Jaguars offensive line fights through injuries toward balance

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Things are relatively simple these days around the Jaguars' offensive line.

Eben Britton says the group's approach isn't so much about who's playing where, though it's important. And it's not so much about who's healthy or not, though that's important, too.

It's about production, about preparing.

"Whatever gets the best five, man," Britton said as the Jaguars prepared to play the Baltimore Ravens in the third preseason game for both teams in Baltimore, Md., Thursday.

 "We're just trying to work our butts off."

The last part has been accomplished a lot the last three weeks, and it was accomplished again Monday, when the Jaguars went through one of their more physical practices in memory.

The first part? Well, that has been a camp-long process, too.

Through long morning practices in the Northeast Florida sun, the Jaguars' offensive line has worked on its primary preseason objective – to not only maintain its longstanding status as one of the NFL's best run-blocking lines, but to be known as one of the league's best lines, period.

To do that, its pass-blocking must improve, and while trying to reach that objective, the offensive line in the last three weeks has dealt with a slew of injuries and a key adjustment in personnel.

Yet, amid the changes, the group has seen what it has wanted to see.

"Progress is being made," guard Uche Nwaneri said.

Not that it's been easy. Not considering the lack of continuity at times. Early in camp, offensive guard Will Rackley sustained a high-ankle sprain that could keep him out the entire preseason. Soon thereafter, backup guard Jason Spitz sustained a sprained foot, and center John Estes sustained a knee injury. Spitz is expected to miss several more weeks and Estes' injury could be longer-term.

Eugene Monroe, the team's starting left tackle, has been out for nearly a week after sustaining a blow to the head last week.

Injuries haven't been the only storyline on the front. Several days into padded contact, coaches decided they liked the potential of second-year right tackle Cameron Bradfield and moved him to right tackle. In turn, they moved Britton from right tackle to left guard.

With Monroe out, the starting line on Friday against New Orleans was Bradfield at left tackle, Britton at left guard, Brad Meester at center, Nwaneri at right guard and Guy Whimper at right tackle. When Monroe returns, he will move to left tackle, with Bradfield back to right tackle.

"We have good bonding," Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert said of the line. "We have guys dropping in and out of the rotation because of injuries or because they get dinged up every day. You've got to have chemistry with the one's and the two's. Guys have to look up and they know that we're going to hold them accountable to get those jobs done regardless if they've been with us for a day.

"That's kind of what we've worked on. We've had a lot of shuffling going on since this summer, a lot of injuries, more throughout training camp, a couple of guys getting hurt, but overall it's been fine."

It remains to be seen what will happen at left guard when Rackley returns, but whether it's he or Britton, the Jaguars like this group. When together, it has shown signs of being the complete, balanced line the team wants.

"We've still got some stuff to improve," Meester said. "We want to get better at pass protection. That's a key for us."

Nwaneri said the group improved there against New Orleans. While Gabbert was praised for throwing well despite pressure, he was not sacked in 16 attempts.

"Last week, we had some really firm pockets," Nwaneri said. "Blaine had plenty of time to throw the ball for the most part. Guys were using the techniques they've been coached up to use. The key is being consistent. That's where we'll be able to achieve something, by being consistent."

Said Meester, "We've done a great job with the guys rotating in and out, and we've got great depth – guys who can fill in. We've had guys play multiple positions. Being able to communicate in a dome (in New Orleans) was big, so I think we're making strides.  We've got a way s to go , but we've been doing good."

And almost as a matter of course, the line has continued to look strong as a run-blocking unit.

The Jaguars, long one of the NFL's best rushing teams, have rushed for 326 yards and two touchdowns in two preseason games. Rashad Jennings has rushed for 118 yards, with Keith Toston rushing for 100 and Montell Owens rushing for 51.

"That's just something that always has been a staple here," Nwaneri said. "If nothing else, guys better be able to run block."

Still, as Meester said, the key is to continue the progress made toward balance – "We don't want to known as just a run-blocking line," he said – and as the preseason continues, that remains the objective. And while the injuries and changes haven't helped, Nwaneri also said, "I don't think it's hurt us so far."

"We've had people fill in who know what they're doing and who were prepared to come in and play, so it hasn't hurt us," he said. "We've been taking a lot of strides and we still have a lot more to do."

Sometime soon, the hope is that the best five will be on the field, and that those strides can continue at an even faster pace.

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