JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to visit the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, Sunday
The Jaguars exit an early-season bye with the same buzz as they had entering it.
They need to win – somehow, some way. If they do – and if they can follow that with a winning October record – they have a chance to contend in a tightly-bunched AFC South.
The Jaguars averted a 0-4 start with a 30-27 victory over AFC South rival Indianapolis in London a week before this past Sunday's Week 5 bye. The Jaguars had their most productive offensive game of the season against Indianapolis – and more significantly, quarterback Blake Bortles was turnover-free for the first time this season.
The AFC South-leading Houston Texans (3-2) have lost two of their last three games. That has left the Jaguars (1-3) a game-and-and-half out of first place despite being two games under .500.
The Bears are struggling and may be in the midst of a quarterback change.
Starter Jay Cutler has missed the last three games with a thumb injury, and his backup – longtime, multi-team starter Brian Hoyer – has played well enough he reportedly may remain the starter when Cutler is heathy.
Even with Hoyer compiling impressive statistics, the Bears have lost four of five games. That includes a 29-23 loss at Indianapolis Sunday in which Hoyer completed 33 of 43 passes for 397 yards and two touchdowns. That was his third consecutive 300-yard passing game and he has thrown six touchdowns with no interceptions.
Bears rookie running back Jordan Howard has rushed for 296 yards on 51 carries and former Jaguars tight end Zach Miller leads the Bears with three touchdowns receiving.
Matchups to watch
*Jaguars DEs Dante Fowler Jr. and Yannick Ngakoue versus Bears OTs Charles Leno and Bobby Massie.Fowler and Ngakoue through the season's first quarter showed potential to become an elite pass-rushing tandem. Put the emphasis there on "potential," because they're not there yet. The Bears protected well against the Colts, and Hoyer had enough time that he threw just 10 incomplete passes.
*Jaguars WRs Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson versus Bears CBs Tracy Porter and Bryce Callahan. Glenn.The Jaguars' offense produced a season-high 30 points against the Colts in Week 4. A reason? It was the first game this season in which Hurns and Robinson – who combined for 24 touchdowns in 2015 – both caught a touchdown pass. Antonio Cromartie couldn't cover Robinson in London. Will the veteran Porter or Callahan – a starter the last two games – fare better? That could be key.
*Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey and WR Alshon Jeffery.This may not be an all-over-the-field, one-on-one matchup because the Jaguars aren't using Ramsey that way – yet. Still, when Ramsey covers Jeffery it will be Very Good Versus Very Good. Ramsey is rapidly developing into an elite corner; although Jeffery hasn't been targeted as much since Cutler's injury, he remains one of the NFL's most dangerous big-bodied receivers.
Jaguars to watch
*Blake Bortles, quarterback.Bortles struggled in Weeks 1, 2 and 3 when he committed seven turnovers during that span. He did not commit a turnover against Indianapolis. It wasn't a coincidence that the Jaguars led throughout that game and registered their first victory of the season.
*T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory, running backs. The duo combined for 100 yards rushing against the Colts, the first time Jaguars backs have reached 100 yards this season. Maintaining the threat of the run will be key Sunday, particularly with starting left guard Luke Joeckel out for the season after sustaining a knee injury against Indianapolis. Look for veteran Patrick Omameh to start for Joeckel.
*Mailk Jackson, defensive tackle.The high-profile free-agent signing only has one sack this season, but he has exceeded expectations with his disruption on the interior of the line. The Jaguars as a defensive front are getting better consistent pressure than last season. Jackson's a big reason.
The Jaguars and Bears both have played their best games of the season in recent weeks, with Jacksonville leading Baltimore late in a 19-17 Week 3 loss and beating Indianapolis. Chicago won for the first time this season when it beat Detroit, 17-14, in Week 4 and had a chance to beat Indianapolis before Hoyer threw incompletions on the Bears' final drive.
Key to victory
The Jaguars running game must continue its London success – and in turn, Bortles and the passing game must take advantage of play-action opportunities. The offense was efficient largely because it avoided turnovers against Indianapolis. It's easier to avoid mistakes when the quarterback is operating in the favorable down-and-distance situations created when the running game is effective. Ivory and Yeldon may not reach 100 yards every game, but getting close would help everything offensively.
Keep an eye on …
*Jaguars wide receiver Rashad Greene (Achilles) and safety Tashaun Gipson (knee) missed practice Monday and Head Coach Gus Bradley called them "questionable" for Sunday. Peyton Thompson likely would start at free safety if Gipson can't play. …
*Tight end Marcedes Lewis (hip) also missed practice Monday, but the team said last week he, defensive end Jared Odrick (triceps) and tight end Julius Thomas (elbow) are expected to play Sunday. Odrick missed the last two games and Thomas missed the last game. …