Run offense: Searching for rhythm

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Jacksonville Jaguars T.J. Yeldon (24) congratulates Leonard Fournette (27) after Fournette's 1 yard touchdown run in the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts during an NFL game Sunday, November 11, 2018 in Indianapolis, IN. (Rick Wilson via AP)

JACKSONVILLE – Scott Milanovich knows the Jaguars' offensive philosophy.

"We're a running team," he said Thursday as the Jaguars (4-10) prepared to play the Miami Dolphins (7-7) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Sunday at 1 p.m.

Milanovich, the Jaguars' quarterbacks' coach the past two seasons, has served as play-caller the last three games. Ideally, what he said is true. Here's the reality:

A season after leading the NFL in rushing with a power-running offense, the Jaguars rank 19th among 32 teams this season.

"It's very important to get the running game going," Jaguars left tackle Josh Wells said.

The Jaguars, after rushing for 141.4 yards per game last season, are averaging 111.9 yards a game this season. They entered the season planning to be a back-centric offense that set up play-action passing with a dominant running game.

Instead, Jaguars backs have combined for 100 yards rushing in a game twice this season – and the Jaguars and Philadelphia are the only two NFL teams without a 100-yard rusher in 2018.

"We need to have a 100-yard rusher," Milanovich said. "I don't know how many games last year we did. That's when we were most successful, when we were able to run and run play-action off that and get more shots downfield.

"There are a number of circumstances we all know that are involved in that, but we have to a better job regardless."

The circumstances of which Milanovich spoke are many.

Running back Leonard Fournette, after rushing for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie last season, missed six of the first eight games with a hamstring injury. He missed a December 2 victory over the Colts serving a one-game suspension and has rushed for 396 yards on 414 carries this season.

The Jaguars also have been without Corey Grant, a reserve running back whose speed was crucial to the two-back schemes that since-dismissed offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett planned to use this season. Grant was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury following a Week 5 loss at Kansas City.

Injuries have been a particular issue on the offensive line, with only one Week 1 starter – right guard A.J. Cann – expected to start against Miami.

As Fournette said Thursday, running in the NFL is about "rhythm." The Jaguars' injury issues have made rhythm elusive.

"It takes a big toll," Fournette said. "If you're not used to playing with each other, it can be difficult running the ball. You don't know each other's weaknesses."

The result: inconsistency. The Jaguars rushed for 100 or more yards four of the season's first five games, but fewer than 100 yards in four consecutive games after that.

Fournette's midseason return gave the running offense a temporary boost, with his 95-yard games keying a 179-yard effort against Pittsburgh on November 18 and a season-high 226-yard effort against Buffalo the following week. But the Jaguars rushed for 79 yards without him against the Colts, then followed that with a season-low 60 yards as a team in his first game back from suspension – a 30-9 loss at Tennessee.

The approach changed this past week in a 16-13 loss to Washington. They de-activated reserve running back Carlos Hyde, with first-year running back Dave Williams playing in his place and rushing for 32 yards on five carries – including 31 second-half yards on four carries. Fournette, after rushing for 31 yards on 10 first-half carries, rushed one time in the second half for 25 yards.

Fournette on Thursday said the lack of second-half carries Sunday wasn't frustrating, reiterating what he said Sunday – that he knew in advance Williams would get carries and that the situation was about "getting other dudes opportunities."

"No matter who goes on, we're a family," Fournette said, with Milanovich saying on Thursday: "You always want to get a back like Leonard the ball. The plan was to play both of those guys a little bit and get them some reps.

"There were situations we had to throw it. There were some circumstances that led to that."

Milanovich called Williams' first significant work, "not a bad start."

"He had a couple of good runs," Milanovich said. "It didn't look like it was too big for him. For his limited attempts, I thought he did a pretty good job for a first game."

Milanovich on Thursday stressed continuing to improve the area, particularly on early – or base downs – and noted that the Jaguars' struggles on those situations has forced too many third-and-long situations.

He also noted that while the Jaguars had 172 rushing yards last week, 68 of those yards came on runs by quarterback Cody Kessler. Twenty more came on a reverse by wide receiver Dede Westbrook.

"We had the numbers last week," Milanovich said. "We're going to run the ball. Our guys are going to lean on them. I'd like to see more efficiency there. That's kind of the fundamental, basic foundation of our offense – is to run the ball. We need to be able to do that."

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