Maurice Jones-Drew is ready to play Thursday.
And while the Jaguars' two-time Pro Bowl running back won't necessarily play much – it is, after all, still the preseason – his debut won't be an insignificant one for a team that has struggled on offense at times during the 2011 preseason.
Not that Jones-Drew is saying as much.
To Jones-Drew, a Pro Bowl selection each of the past two seasons, the playing time he is expected to get when the Jaguars play host to the St. Louis Rams will be a step in the preparation for the season. Not much more and not much less.
"I haven't heard anything yet, but if that's the case, I'm ready to roll," Jones-Drew said Monday as the Jaguars (1-2 in the preseason) prepared to play the Rams (3-0) in the fourth and final preseason game at EverBank Field Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio said last week he expected Jones-Drew and defensive end Aaron Kampman could make their first 2011 preseason appearances Thursday.
In addition to Kampman and Jones-Drew, the Jaguars during a loss to Buffalo Saturday also played without linebacker Clint Session, right tackle Eben Britton and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, as well as defensive end Jeremy Mincey.
And although Jaguars starters often play sparingly if at all during the preseason finale, starting quarterback David Garrard said Monday he has been told he will play at least a "little bit" against the Rams.
"I'll be ready if my number is called to be out there," said Garrard, who completed 11 of 21 passes for 106 yards and no touchdowns with no interceptions in a 35-32 overtime loss to Buffalo Saturday. "We've had it before where we started the week off ready to play and then things change toward the end of the week, so we've just got to be ready for whatever."
Jones-Drew said he joked with his teammates that he was sorry for making them play in the preseason finale.
"I told them, 'if I've got to go, we've all got to go,' so they're happy about that," Jones-Drew said. "We're going to be fine. We're going to do some things right and we're going to do some things wrong, but we'll be ready to roll."
Said Garrard, "Well, definitely if MoJo is out there, I want to be out there with him."
Jones-Drew said while ordinarily he and the first-team offense wouldn't likely play in the preseason finale, "for us it's a different situation."
"We've got a lot of guys back so we want to get them into game situations, live situations where they can play and kind of get comfortable with each other, get that chemistry, that camaraderie back," Jones-Drew said.
The Jaguars during 2011 have scored four offensive touchdowns in three preseason games, including three against the Bills. Garrard led two touchdown drives and a field goal drive on his final three series, and rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to rookie running back DuJuan Harris in the third quarter.
Jones-Drew on Saturday gathered the team on the sidelines after three scoreless possessions, and the team's first three scoring drives came on its next three series. But Jones-Drew said while there have been "some bumps in the road" offensively in the preseason, he said what he mostly sees is an offense that has improved since the beginning of training camp.
Garrard missed the preseason opener with a back injury, and neither Jones-Drew nor Britton have played yet in the preseason. All are expected to start the regular-season opener against the Tennessee Titans September 11.
"We've played a lot of second guys a lot, just so they can get used to the language and how David calls snaps," Jones-Drew said. "Receivers have to get used to certain balls, so that when it happens (the reserves play), you go right in and we'll be going like we usually do."
Jones-Drew was asked if his return will be expected to "save the season."
"Not at all," Jones-Drew said. "We've had, what, four weeks together? We have some things we have to work on, but that's what the preseason is for, is to work on them, and make sure we can improve each week. That's what I told you guys the first time we talked (early in training camp) – as long as we can improve each week, we'll be all right.
"Granted, it didn't look good in Buffalo the first couple of drives, but we got things together. We got rolling – and against their first defense, as well."
While it has been reported that the Jaguars' three Garrard-led scoring drives came against the Bills' second-team defense, Jones-Drew disagreed with the assessment. Much of Buffalo's starting secondary was in the game through halftime.
"We started rolling a little bit when their first guys were in there," Jones-Drew said. "Granted, they had some guys hurt, too, but we want to continue to improve. There's always some negative to come out of a game, but we want to make that better, correct that and improve on what we did right."
Jones-Drew said whatever the Jaguars' early struggles, much can be attributed to the NFL lockout that cost them the off-season.
"That's what it mostly comes down to," Jones-Drew said. "You're not with each other, especially here where a lot of guys in bigger cities live there in the offseason. Here we have guys that come from Hawaii, California obviously, Midwest, up north, Miami, Atlanta. We've got guys all over that live in different places, so in order for us to come back in one place it was a little difficult, but we did a great job with it. We just had to get a little bit more input from our coaches. I think we've improved drastically from the first day and that's what I look at. I don't worry about what the score says on the scoreboard in the preseason. It's just how far we've come since day one in camp till now and we've done a great job with it."
Jones-Drew said he feels no pressure to carry the offense upon his return.
"You're the only one who can put pressure on yourself," he said. "I've been playing football 20 years. It's no different. As long as we start to relax in the game, just start playing football and doing what they're supposed to do – not worried about anything else – we'll start playing right. That's all we want to do."