JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis
1.Getting the backs involved.This starts with second-year running back Leonard Fournette's likely return, but it doesn't end there. Fournette, who missed six of eight games before the Jaguars' Week 9 bye with a hamstring injury, practiced Monday and Wednesday and appears likely to play Sunday for the first time since Week 4. Even if Fournette plays, the Jaguars must reemphasize the entire running-back group – a threesome that now includes T.J. Yeldon, Fournette and Carlos Hyde. Jaguars running backs have yet to combine for a 100-yard rushing game, which is a telling statistic for a team that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing last season; a healthy trio would seem the best chance to reshape that statistic. Also: If healthy, that's the Jaguars' most-talented skill-position group – and Yeldon and Fournette can also help in the passing game. The Jaguars' offense looked good at times early in the season and preseason when backs were featured in the flat and in the screen game. Can offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett get back to some of the two-back, run-pass-option creativity the unit was showing before early-season injuries to Fournette and Corey Grant? The season could depend on it.
2.Scoring early.Yes, this is generic and obvious – and yes, every NFL team wants to score early. But for the Jaguars, it is an absolute must – and a season-defining storyline. The Jaguars have yet to overcome a deficit this season, and their three blowout losses – at Kansas City and Dallas and home against Houston – came in games in which they trailed by double digits early. The Jaguars did not score a first-half touchdown during their four-game October losing streak, with early deficits/offensive struggles limiting the defense's ability to rush the passer and create turnovers. If this team is to return to its ideal identity – running well and creating havoc defensively – it can't play from behind. The first quarter and a half Sunday could be key: It's just hard to imagine this offense coming back from two scores behind. Needing to score early puts a tremendous amount of pressure on this struggling offense, but that's the reality.
3.Creating havoc.The bottom line: After spending the 2017 season routinely creating havoc, the Jaguars' defense hasn't created enough of it in 2018. This can be attributed to the offense not scoring enough to get the defense a lead; even the best NFL defenses need leads to get opposing offenses in uncomfortable enough situations to create sacks and turnovers. The defense showed good signs in this area against Philadelphia the week before the bye: four sacks, an interception, a forced fumble. Considering the team's offensive struggles, it likely will need more such performances – possibly with some defensive touchdowns added to the mix – to turn the season around. That is a lot to ask of a defense – but again, that's this team's reality.
1.Knowing the score.The Jaguars' season was supposed to end with a deep playoff run – maybe the Super Bowl. Now, it looks like it could end this Sunday in Indianapolis or the next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every game the rest of the way essentially is a playoff game with the Jaguars three and a half games behind the Houston Texans with only eight games to play. Mix in the Titans, Dolphins, Ravens, Bengals and Colts, who are all fighting for the sixth and final playoff spot, and you have little margin for error. The Jaguars were thought to be a Super Bowl contender because they were a talented and well coached football team. Much of that talent and all the coaches are still on the sidelines and the schedule isn't Murderer's Row. Now is a good time to be focused on the moment.
2.Recapturing the old glory. Fournette is back and the Jaguars need to ride him like he's Secretariat at Churchill Downs. The No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft is the cornerstone of the offense; his absence has crippled their ability to do what they want to do. They're still missing pieces with left tackle Cam Robinson, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and wide receiver Corey Grant on injured reserve. Still, if Fournette is what he's supposed to be the running game will set up play action – which Blake Bortles does best – and give the defense the chance to rest so they can chase the quarterback. I get that people will be wary of Fournette, but if he practices all week they shouldn't hesitate to play him the entire game in Indianapolis – with the occasional Hyde and Yeldon replacement to keep the defense off balance.
3.Getting the quarterback.The Colts haven't allowed a sack in three consecutive games, but they have played the Bills, Jets and Raiders – who don't generate a ton of pressure. The Jaguars have Pro Bowlers and All Pro defenders on all three levels, showing against the Eagles that the rush was dormant but not dead. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck gets rid of the ball in a hurry and you can be sure Head Coach Frank Reich won't want to expose his quarterback's rebuilt shoulder to the Jags' defense. Still, as Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue expressed in the locker room earlier this week: You can force him to hold the ball if you win on first and second down. That's what the Jaguars must do to put Luck in difficult circumstances Sunday.