JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
1.Make plays downfield.Cold, sloppy conditions made this unrealistic on a regular basis in Cleveland this past Sunday, but quarterback Blake Bortles' ability to make a few big plays a game to receivers downfield figures to be a key for this offense the rest of the season. That's because teams must continue to stack the box to stop rookie running back Leonard Fournette; if teams don't scheme to stop him, they will lose. The Jaguars' defense is playing at an unreal level, but somewhere along the line some NFL offense this season is probably going to beat them for more than one touchdown. That means somewhere along the line the Jaguars must start scoring more than a touchdown a game offensively. To do that, Bortles must take advantage of the one-on-one coverage his receivers almost certainly will continue seeing on the outside.
2.Pressure Blaine Gabbert.This storyline is too obvious to ignore. Former Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert is now starting for the Cardinals, and this will be his first game against his former team since being traded to the 49ers following the 2013 season. It took injuries to Cardinals starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton to make this matchup happen, but Gabbert threw a career-high three touchdowns in his first start for Arizona last week and the Cardinals appear to have confidence in the seven-year veteran. Gabbert will make mistakes when pressured and the Jaguars are the NFL's best team this season at pressuring and forcing mistakes. The Cardinals have allowed 28 sacks this season and left tackle D.J. Humphries is out for the season. If the Jaguars stop the run enough to turn this game into a rush-and-cover game, chaos could happen and turnovers could follow.
3.Get ahead early.This is always a key for this Jaguars team, because the running game and pass rush make them so good with a lead. But it feels like it matters more this week. The Cardinals are teetering on playoff elimination at 4-6, but this game is the first of three consecutive home games and they still have a chance to save the season. The Jaguars have struggled to score offensively and the defense has needed huge, game-winning and game-clinching plays in the past two weeks. You can only tempt fate so many times. The ideal scenario for the Jaguars Sunday: get an early touchdown and force a turnover to get up double digits. If they do that Sunday, the teetering Cardinals might have trouble coming back against the NFL's best pass rush.
1.Get in Gabbert's face.You couldn't watch Gabbert throw when he was in Jacksonville and criticize his arm strength, athleticism or accuracy. But as Jon Gruden famously pointed out on Monday Night Football, you could absolutely question his poise in the pocket. To be fair, he had no offensive line nor receivers to help while he was here. I would guess if he had any in San Francisco, they would have kept him over C.J. Beathard. But he was the third quarterback in Arizona before Carson Palmer broke his arm, so it stands to reason he still struggles in this area. The Cardinals have one of the all-time great receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, who is still one of the best in the game; that makes him the best Gabbert has ever thrown to. The Cardinals' offensive line is down two starters this season and isn't playing very well. That means the Jags should get to Gabbert. We've seen what happens then.
2.Play smart football. We've seen some bad decisions in recent games: dumb taunting penalties, bad angles on kickoff coverage, or passes that never should have been thrown. A one-game lead in the AFC South can quickly evaporate – and since it's tough enough to win on the road, you don't want to beat yourself. Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone alluded to this in the postgame locker room in Cleveland, and it bears repeating. The Jaguars have cost themselves opportunities in recent weeks to score touchdowns, convert onside kicks and back their opponent up because they haven't played smart football. They've still won, but you better tighten things up and play smart football – especially against a Bruce Arians-coached team that over the years has been very opportunistic.
3.More Marcedes.The Cardinals have two of the NFL's best defensive backs right now in cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu – and maybe a third in rookie safety Budda Baker, who was outstanding against Houston last week. The Jaguars don't have Allen Robinson, likely won't have Allen Hurns and can't reasonably expect Marqise Lee to be available all day with Peterson and Mathieu working to take their best out of the game. That leaves Keelan Cole, Jaydon Mickens, and Dede Westbrook to carry the day. Lewis has been a dependable receiver all season, avoiding the kind of drops that have shown up at times in his career. He's a difficult match-up who could occupy the 5-feet-9 Mathieu and make life easier for Lee – and move a defender out of the box for Leonard Fournette. Lewis might be the best option available for Bortles on Sunday. The Jaguars would be wise make him a big part of their game plan.