JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium Cleveland, Ohio
1.Stop the run.This is always key for the Jaguars; if the NFL's third-ranked defense has had trouble this season – at least before acquiring defensive tackle Marcell Dareus – it has been defending the run. It's particularly important against the Browns, who have struggled offensively at times this season but who are at their best when they run effectively. They ran for 201 yards and more than six yards per carry Sunday, which helped them to one of their most competitive losses of the season in a 38-24 loss to Detroit. When teams stop their run, the Browns have struggled at times to protect rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer. The good news for the Jaguars on this front? They have improved from 32nd to 25th against the run since acquiring Dareus, allowing 58 yards per game in the last two games.
2. Run, and maintain possession.These two elements are listed as one key because they feel like the same key – and the combination of the two could be important if weather reports hold through Sunday. Forecasts call for a chance of precipitation and a high of around 38 degrees. With or without snow, conditions could make for sloppy conditions – and the team that protects the ball in those conditions should have an advantage. The Jaguars theoretically should be built to play in difficult conditions. That's what defense-, run-oriented teams are supposed to be. After struggling to run against the Los Angeles Chargers this past Sunday, this week against Cleveland would be a good time to return to form. This is a game the Jaguars should control and the best way to control the game is to run.
3. Maintain intensity.The Jaguars in most of their nine games this season have played with feverish intensity, particularly on defense. That has helped them to 6-3 and a tie for first place in the AFC South. But this version of the Jaguars never has entered a game nearly as heavily favored as they will be Sunday, and that's a new challenge. The Browns are in the middle of what they see as a multi-year rebuild, having finished 1-15 last season and starting 0-9 this season. They are young, inexperienced and have made the mistakes such teams make. But they also played one of their best games of the season last Sunday and led Detroit – a potential playoff team – late in the third quarter. This Jaguars should be hungry and motivated enough to avoid a letdown Sunday, and the guess here is it won't be an issue.
1.Run the ball.Simple, but after last Sunday it's worth reminding you the Jaguars aren't the same team when they can't run the football. Running establishes tempo, allows Blake Bortles to stay ahead of the chains and allows offensive coordinator Nate Hackett to use the entire playbook. It also gives the defense a chance to catch its breath, which cannot be underestimated; the unit's energy level in the fourth quarter will be crucial down the stretch this season. It's a big ask this week against a good Browns defense on a day on which the weather will dictate that it's a running-the-football kind of day.
2.Dominate on defense. They should be able to do this against Kizer, who is without All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas and whose right tackle likely is out this week with a concussion. The Browns' receivers shouldn't be a problem for Jaguars cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and company – if the weather even lets the teams put the ball in the air. You can go up and down the lineup and see where the Jaguars win nearly every matchup. Where the game really tilts in their favor is with a defense that has 18 takeaways against an offense that leads the league with 23 giveaways. If they can get the whole 'Sacksonville' thing rolling in the 'Land of Cleve,' they should be able to toy with the Browns offense.
3.Ignore the weather. It's going to be cold and windy, but it won't be like Green Bay in 1967; in other words, this won't be the Ice Bowl. Put on warm socks and put the weather out of your head. Nothing will look better to the Browns than their opponent from Florida struggling to deal with the cold. Nothing will tell them they can get you in the fourth quarter – when your mind is telling your body the game is almost over – than a bunch of guys hanging out in front of those big jet heaters looking at the clock. Tell yourself this is what the playoffs will be like in Pittsburgh, New England or Kansas City and use it as an opportunity to get used to the cold weather. If that doesn't work, it's supposed to be 75 degrees the next Sunday in Phoenix – so you have that going for you.