster to 53 players by 9 p.m. Friday. Mularkey said the process of deciding the final roster spots began immediately after Thursday's game and will continue into Friday.
PLAY OF THE GAME
The fourth preseason game is about players on the bubble, which means it's about young players making plays to get noticed. In the third quarter, Elliott made just such a play. Four plays into a drive that began at the Jaguars 1, Elliott – a free agent rookie from Florida A&M – took a short pass from backup quarterback Chad Henne and broke three tackles, including one by safety Charles Mitchell. Seventy-seven yards later, he had his second touchdown of the preseason. "It was set up for him," Mularkey said. "It was called for him to see if he could make that play. It was nice to see that one come about like that. " Mularkey said the play played to Elliott's ability to run after the catch. Elliott finished the game with two receptions for 85 yards. "I definitely left it out on the field tonight," Elliott said. "That's pretty much all I could do – the rest is up to the coaches. Whatever I could control, I did my best and let the rest go with the flow."
A pitch from Gabbert to Jennings resulted in a fumble that Atlanta defensive end Vance Walker recovered at the Jaguars 5-yard line 10 seconds into the game. Rodgers stepped out of a tackle by Will Middleton and scored on a 5-yard run to make it 7-0.The Jaguars finished the quarter with 91 yards to 16 for the Falcons.
The Jaguars kept their starters in the game through the early part of the second quarter, mainly because the first-team offense had an eighteen-play drive that spanned the final 8:49 of the first period. That drive ended with a failed 4th-and-1 pass from Gabbert to wide receiver Laurent Robinson, but Parmele tied the game at 7-7 with a 14-yard run with 3:01 remaining in the second quarter.
The Jaguars took a 14-7 lead with the 77-yard touchdown pass from Henne to Elliott, but whatever momentum Jacksonville gained was lost on the ensuing series. Falcons backup quarterback Dominique Davis found wide receiver Kevin Cone for a short pass that Cone turned into a 49-yard, catch-and-run touchdown. The quarter ended 14-14.
Scobee connected with a 39-yard field goal with 14:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, and with just over three minutes remaining, Murphy clinched it with a 5-yard run that capped a nine-play, 70-yard drive.
"I think we're ready. There's a lot of good things. Obviously a slow start the first three plays in all three phases. You can't start a game that way against anybody in any game. But I'm very pleased with the end result."
MULARKEY ALSO SAYS
"I think we need to quit turning the ball over. That's going to get us beat. It really hasn't been a big issue, but tonight was a clear evidence of what can happen."
"That (a long incomplete pass early in the first quarter to Robinson) is a play I have to hit. Laurent is wide open and we have to find a way to get him the ball. It's one of those where it's a matter of two inches. We are perfectionists and we will get that corrected."
STAT OF THE GAME
The score at halftime was tied, but the Jaguars had dominated statistically, outgaining the Falcons 203-81. With Atlanta playing mostly backups and the Jaguars playing mostly starters, the Jaguars moved effectively and converted 4 of 7 first downs. At halftime, the Jaguars had rushed for 110 yards on 20 carries, continuing a preseason in which they generally rushed very effectively. Parmele at halftime had rushed for 56 yards on six carries.
OFFENSIVELY . . .
The Jaguars' first-team offense didn't get the touchdown it wanted, but it got good work – and more work than expected. The original idea was to play the starters about 10-to-12 plays, but the third drive of the game lasted 18 plays and covered 76 yards. That possession didn't result in a touchdown, but it was a solid, ball-control drive that showed the starting line is in pretty good shape as the season approaches. Robinson got involved with an 11-yard reception, and the line kept pressure off Gabbert, who narrowly missed a long pass to Robinson. "I liked the throw," Mularkey said. "We have to hit those plays, and we'll hit them. We have to throw those." Mularkey said Gabbert had neglected to throw the same pass in practice this week because of how he read the coverage, and that throwing the pass was a step in the right direction. That's an example of the offense still being a work in progress, and Gabbert still needs to get better, but there are tools with which to work and there are certainly more positives than this time last season.
DEFENSIVELY . . .
It's hard to judge the Jaguars defensively, mainly because the game was played against the Falcons' reserves. Still, the Jaguars for the most part stopped those reserves and that was all they could do given the circumstances. The Falcons had just six first downs and 81 total yards at halftime, and their lone touchdown came on a five-yard, point-blank drive that started because of a Jaguars turnovers.
It's difficult to find a turning point in the fourth preseason game. Really, it's the turning point of a lot of careers and lives, but if there was a key play Thursday, it came midway through the second quarter. On 1st-and-10 from the Falcons 48, Parmele ran for 7 yards then 21 yards. On 2nd-and-4 from the Falcons 14, he broke through a hole in the defense, made a defender miss and broke a tackle to get into the end zone. That gave the Jaguars a 14-7 lead.
Wide receiver Mike Thomas has had an outstanding preseason, one that significantly enhanced his role in the offense. He is firmly entrenched as the No. 3, slot receiver and while that was his likely role throughout the offseason, he struggled at times early in camp. In four preseason games, Thomas has developed a striking rapport with Gabbert – to the point where Thomas isn't just an afterthought option in the offense; he is a constant threat on third down. That's significant for a team that had few options at wide receiver a year ago.
Jaguars offensive guard Uche Nwaneri left with an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return. Mularkey said he didn't think the injury was serious and pulled Nwaneri because the starters were going to leave the game soon.
*The Jaguars' first-team offensive line, playing much of the first quarter without Nwaneri, turned in a solid effort. Gabbert wasn't sacked and the Jaguars ran for 36 yards on 12 carries. This was the first game for the line after the return of left guard Eugene Monroe, and there's a feeling within the team that Monroe, left guard Britton, center Brad Meester, Nwaneri and right tackle Cameron Bradfield is the line of the future. On Thursday, even with Nwaneri out, the group played like a starting line.
*Rookie center Mike Brewster, an undrafted free agent from Ohio State, played about 95 percent of the plays, entering the game after Nwaneri left. He played both center and guard. "I think he's done really well," Mularkey said. "I think he's made a name for himself."
*Muklarkey said in the regular season he might have kicked a field goal at the end of the Jaguars' 76-yard, 18-play drive in the first half. The Jaguars had 4th-and-a-long-yard when Gabbert threw incomplete to Robinson. "I felt like we wanted to get points on the board," Mularkey said. "It didn't work out."
*Mularkey said the decision at running back will be difficult. With Maurice Jones-Drew holding out, Rashad Jennings is starting with Montell Owens as the backup. Mularkey said Parmele, Keith Toston and Richard Murphy all have played well. "When these guys have had chances, they've all made the most of their opportunities," Mularkey said.
*Mularkey on Thursday mentioned linebacker Julian Stanford as a player who stood out through the preseason.
The Jaguars must trim the roster from 75 players to 53 players by 9 p.m. Friday. They will have a padded practice Monday, then begin their normal regular-season practice schedule with a padded practice Wednesday as they prepare for the regular-season opener September 9 at Minnesota.
The preseason is over. At last. Progress was made, clearly. Cuts are Friday and good players will be released, but the ones that will remain know what this coaching staff wants, and there will be potential for this team to be very competitive. This is a solid team that will grow and improve each month. The regular season is 10 days away. This is going to be intriguing.