JACKSONVILLE – Here's this week's Setting the Table: Storylines and stuff to watch as the Jacksonville Jaguars (0-3) prepare to play the Indianapolis Colts (2-1) at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m.
The Jaguars are finally home after 10 days on the West Coast, and this week's storyline?
Well, there are several, but among them is that Sunday's return to EverBank Field is a long, long, long way from a homecoming game.
Who will start at quarterback for the Jaguars? Will there be changes in scheme? How will the team deal with a 0-3 start?
All are issues, but perhaps the biggest issue facing the Jaguars this week is that the Colts – the Jaguars' longtime AFC South rival – appear to have built themselves again into one of the best teams in the AFC and a division- and conference-title contender.
The Colts, after a home loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 2, went on the road this past Sunday for a 27-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, a team many expect to contend for NFC West and NFC Championships this season. That left the Colts 2-1, tied with the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans for first place in the AFC South.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, have lost their first three games of the season and have struggled for consistency offensively, particularly early in games. They have been behind by at least 16 points in every game this season, and have lost by at least double digits in all three games.
Head Coach Gus Bradley on Monday announced quarterback Blaine Gabbert will start Sunday after missing the last two games with a 15-stitch laceration on his right hand. Gabbert started the opener before sustaining the injury, with Chad Henne starting the last two games in his place.
Bradley also said after a loss in Seattle Sunday that the coaches are evaluating the first three games to ensure the team is doing everything possible scheme- and game plan-wise possible to succeed. The Jaguars have struggled in run-blocking in the first three games, but Bradley said the team won't move entirely from the zone-blocking scheme approach implemented in the offseason.
The Colts, just two years after a 2-14 season, have quickly re-emerged as title contenders – thanks in large part to second-year quarterback Andrew Luck and to a team that believes it is finding a new, harder-edged identity compared to past Colts teams. The Colts qualified for the playoffs in storybook fashion last season, finishing 11-5 despite the prolonged absence of Head Coach Chuck Pagano as he underwent treatment for leukemia. Luck has emerged as one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks, and last week he scored the clinching touchdown in the upset victory at San Francisco Sunday. But the Colts believe this team is about more than the quarterback. Their focus is on building a balanced offense that can run when necessary, which was one reason they traded their 2014 first-round selection last week for Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Richardson rushed for just 35 yards on 13 carries against San Francisco, but the Colts as a team rushed for 179 yards and played physically against a San Francisco team considered one of the NFL's toughest both offensively and defensively.
The game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m. will be broadcast regionally on CBS 47. Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots will have the call.
Early matchup to watch
Colts running backs Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw versus the Jaguars' defensive front. Yes, stopping Luck is always important against the Colts, and with the Jaguars' young secondary, that's a key matchup. But the Colts' running offense versus the Jaguars' run defense figures to be critical, too. The Jaguars struggled against the run the past two weeks, allowing 226 yards rushing to the Oakland Raiders in Week 2 and 156 yards to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3. Too often in each game, there was simply too much room for opposing running backs. The Colts had success running against San Francisco, and considering their focus on becoming a tough run-oriented team they'll almost certainly test the Jaguars' run defense early and often.
Player to watch
Gabbert. Gabbert won the starting quarterback job midway through the preseason, but missed the final two preseason games with a hand injury before starting the regular-season opener. He sustained the hand laceration in that game, meaning he has played slightly less than a full game since the second week of the preseason. This will be his 26th career start, and while the Jaguars have won just six of those games, Bradley this week lauded Gabbert's approach and talent, saying Gabbert has special talent that the team needed to find a way to utilize. He completed 16 of 35 passes for 121 yards in the opener with two interceptions and no touchdowns, doing so while being sacked seven times and playing without wide receiver Justin Blackmon and tight end Marcedes Lewis.
What to watch
*The Jaguars will be young in the secondary Sunday against Luck; the question is how young. Veteran corner Alan Ball (groin) missed Sunday against Seattle, but Bradley said he could return against Indianapolis. Safety Dwight Lowery sustained a concussion in Seattle and his status will be a storyline all week. With Lowery and Ball out, the Jaguars played three rookies – safeties Johnathan Cyprien and Josh Evans and cornerback Demetrius McCray – along with veteran Will Blackmon for the final three quarters in Seattle. None of those players were on the roster in early April. The factor keeping the Jaguars from an all-rookie secondary Sunday was the absence of rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz, a starter who is expected to miss at least another week with an ankle sprain.
*Blackmon sustained a head contusion, but his situation isn't considered as serious as that of Lowery, who will begin the week in the concussion program.
*The status of tight end Marcedes Lewis, out the first three regular-season games with a calf injury, will be unknown as the week begins. Bradley said Monday he is improving and that an MRI early this week showed only scar tissue, which Bradley said was a positive.
*Wide receiver Justin Blackmon will serve the final game of his four-game, season-opening suspension Sunday. He is expected to return at St. Louis in Week 5.