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Magnificent Seven VI


7.Deji's chance.The thought entering the Jaguars' 2011 preseason was backup running back Rashad Jennings could play a significantly larger role this season than last, mainly because the Jaguars theoretically would want to reduce – if only slightly – the wear on starter and two-time Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Jennings' season ended last weekend when he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. But while Jennings was key last season, and would have been more so this season, the Jaguars like the potential of Deji Karim, who began the preseason as the No. 3 running back and now will take over the No. 2 spot. Karim perhaps isn't the pass blocker that Jennings is, and he may not be able to consistently reel off four- and five-yard runs as Jennings did. What Karim absolutely gives the Jaguars is a breakaway threat and quickness that perhaps even Jones-Drew doesn't give them. Karim dazzled at times during the preseason, and with increased opportunity, could add key element to the offense. "We had a three-headed monster with Rashad," Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "Now, it's a two-headed monster, but those guys can still carry the load."

6.Lu-u-u-u-u-u-u-ke.Talk about your rapid ascensions. Less than two weeks ago, Luke McCown didn't play in the third week of the preseason, normally the dress rehearsal for the NFL regular season. Now, in a surprising move, he's the opening-day starter. So, who is McCown? He's a reliable veteran who has started seven games in eight seasons, and while he's probably not destined to be a long-term multi-year starter in the NFL, there is a belief among the Jaguars that he's experienced enough and capable enough to manage the game and make plays when they are there. So, why McCown? With rookie Blaine Gabbert, there is little doubt about the ability of the player, but Gabbert lacked the experience and situational awareness to step in and lead the offense efficiently early in the season. That became apparent as the preseason continued. David Garrard has the experience and all indications before training camp was that he was the best quarterback for the situation. But his struggles in preseason made the Jaguars re-think that. By the end of the preseason, McCown was the best option because of his experience and the consistency he showed during his limited preseason appearances. McCown earned this opportunity. He has rehabilitated from two ACL injuries, and last season had the disappointment of having his season end when it appeared he might get a chance at the starting job. A year later, he has it. Now, it's time to take advantage.

5.Offensive line still key .For all the talk about quarterback this week, the key storyline for the Jaguars heading into Tennessee remains the offensive line. With or without Garrard, this was not going to be a team that was overly dependent on the passing game, anyway. The focus will be on the running game, and whoever is at quarterback –McCown or Gabbert – the success of the offense was going to rise and fall on the offensive line's ability to create running room on a consistent basis. The bottom line is that there's really no way to know yet how that will play out. While the line didn't excel in the preseason, when the area of concern is the running game it's hard to get a gauge in the preseason. The running offense has struggled in past preseasons only to excel when it mattered. Give the line a chance to run-block for an entire game or two, after spending a week game-planning. If it doesn't start to show improvement, then there may be trouble this season. Considering this team's improvement defensively, as long as it can run it has a real chance to be competitive.

4.An issue of transparency.Fans have criticized the Jaguars this week for a lack of transparency about the quarterback situation. The argument is the team should have been more up front that Garrard was in danger of losing his starting job, and therefore his roster spot. A couple of thoughts on that: The quarterback situation is unlike any other in that it is a leadership position. Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio takes the approach that you support your starting quarterback 100 percent until he is no longer the starter, and while I understand fans wanting to know what's going on, I do agree with Del Rio on this one. The team has to follow the quarterback and even if the No. 1 and No. 2 spots are very close, there needs to be a No. 1 and a No. 2. Once you make that change there's no going back, so as Tony Dungy once told me when discussing how he once handled quarterback transitions in Tampa Bay, "Your starter has to be the starter until he's not anymore."

3.Getting defensive.The Jaguars' offensive line struggled during preseason at times, and that was true for much of the offense. So, why is there still confidence around the Jaguars entering the regular-season opener? One reason is there is a belief that whatever the preseason results, the Jaguars will be able to run effectively. Another is the defense. Make no mistake: All the talk around the Jaguars during the preseason is no joke. This team believes it is dramatically improved on defense, and believes the steps it took to fix weaknesses in the off-season were successful. No longer are there glaring holes in any area. The defensive tackles, when healthy and 100 percent, are as good as any young tandem in the AFC and the starting linebacker group should be very, very good against the run. It's not a team of superstars on the defensive side of the ball, but it is a fundamentally sound unit with experienced, reliable players on all three levels. Unless the offense shows dramatic improvement in Week 1 – and the belief among players and coaches is it will – the defense will need to play extremely well early. But unlike last season, there may be reason to believe this week it can.

2.Eyes on CJ2K.This from Jaguars defensive tackle Terrence Knighton on Titans running back Chris Johnson: "They have one of the best backs in the league. He'll look to come in and prove he was worth the money. The onus is on us up front, to get some sacks and stop the run." Asked if he believed Johnson – after holding out for a new contract – would be 100 percent Sunday, Knighton said: "I hope so, because we'll be ready to go. We hope for their best, because we'll bring our best." It is the presence of Knighton and second-year defensive tackle Tyson Alualu that makes this potentially a very good match-up for the Jaguars. The defensive tackle tandem got significant penetration early in preseason and that will be key against Johnson. He's a back you want to hit before he gets to the line of scrimmage, and as with any breakaway back, it's key to disrupt his running lanes early. Once he gets a chance to accelerate – which he can do very quickly – he's a threat to break any run. One thing to remember about Johnson, though: The task isn't necessarily holding him under 100 yards. The Titans emphasize the run so much that that's very difficult to do. What you want to do with Johnson is keep him under control and not let the Titans' running game take over the game to where you can't get them off the field for extended periods. Considering the off-season improvement of the Jaguars' defense, that shouldn't happen.

1.A final thought . . or two on the release of Garrard. The aspect of the release that has drawn the most ire from fans seems to be timing. First things first: the Jaguars erred in waiting until after the kickoff luncheon Tuesday to release him. Jack Del Rio said as much the following day, and General Manager Gene Smith said so, too. People make mistakes, and few around the Jaguars would dispute that that could have been handled differently. Fans and observers also have criticized the Jaguars for waiting until five days before the regular season, and wondered why the move couldn't have been made earlier. The reality is the Jaguars waited because they were trying to give Garrard every chance to show he should still be the starter. The belief was that he not only wasn't playing well in the preseason, but wasn't playing nearly as well as he had in previous seasons. Del Rio expressed this to Garrard a couple of weeks into the preseason and told Garrard he needed to play better. He still didn't, and when Garrard had a subpar practice Monday, Del Rio said it was the final straw. There is a such thing as a cumulative effect, and that's the case here. It wasn't just the Monday practice, but something pushed the Jaguars to the saturation point and that happened to be it. The thing that's hard to grasp is the opinion of some that the Jaguars were motivated by trying to save money. Remember, they just spent huge money early in free agency to improve the defense, and this team believes it's a playoff contender. Would they really release a quarterback they thought could get them to the postseason in the interest of saving $8 million?

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