JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Carolina Panthers in the 2015 regular-season opener at EverBank Field Sunday
Now, for the real tests …
If there's a theme entering the Jaguars' 2015 regular-season opener against Carolina, that's it.
A lot around the Jaguars – who went 3-13 last season – looked improved throughout the preseason, particularly quarterback Blake Bortles and the first-team offensive line, each of which seemed to improve by the week in three preseason appearances. The team overall wasn't perfect, but the first-team offense's eight scores in 11 preseason drives has generated a lot of confidence around the organization.
No Jaguars quarterback threw an interception in the preseason, and the front-line offensive line allowed just two sacks, keeping Bortles mostly upright after the team allowed 71 sacks last season. Now, those two groups – and indeed the entire team – find out how much translates from the preseason to the regular season.
The defense was more of a preseason concern, with the front-line defensive line not generating significant pressure. The defense also has had to deal with injuries on the front, with starting Leo Andre Branch and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks expected to miss multiple games to start the season with knee injuries.
Also expected to miss the start of the regular season is tight end Julius Thomas, the team's top offseason unrestricted free-agent acquisition. He is out multiple games at the start of the season with a hand injury.
The Panthers went 7-8-1 last season and that was good enough to win a struggling NFC South.
This is a team about quarterback Cam Newton and a very good defense, particularly since the loss of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason. That has caused many observers to question the team's playmaking ability, and could mean a run-oriented offense heavy on Newton and passes to Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olson.
Defensively, the Panthers have an elite linebacker corps featuring middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a secondary they believe will be improved with the additions of cornerback Charles Tillman and strong safety Kurt Coleman.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars defensive front versus Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.The Jaguars' lack of preseason pressure is an issue this week because they'll need to pressure Newton, who is dangerous as a runner and passer. Look for the Jaguars to get creative here.
*Jaguars safety Johnathan Cyprien versus Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.With Benjamin out for the season, the Panthers are thinner at that positon. Olsen is an experienced, reliable target for Newton and the Jaguars have struggled with opposing tight ends in recent seasons.
*Jaguars offensive front versus Panthers defensive front.This area is a concern for the Panthers, who struggled at times to pressure the passer last season. The Jaguars' offensive line looks particularly strong on the right side with guard Brandon Linder and tackle and Jermey Parnell. How this group performs is key Sunday and for the long-term.
Jaguars to watch
*Bortles, quarterback.The second-year veteran has been the Jaguars' player to watch throughout the offseason and training camp – and remains that way entering the regular season. His preseason improvement – poise, accuracy, command of offense was remarkable, the regular season is a different beast, so – as is the case for the offensive line – the real tests start now.
*Luke Joeckel, left tackle.The third-year veteran has been under scrutiny throughout the offseason as he worked to improve his consistency. He spent the offseason improving his size and strength and Head Coach Gus Bradley said several times during the preseason that Joeckel had improved his play against power. Whatever Joeckel does early, he'll be watched closely.
*Aaron Colvin/Telvin Smith, cornerback/linebacker.One way to combat a quarterback such as Newton is pressure. Another way is to force mistakes. The Jaguars' defense didn't register a preseason turnover, but Colvin and Smith are perhaps the team's best defenders in that area.
Keep an eye on …
*Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee. The second-year veteran missed all but three days of practice in training camp and preseason with a hamstring injury – that after sitting out the offseason program with a knee issue. He is considered 50-50 this week. …
*Lee isn't the only Jaguars wide receiver with an injury concern. The team kept Bryan Walters as the fifth receiver; he missed Monday with a hamstring issue and Bradley said early in the week cornerback Nick Marshall could work with the receivers to ease the practice strain on the front-line receivers. …
*Running back Toby Gerhart worked limited Monday after missing the final two preseason games with an abdominal strain. He said he believes he'll play Sunday. If he does, he'll be the short-yardage/third-down back. Aside from Gerhart, the Jaguars' running backs are healthy. …
*Strong safety Johnathan Cyprien is expected to start and play Sunday after missing the final three preseason games. He likely will play with a protective device protecting a finger injury. …