JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser sets the table by examining key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Cleveland Browns at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday
They're young and growing.
The pressing question now is when the Jaguars will grow enough to get a victory.
They came close the last two weeks, entering the fourth quarter of losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans with a chance to secure their first victory of the 2014 regular season.
In each game, the mistakes and missed opportunities that have been costly all season hurt the Jaguars, with the result being a second consecutive 0-6 record as the team prepares for Sunday's game at EverBank Field against the Cleveland Browns.
The storyline for the Jaguars' 2014 season rapidly has become youth, and while the quarterback position is by far the most important area where that's an issue, the Jaguars are young all over the offense with eight rookies playing extensively.
Five rookies started on offense in a loss to Tennessee Sunday, including wide receiver Allen Robinson, guard Brandon Linder, center Luke Bowanko and running back Storm Johnson. Rookie wide receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns also played key roles, as did tight end Nic Jacobs.
Quarterback Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, has started the last three games. While he has helped make the Jaguars more competitive, he and the offense have struggled at times to finish drives.
Bortles has completed 97 of 143 passes for 1,004 yards and four touchdowns, and while he has thrown at least one touchdown pass in three of four appearances, he also has at least one interception in each of four games played. He has seven interceptions this season.
That includes two second-half interceptions the last two weeks, with one being returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown by cornerback Brice McCain in a 17-9 Pittsburgh victory two weeks ago and one by cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson stopping a potential go-ahead third-quarter drive in a 16-14 Tennessee victory this past week.
The Jaguars' defense has improved, allowing 33 points over the last two games, though missed tackles and untimely coverage errors remain an issue. The Jaguars missed 15 tackles against the Titans, but the pass rush remains improved with 19 sacks for the season.
Forget what you knew about the Browns in recent seasons. This is an improved version.
The Browns not only have won their last two games to improve to 3-2, they are closer to being undefeated than being under .500.
Their two losses:
*On the road to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season opener, a game they lost 24-21 on a last-play field goal.
*At home to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3, a game they lost 23-21 after leading in the fourth quarter.
Brian Hoyer, a sixth-year veteran who won the starting quarterback battle in the preseason over first-round selection Johnny Manziel, has been more efficient than spectacular, not yet throwing for more than 300 yards in a game but throwing for seven touchdowns and one interception.
Hoyer threw three touchdown passes in the game that turned the Browns' season, a 29-28 victory two weeks ago at Tennessee. The Browns trailed 28-3 at halftime of that game, with Hoyer throwing a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Travis Benjamin to rally the Browns.
The Browns' defense struggled in the first four games of the season, but dominated the Steelers last week, not allowing a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter with the game decided.
The Browns sustained a significant blow this past Sunday when center Alex Mack sustained a season-ending broken leg. Mack had not missed a snap since being drafted in 2009.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars wide receivers Cecil Shorts III and Allen Robinson versus Browns cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine.The Jaguars' had their entire receiving corps Sunday, with Shorts, Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns playing together for the first time with Bortles. Shorts, despite a late-game fumble, caught a career-high 10 passes for 103 yards and showed his importance to the offense. As Bortles plays more with a group that includes three rookies, chemistry should improve. A key matchup Sunday will be Shorts versus Haden, a matchup Shorts won on December 1 of last season when he beat Haden – one of the league's best corners – for a game-winning 20-yard touchdown late in a 32-28 Jaguars victory in Cleveland.
*Jaguars defensive ends Chris Clemons and Andre Branch versus Browns tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz.This is strength versus strength, and it extends beyond these four players. The Jaguars' pass rush by committee – led by a steady defensive front – has 19 sacks, with a lot of the credit going to an interior that has been consistent this season. The Browns' offensive line has been strong all season, with all five starters drawing a positive grade from Pro Football Focus through five games.
*Jaguars safety Johnathan Cyprien versus Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.The success of tight ends against the Jaguars is well-documented, and tight end versus the Jaguars coverage will be a key matchup this week. Cameron has nine receptions for 205 yards and a touchdown this season, and was a factor in the Browns' victory over Pittsburgh Sunday with a 51-yard touchdown reception. Cyprien, key to the Jaguars' defense, has been up and down at times this season – and against the Titans he had several big plays against the run while also allowing seven completions.
Three Jaguars to Watch
*Bortles, quarterback.The rookie remains the biggest story around the team, and that's not changing soon. He has improved each week, completing 32 of 46 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown in Tennessee last week. He has handled pressure well, keeping his eyes downfield despite being sacked six times against the Titans, and he showed poise late as he helped the Jaguars piece together two long drives trailing by nine in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars' young offense is looking for continuity and trying to reduce mistakes, but Bortles remains a bright spot.
*The offensive line.This is usually reserved for an individual, but the Jaguars' offensive line will be a focus Sunday. The unit improved after allowing 10 sacks to Washington in Week 2, but struggled against Tennessee, allowing six sacks with the backs rushing for 44 yards. The faster this group gels the quicker the offense can approach efficiency.
*Storm Johnson, running back.The Jaguars' goal last week was to get Johnson 10 touches. He got that, but got only 21 yards rushing. The line struggled to run block enough that the Jaguars turned to screen passes and short passes to get into better down-and-distance situations. Whoever gets the majority of the carries – and it appears likely that will be Johnson – the Jaguars need production in the running game.
Keep an eye on …
*The Jaguars enter the week relatively injury-free with all wide receivers expected to be healthy for a second consecutive week. At least one of the team's front-line receivers had missed each of the first five games. …
*Branch (groin) and running back Toby Gerhart (foot) will be evaluated Wednesday to determine their availability for practice and status this week. Branch sustained the injury Sunday, with Gerhart missing the game after being limited by the injury that he originally sustained in Week 1. …
*Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny has dealt with a knee contusion in recent weeks, but he played through the issue Sunday. …