JACKSONVILLE -- Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton both offer three quick thoughts on the Jaguars as they prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville Sunday
1.James Robinson and Myles Jack are Pro Bowl players. This doesn't mean the two will earn postseason honors; the Jaguars' record may prevent it. But make no mistake: James Robinson, the Jaguars' rookie running back, and Myles Jack – the veteran weak-side linebacker – are having Pro Bowl seasons. Robinson has three 100-yard rushing games, and is strikingly consistent and productive for a rookie; the offense's increased consistency in recent weeks largely depends on his ability to put the offense in manageable situations and allow the Jaguars to control tempo. Jack has played at a high level and made momentum-altering plays in every game in which he has been healthy this season – and may be playing as well or better than any weak-side linebacker in the NFL this season. If the Jaguars were anywhere above .500, both players would be favorites for the Pro Bowl. Here's hoping they make it – and get the honors they deserve – despite the record.
2.The Jaguars could be finding answers on the corner. Remember? Early this season? Cornerback then was perhaps the Jaguars' weakest position, with opposing receivers running open consistently. That has changed in recent weeks – not enough for the Jaguars win, but enough to provide hope for the future. The key difference? The addition of veteran Sidney Jones IV, whose presence in recent weeks has given the team a playmaker who has registered two interceptions and a team-leading nine passes defensed in five games as a starter. Rookie CJ Henderson has struggled at times since a standout Week 1, but had one of his better games Sunday in Green Bay – and few doubt the No. 9 overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft can be a front-line corner moving forward. Also key to the secondary's improvement has been third-year veteran Tre Herndon, who moved to nickel when Jones became a starter. The trio has improved in recent weeks, a couple of explosive touchdowns allowed by Henderson and Jones in recent weeks notwithstanding. This has the feel of a group that could develop into a strength, and it could remain intact – and productive – as the Jaguars try to upgrade multiple spots around the roster in the offseason.
3.The Jaguars will win again this season. This started seeming possible last week after a loss to Houston. The optimism feels even stronger after a loss to Green Bay this past Sunday that was the Jaguars' best performance since a Week 1 victory over the Colts. This is not to say the Jaguars will reel off a winning streak; there's too much inexperience on the roster and not enough veteran talent. But the Jaguars in recent weeks have found more consistency offensively – largely because of Robinson. A slightly improved pass rush, a slightly improved secondary and the typically high level of play of Jack has meant the Jaguars allowing about a touchdown less per game in recent weeks. The team also continues to play hard long after any chances of playoff hopes disappeared. Yes, the schedule is difficult moving forward. But this team is improving enough to find two victories in that schedule. Somewhere.
1.The Jaguars' offensive line missed a chance to show how much better it is this season. Head Coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden have both said it; when you look at Robinson's numbers, and the time rookie quarterback Jake Luton has had in the pocket the last two weeks, it's obvious the offensive line is playing well. The problem is the unit had two really bad plays on Sunday against Green Bay – back to back – on what could have been the game-winning drive. That should have been the moment that won the group's critics and doubters over; instead, they're still waiting to be convinced. Offensive line coach George Warhop has had a major impact on this group in his second season; when you look at how this group has overcome injuries to center Brandon Linder and guard AJ Cann, it's clear the Jaguars can win with who they're putting on the field week to week. Now, if only they can "rise about the Xs and Os" – as coaches like to say – and give an extra yard on third and short or an extra second on second and long.
2.The line will be severely tested this week. The Steelers lead the NFL with 32 sacks and – as always seems to be the case – they bring pressure from everywhere with very little warning. Their long-famous zone-blitz scheme creates all kinds of headaches for the most seasoned of quarterbacks – let alone rookies making their third NFL start. Luton must get his head deep into the playbook and film room this week to try and glean what he can of the Steelers' tendencies. And Gruden, who knows the Steelers well from his years in Cincinnati, must spend extra time – every extra moment – getting his quarterback prepared for the Gladiator moment when he hears in his head "on my signal, unleash hell" – which is what it seems like when the Steelers get their rush into high gear.
3.Robinson is the Jaguars MVP, and I don't think it's particularly close. You could never have convinced me before the season than an undrafted rookie running back from Illinois State could be so good, especially without the preseason to prepare. His numbers are very good: three 100-yard games, a 4.4-yards-per-carry average, seven total touchdowns. But the numbers don't give you enough of the story. He's so damn tough and resilient; he always falls forward. Running backs that always fall forward are powerful and valuable; his uncanny sense of where the sticks are is a huge advantage to his quarterback and offensive coordinator. You just can't say enough about this kid and how he is durable and dependable in pass protection, how he sets up play action and how he stepped into former running back Leonard Fournette's shoes without missing a beat. An undrafted rookie replaced the No. 4 overall pick from 2017 and a living legend in the SEC; no one has missed the "legend." Maybe because Robinson looks like he might be able to craft his own.