The two lines the Jaguars have spent the last two offseasons rebuilding led the team to a signature victory on Sunday. If the Jaguars can now find a way to fix their pass-defense, they just might be a playoff contender.
Quarterback David Garrard was sacked once for five yards and on all other occasions received enough pass-protection to throw three touchdown passes and achieve his all-time highest passer rating, 138.9. Meanwhile, a Jaguars team that led the league in fewest sacks last season, with 14, got three in the 24-17 opening day win over visiting Denver.
"They didn't get a hundred yards rushing. We left some sacks on the table," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said.
Free-agent acquisition Aaron Kampman got 1.5 sacks and first-round draft pick Tyson Alualu got one, too. They are the centerpiece players of General Manager Gene Smith's offseason work and they paid dividends right away. Alualu even went so far as to stuff Tim Tebow on the former University of Florida star's first rushing attempt in the NFL.
Maurice Jones-Drew pounded out 98 yards rushing and Jaguars receivers made big catches at big times. Everything looked great, except a bulky Jaguars pass-defense that surrendered nearly 300 yards to Kyle Orton. Cornerback Derek Cox had a miserable day and officially became a concern. He was replaced late in the game by newly-acquired cornerback David Jones.
"We felt his confidence had slipped," coach Jack Del Rio said of Cox.
Del Rio had enough confidence in his offense to order two fourth-and-one gambles, the first from his 49-yard line and the second in the third quarter from his 39. The first gamble succeeded. The second failed and allowed Denver to tie the game at 14-14.
"The first one was good. The second one was terrible," Del Rio said when asked about his fourth-down decisions. "I told our team we were going to play to win. It led to something good early, it led to something bad late, so I guess it was a split."
Garrard bailed out his coach leading a game-winning, 83-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Garrard's 24-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Kassim Osgood was a thing of beauty.
"What a great beginning. I'm so proud of the team effort," Del Rio said.
He singled out Marcedes Lewis, Rashean Mathis, Garrard and Kampman for praise. Jones-Drew certainly qualified, as did Alualu for his relentless effort on the hottest day of football in Jaguars history. The Jaguars were plus-two in sacks and plus-two in turnovers and that'll usually spell victory.
"I'm proud of the way the city embraced the team," Del Rio added.
The Jaguars announced 63,626 tickets distributed for the game. It was Tebow's homecoming but the sea of Tebow jerseys that were predicted to attend the game never materialized. The Tebow factor was overstated.
Instead, it was Garrard who stole the show, and Del Rio put his quarterback into position to do it.
"I'm always ready for that," Garrard said of his coach's fourth-down gambles. "I've been with him too long not to know that. I told guys this would be the defining moment."
The outcome of the game hinged on a Denver drive that began at their 23-yard line. Quarterback Kyle Orton managed on first down, but on second-and-10 from his 36, linebacker Daryl Smith stepped in front of intended receiver Eddie Royal and made a win-clinching interception with 46 seconds to play.
"We've talked a lot about the word relentless. That is kind of what we want to have the identity of. If we can get that as our identity, we will be sitting pretty good," Kampman said.