JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Green Bay Packers in the 2016 regular-season opener at EverBank Field
What's the buzz? What else? It's Go Time.
It's the regular-season opener and it's the first game in eight seasons for the historic Green Bay Packers at EverBank Field. But more than that, there's big-time buzz around the young Jaguars. Sunday will have real energy at sold-out EverBank. That's a lot of buzz.
The Packers have quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews. As always, they're expecting to contend for the NFC North title – and at minimum, they're contending for a playoff spot.
The Jaguars have third-year quarterback Blake Bortles and second-year wide receiver Allen Robinson. They're the core of an improving young offense. The team also overturned the defense in the offseason, raising expectations higher for the franchise than any time in nearly a decade.
The Jaguars' first test hardly could be tougher. And that's why there hardly could be more buzz around the 'Bank this week.
The Packers remain one of the NFL's elite franchises. Seven consecutive playoff appearances prove that. The reason they are elite? That's without question Rodgers, one of the NFL's best two or three quarterbacks – and perhaps the NFL's best quarterback, period. His accuracy, vision and decision-making make the Packers perennially one of the NFL's most potent offenses. Rodgers didn't have as elite a season as usual last season, but much of that was because wide receiver Jordy Nelson missed the entire season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. If Nelson's return makes the Packers' offense elite, this team has a chance to contend for the Super Bowl.
Matchups to watch
*Nelson and Randall Cobb versus Jaguars cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, Davon House and Prince Amukamara. The Packers play multiple wide receivers, but the keys are Nelson and Cobb. Nelson didn't play in the preseason while returning from his torn ACL, but he is expected to play Sunday. Cobb struggled last season on the outside, but Nelson's return should allow him to return to the slot – and he's one of the NFL's best there. Ramsey, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, has shown signs of being elite, but is he ready for this matchup in his first NFL regular season game? The Packers likely will want to find out.
*Packers tight end Jared Cook versus Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith/safeties Tashaun Gipson and Johnathan Cyprien. Tight end coverage has been an issue for the Jaguars in recent seasons; teams will test that until it's solved. Cook signed with Green Bay as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and has the talent to hurt a defense that can't cover the middle of the field. The Jaguars need to stop being that sort of defense.
*Jaguars left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right tackle Jermey Parnell versus Packers outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. This is about the Jaguars' offensive line versus the Packers' front. The Jaguars allowed 51 sacks last season, and the line as a whole is considered the team's major question area. Matthews and Peppers remain more than capable of providing rush off the edge. The key could be Beachum, who signed as an unrestricted free agent from Pittsburgh in the offseason. He played just one half in the preseason while returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament but was named the starter over Luke Joeckel late in preseason and is expected to solidify the left side of the line.
Jaguars to watch
*Blake Bortles, quarterback.He remains key. If he continues to show the improvement he made during preseason, the Jaguars have a chance Sunday. If not …
*Allen Robinson, wide receiver.He's the go-to offensive player. Bortles will depend on him. Robinson came up big on countless occasions last season. He must do it again Sunday.
*Tashaun Gipson, safety.The Jaguars signed him as unrestricted free agent in March. The idea: to add a sideline-to-sideline free safety capable of making game-turning plays. No better Week 1 test than Rodgers and the Packers.
The Jaguars have lost their last four regular-season openers and haven't had a winning season since 2007, the season they made their last playoff appearance. The Packers have lost three of their last four regular-season openers and have made the postseason each of the last seven seasons.
Key to victory
The Jaguars must get the Packers into third-and-long and they must pressure Rodgers in those situations. They've talked all offseason about the need to pressure the passer better. Sunday is the first test. If they can pressure Rodgers, they have a chance to get the Packers off the field. If they can't pressure Rodgers on third down … well, we all saw what happened last season when the Jaguars couldn't get teams off the field in passing situations.
Keep an eye on …
*The Jaguars enter the season healthy, having placed offensive tackle Josh Wells on injured reserve with a thumb injury Sunday. He could still return later in the season, but won't be available early. …
*All 53 active players practiced for the Jaguars Monday.