JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser sets the table by examining key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Tennessee Titans at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee, Sunday
This is a team that needs a victory.
That's true of any NFL team, but it's particularly true for the Jaguars as they prepare to play their AFC South rivals, the Tennessee Titans, in Nashville, Tennessee, Sunday.
The Jaguars, one of two NFL teams without a victory, have improved in two games since rookie Blake Bortles took over as the starting quarterback. They pushed San Diego for a half two weeks ago, then had a chance late against Pittsburgh Sunday before losing, 17-9, at EverBank Field.
Bortles, despite throwing two interceptions in each of his three regular-season appearances, has given the offense signs of life. His escape-ability has helped the offensive line, which in turn has helped the running game make moderate strides after struggling mightily early in the season.
The offense has struggled to score, partly because of youth. Not only is Bortles starting, two offensive linemen are starting, guard Brandon Linder and center Luke Bowanko, as well as wide receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson. The Jaguars also could get rookie wide receiver Marqise Lee (hamstring) back Sunday, and rookie Storm Johnson is earning more time in the running back rotation.
The Jaguars started seven rookies against Pittsburgh. On average, NFL teams started 1.6 rookies Sunday and if you remove the Jaguars from the equation, teams started an average of one rookie.
The focus offensively this week will be finishing drives, meaning scoring touchdowns instead of field goals.
That's something that could help a defense that played its best game of the season Sunday, holding Pittsburgh to a first-half field goal and a touchdown. The Jaguars are third in the NFL with 16 sacks, and after struggling in coverage against San Diego, they improved that area against Pittsburgh.
The Titans were reeling anyway. Then came this past Sunday.
Like the Jaguars a team looking for early-season confidence, the Titans appeared on the verge of gaining that, taking a 28-3 lead before the Cleveland Browns rallied for an historic 29-28 victory.
The game marked the first time in NFL history a team had led at home by 25 or more points and lost. Instead of being 2-3 playing host to what many in Tennessee see as a winnable game against Jacksonville, the Titans are now 1-4 and two games behind Indianapolis and Houston in the AFC South.
After upsetting Kansas City, 26-10, in the regular-season opener in Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt's debut as head coach, the Titans lost to Dallas (26-10), Cincinnati (33-7) and Indianapolis (41-17) before the loss to Cleveland.
Titans starting quarterback Jake Locker sustained a thumb injury against Cleveland. His status for the Jacksonville game is uncertain and may not be known until later in the week. Charlie Whitehurst finished the Cleveland game for Locker, and will start Sunday if Locker is out.
The Titans also will be without safety Bernard Pollard for the rest of the season after rupturing his Achilles Sunday. George Wilson or Daimion Stafford could replace Pollard.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars running backs Toby Gerhart/Jordan Todman/Denard Robinson/Johnson versus Titans run defense.Ideally, we'd pick one back for a matchup, but the Jaguars' backs after five games are in a very real sense a committee. Johnson could get increased carries after rushing hard and showing decisiveness hitting the hole against Pittsburgh. The Titans rank No. 26 against run with 136.6 yards per game.
*Jaguars safety Johnathan Cyprien versus Titans tight end Delanie Walker.The Jaguars' struggles against tight ends are well-documented. What's not as well-documented is that Cyprien has played well against tight ends in recent weeks, particularly against Antonio Gates of San Diego two weeks ago. Walker has 26 receptions for 364 yards and three touchdowns this season.
*Jaguars defensive end Chris Clemons versus Titans offensive tackle Michael Roos.The Jaguars' front has been solid this season, particularly tackles Roy Miller and Sen'Derrick Marks, the latter of whom leads the team with six quarterback pressures. Clemons has two sacks, three pressures and a forced fumble, and on Sunday will face the underrated Roos, a 10-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl selection who Pro Football Focus rates as the Titans' highest-rated offensive lineman.
Three Jaguars to Watch
*Bortles, quarterback.The Jaguars love the rookie's potential, poise, confidence and future. The next order of business: reduce turnovers. Bortles has thrown six interceptions in three games, with two returned for touchdowns. The Jaguars don't want Bortles playing scared, but over time, the mistakes have to be fewer.
*Allen Hurns, wide receiver.The rookie has three touchdown receptions this season and has been the team's best big-play threat. He also has struggled with drops, with three against the Steelers. Hurns isn't supposed to be a finished product as a rookie free agent, but it's tough to stay in the rotation if the quarterback can't depend on his hands. …
*Demetrius McCray, cornerback.With Dwayne Gratz's status uncertain because of a concussion, McCray remains a possibility to start a second consecutive game at corner for the Jaguars. He fared well against Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, holding him to two receptions and 15 yards on five targets. McCray may have earned more time Sunday. …
Keep an eye on …
*The Jaguars are waiting and seeing on Lee, a rookie who caught eight passes for 73 yards in Weeks 1 and 2. The team announced on Monday Lee could play Sunday after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury. He could practice Wednesday with an update expected the same day.
*Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts III (hamstring) will continue rehabilitation this week. His status will be updated later in the week. Hurns and Allen Robinson have started the last two games. …
*Jaguars cornerback Dwayne Gratz remains in the NFL's concussion program, with more on his status expected Tuesday or Wednesday. Gratz missed Sunday after sustaining a concussion against San Diego. McCray started in his place.
*Jaguars linebacker Dekoda Watson will continue to be evaluated after a shoulder injury Sunday. The team announced Monday it likely will update his status before practice Wednesday. …
*Gerhart sustained a sprained foot Sunday and Todman and Johnson sustained ankle sprains. All are expected to practice Wednesday. …
*Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (arm) is expected to practice Wednesday, as is tight end Clay Harbor (finger). …