JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers at EverBank Field in Jacksonville
1.Keep on running.This is big for the Jaguars' offense every week – and they have maintained their status as the NFL's top running offense despite rookie running back Leonard Fournette missing the past two games. But running effectively is particularly important this week. Chargers pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are two of the NFL's best, and San Diego is at its best when it forces teams into passing situations. Fournette is expected to return this week after last week's one-game punishment for an infraction of a team rule. His return gives the Jaguars the ability to wear down defenses – and to score from anywhere on the field. But with or without him, the Jaguars' running game is effective – and that effectiveness has put quarterback Blake Bortles and the passing offense in manageable down-and-distance situations. Getting into those situations will be key against Bosa and Ingram Sunday.
2.Pressure Philip Rivers.Rivers has been a Jaguars nemesis, particularly in recent seasons. He has won six of seven games against the Jaguars with staggering statistics in the series: a 71.18 completion percentage, 2,119 yards, 19 touchdowns four interceptions – and 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last five meetings. Rivers' efficiency ability to get in out of plays at the line of scrimmage, and his ability to find the right receiver, has brutalized the Jaguars' defense in recent seasons. But here's the catch: Rivers never has played this version of the Jaguars' defense. They lead the NFL in sacks and have the ability play defense in a frenzy. That frenzy can create sacks and pressures, and force turnovers – and that sort of frenzy is the best way to negate a quarterback as good as Rivers.
3.Feel the energy, bring the noise.Something special started happening at the 'Bank this past Sunday. It wasn't just that the Jaguars beat the Bengals, and it wasn't just that they turned in yet another dominant defensive performance. It wasn't even that they maintained a share of first place in the AFC South. It was also about the Jaguars and the crowd at the 'Bank connecting in a real way. Players felt it, and they reveled in it. Fans felt it and they reveled in it, too. Players talked afterward of feeling the crowd's energy in a bigger way than they had felt it in that stadium in a long time. The Jaguars are giving fans a reason to believe, and a reason to cheer – and the fans are responding. This is what Head Coach Doug Marrone meant when he talked about the Jaguars earning home-field advantage. A key on Sunday: Keep earning, and keep feeding.
1.Protect the quarterback.The Chargers and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will send Bosa and Ingram against a Jags offensive line that didn't allow a sack last week – and hasn't in three games this season. This is the best defensive front the Jags have seen since the Jets – and maybe since the Texans in Week 1. Bosa and Ingram aren't just run-forward guys; they're excellent athletes who will smell out screen passes that aren't sold properly and run sideline to sideline to limit the damage. Cam Robinson and Jeremy Parnell both left last week's game with injuries; though both likely will play Sunday, it's not optimal to have your offensive tackles hurting when facing Bosa and Ingram. Jaguars offensive coordinator Nate Hackett has called two very strong games the last two weeks with 926 yards and 50 points; he's going to have to be very clever this week in order for the Jaguars to beat the Chargers up front.
2.Stop the run.Chargers running back Melvin Gordon averages 4.0 yards per carry and he showed explosive capabilities with an 87-yard touchdown run against New England. If you don't stop Gordon, you enable Rivers to use play action – and he's very, very, very effective with the sleight of hand. Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash wants to unleash the hounds against Rivers, but if Gordon is making yards – and he ran for 102 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars last September – then it's going to be very tough to get to Rivers.
3.Understand what's at stake.Forget for a moment the first-place tie with Tennessee in the AFC South; think instead about the AFC Playoff picture at large with the Bills, Jets, Dolphins, Raiders and Ravens all within a game and a half of the Wild Card. The NFL never has been as balanced as it is this year and it doesn't look as if anyone is going to run away from the pack. That means that from here on out, every game is going to feel critical – especially games against AFC teams. Now, back to the division race … the Titans own a half-game advantage and their schedule is only slightly more difficult than that of the Jaguars. They go to Pittsburgh on a short week following Cincinnati on Sunday in Nashville, so it seems as if you have a chance to gain the upper hand if you can hold serve and win at home. It's unreasonable to think the Jaguars will win all eight remaining games, so any chance to gain an advantage now is important. The pressure is on for a team that believes it's a playoff-caliber unit. They must embrace that, enjoy that, and use that to their advantage because it's there whether they like it or not. Sunday is the biggest game of the season so far.