Undrafted rookie Brian Witherspoon may have been the big winner in the Jaguars' 20-17 victory over the visiting Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night. Witherspoon, a smallish but speedy cornerback from tiny Stillman College, returned two punts for 49 yards and two kickoffs for 64 yards in the preseason opener.
"The speed Witherspoon has showed up. We're going to give him a good look in the preseason to see if he can add a dimension to our special teams," coach Jack Del Rio said.
Witherspoon ran so fast on one punt return that it appeared he might run out of his shoes. He also made a nice breakup of a pass earlier in the game and the only thing that marred his performance was a fumble as he was breaking into the clear on his first punt-return.
"A lot of good tape to evaluate," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars had to hold on for the win, as veteran safety Pierson Prioleau intercepted a D.J. Shockley pass in the end zone to preserve the victory. The Falcons had marched to the Jaguars five-yard line inside 30 seconds left to play in the game.
First-year Falcons head coach Mike Smith, the Jaguars' former defensive coordinator, was the unanimous meritorious conduct winner for his decision to not send the game into overtime with a fourth-down field goal in the Falcons' final drive.
Both coaches left the game with a degree of satisfaction. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the third pick of this year's draft, was very poised in leading a 74-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. He capped the drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Roddy White.
"Mike has to be happy," Del Rio said, referring to Ryan's play.
Del Rio has several reasons to be happy.
- David Garrard drove the Jaguars 78 yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Garrard's stats (four of 10 for 44 yards and a 53.8 passer rating) are misleading. He had a couple of passes dropped.
- Running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Greg Jones were impressive in combining for 62 yards rushing. Jones appeared to have his old quickness back, in what is his second summer of recovery from knee reconstruction.
- Backup quarterback Cleo Lemon engineered a 10-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that staked the Jaguars to a 17-7 lead in the third quarter. Lemon completed six of 10 passes for 46 yards and a 71.2 passer rating. * Little-known defensive end Mkristo Bruce was the Jaguars' defensive star with 2.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and five tackles. Bruce, the all-time sacks leader at Washington State, signed with the Jaguars right before the start of training camp as a replacement for unsigned first-round draft pick Derrick Harvey.
"He's got some natural rush ability. We signed him because Harvey held out. We told him if Harvey signs tomorrow you're going to be gone after one day," Del Rio said.
Harvey has yet to sign, however, and that remains the most nagging fact of Jaguars training camp. With James Wyche lost for the season with an Achilles injury and Reggie Hayward sidelined by a hamstring pull, the Jaguars would seem to be desperate at defensive end, but Del Rio refused to characterize the position as such.
"We're going to work the guys here. We'll plug in the guys we have and keep rolling," Del Rio said.
Del Rio will focus on the positives from last night's game, and they include a three-catch performance by wide receiver Matt Jones.
"Matt played well tonight. He's had a good, solid start," Del Rio said.
The play of wide receiver Mike Walker, however, was disappointing. Walker, who may have the best hands on the team, dropped a couple of passes, one of which would've resulted in a touchdown had he made the catch.
"We want to get Mike a good look. He'll be determined not to allow the balls to find a way to the ground. He's healthy, we're out of double days and we'll continue to work him," Del Rio said.
The first team Jaguars offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, and except for a breakdown in coverage on the 25-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to White, the Jaguars' number one defense was on top of its game.
"A lot of things that went well and a lot of things we have to work on," Del Rio said of the overall performance.