JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser sets the table by examining key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the New York Giants at EverBank Field Sunday …
The buzz around the Jaguars is clear, and it involves a question:
They need to play better, and need to win …
But can they do it?
The Jaguars (1-10) played competitively for most of late September and October, then followed a Week 7 victory over Cleveland with hard-fought losses to Miami and Cincinnati. Since then, they struggled in a pre-bye loss to Dallas in London, and then came out of the bye with one of their worst offensive performances of the season in a loss to Indianapolis Sunday.
The defense for the most part this season has played well enough to keep the Jaguars in games. They played well on Sunday against Indianapolis, and had similar efforts against Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Cleveland. The offense too often hasn't played well enough to complement the defense.
Focus remains on a young offense eliminating turnovers and finishing drives, as well as how to get rookie quarterback Blake Bortles playing loose while having him avoid the interceptions that have hurt the Jaguars in several games.
How much the Jaguars can improve in those areas could largely determine how they fare the final five games of the season, and how the season will be remembered.
The storyline around the Giants this week involves a familiar face to Jaguars fans.
Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' first head coach and the coach from 1995-2002, will make his second regular-season appearance at EverBank Field as the opposing coach. And because the Giants are not expected to play a regular-season game in Jacksonville for another eight seasons, it likely will be Coughlin's final game coaching in Jacksonville.
Coughlin coached the Jaguars to playoff appearances from 1996-1999, making the AFC Championship Game following the 1996 and 1999 seasons. His eight-year tenure was inarguably the most successful period in franchise history.
There will be other storylines this week, but the pregame focus rightfully will be on the man who defined much of the Jaguars' first decade.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars cornerbacks Demetrius McCray and Dwayne Gratz versus Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr., and Rueben Randle. All eyes around the NFL are on Beckham, Jr., these days. Make a one-handed catch in prime-time like he made against Dallas Sunday, and you get eyes on you. Beckham is about more than one catch, though. The rookie first-round selection has started the last six games and is emerging as one of the better receivers in a very good rookie class for receivers. McCray has played well whatever the matchup this season, and Gratz could be pushed by rookie Aaron Colvin, who played for the first time this season last week in a nickel back role.
*Jaguars pass rush versus Giants quarterback Eli Manning. This isn't a one-on-one matchup, but it's key nonetheless. The pass rush is far and away the Jaguars' strength this season, playing well enough against Indianapolis last week to keep the game close early despite a struggling offense. It's hard to imagine the Jaguars having a chance Sunday without pressuring Manning. The front has played well enough consistently enough that it's easy to imagine the Jaguars getting the pressure they need.
*Jaguars offensive line versus the Giants defensive front. The Giants' pass rush isn't the force it has been in recent seasons. Only six teams have fewer sacks, but with Jason Pierre-Paul the Giants' front is still dangerous. It's difficult to pick out one Jaguars lineman on which to focus for this matchup. The entire line struggled as a group against the Colts last week, allowing too much pressure too often, particularly against the blitz. The area needs to improve in a hurry.
Jaguars to watch
*Bortles, quarterback.He remains the Jaguars' key player to watch, which will be the case for the foreseeable future. He must show more consistency, with Head Coach Gus Bradley saying after the last two games Bortles didn't play his best. Though Bortles has reduced interceptions in recent weeks, he hasn't played with the confidence or swagger with which he began the season. Doing so has been difficult, with the offensive line often not giving Bortles enough time in the pocket to throw downfield. Bortles is unquestionably the Jaguars' quarterback of the future, and his development remains the franchise's most significant storyline.
*Marqise Lee, wide receiver.The rookie showed a flash or two last week against the Colts, and that's important news for him and the franchise. The second-round selection, a critical piece of the team's plans offensively, started slowly this season. He has potential to be a big-time playmaker, and the team would love for him to progress significantly in the final five games.
*Chris Clemons, defensive end.The veteran had a monster game against the Colts, registering three sacks in the first quarter. It's not fair to expect three-sack quarters – or even games – each week. Still, pressuring Manning is key. Clemons and the Jaguars' defensive line have pressured quarterbacks consistently this season and will need to do so again Sunday.
Keep an eye on …
*The Jaguars could get defensive end Andre Branch back this week. His torn groin has kept him out four games, and is the Jaguars' most significant defensive line injury this season. He is expected to start practicing Wednesday, and after originally being expected to be out six weeks, could return Sunday. …
*Linebacker Jeremiah George also could practice Wednesday. He started against Cincinnati in Week 9, and played well before sustaining the high-ankle sprain that has kept him out since. …