JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
1.Stop Ezekiel Elliott. The major midweek Jaguars storyline will be offensive injuries, but stopping the Cowboys’ running back will be No. 1 on Sunday. While the Cowboys are struggling offensively with a diminished passing offense, there’s nothing diminished about Elliott. The third-year veteran remains one of the NFL’s elite running backs; he not only can score from anywhere on the field, he and a physical offensive line can control tempo and drain clock at the end of the game if they’re holding a lead. Don’t let the Kansas City Chiefs’ 424 yards last week fool you into thinking the Jaguars’ defense is struggling; it’s still capable of carrying this team – and it may need to do just that over the next few weeks. The first task is to take away Elliott, something that makes a Jaguars defensive front better known for rushing the passer critical this week. Tackle Marcell Dareus? Tackle Abry Jones? End Calais Campbell? Linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith? You want to them flying and penetrating this week. If they do, the Jaguars should be able to get Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott into passing situations. That’s advantage, Jaguars.
2.Establish the run – or at least the threat of the run. The first thought on this front is the Jaguars need running back Leonard Fournette on the field; his hamstring has turned into a season-defining issue. But the Jaguars need to run effectively even with Fournette out. The Jaguars rushed 17 times in a 30-14 loss to the Chiefs last week, with 69 passing plays called compared to 15 running plays. Some of that was because Fournette and third-team Corey Grant were unavailable, leaving T.J. Yeldon and Brandon Wilds as the only available backs. Some of that was because the Chiefs were leading by double digits for most of the game’s final three quarters. Whatever the reason, and whatever the personnel, 70-some passing plays is not the Jaguars’ formula for offensive success. The Jaguars don’t need to run for 150 yards. They don’t need to outrun the Cowboys. But they do need the constant threat of the run – or at least the threat of it – in this offense. The offensive line is beat up and struggling to pass block. Defenders must at least respect the run to give Blake Bortles more time than he had against the Chiefs last week.
3.Get Bortles reestablished – and that means reducing turnovers. The Jaguars’ fifth-year quarterback struggled mightily against the Chiefs, prompting many to believe he had regressed to his pre-2017 form. If the Jaguars are going to get where they want to go this season, that can’t be the case – and the guess here is it’s not. Bortles hasn’t been bad this season, but he has been inconsistent; he has struggled in Weeks 1, 3 and 5 and played some of his best career games in Weeks 2 and 4 – victories over the New England Patriots and New York Jets. The key for Bortles, as always: eliminating turnovers. He committed five last week; that included three in a baffling, game-turning second quarter. The Jaguars don’t need 400 yards passing from Bortles. What they need is Bortles making a few plays with his legs, one touchdown pass and no more than one turnover. If he does that, the Jaguars’ offense should function enough on a day when the defense should have an advantage.
1.(Re)discover the running game. It’s who the Jaguars are and sets up everything they want to do. These Jaguars thought they would roll into the season with Fournette running behind a powerful offensive line – with the option of going with Yeldon or Grant, or maybe both at the same time. They aren’t close to that, and they’re left to rebuild around Yeldon, 11-year veteran Jamaal Charles and David Williams – the latter of whom was working last week on the Denver Broncos’ practice squad. Injuries aside, the passing game isn’t the same without a functional running game. Bortles needs to throw 31 times – not 61 as he did against the Chiefs; throwing that much forces the defense to play much longer than anyone can reasonably expect. The Jaguars won’t win if they can’t run, which means they must figure out a way to move the ball with whomever is blocking or running.
2.Elliott is everything in Dallas. Elliott is the NFL’s leading rusher and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry against defenses stacking the box to keep him in check. It reminds me of 2011 when Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew led the league with 1,606 yards rushing despite the NFL’s worst passing game. Big playmaking receivers and tight ends are gone, and the Dallas offensive line – long its calling card – doesn’t look as good as in recent seasons. Prescott has a big arm but no explosive threats, so stopping Elliott – who is more than 50 percent of the Cowboys’ offense – is all the Jaguars need to do. It’s worth noting that the third-year runner also is the Cowboys’ top receiver, which tells you how Dallas is rolling with its 2-3 record.
3.Protect the football. Eight giveaways and only two takeaways for the Jaguars in the last two week equals minus-6, which means the Jaguars probably should be 2-3 instead of 3-2. There isn’t much more to say than “that can’t continue.” Giveaways take away from your offensive possessions and add to your opponents’ offensive possessions. A short field from a defensive takeaway can help a struggling offense, and a key giveaway can crush a struggling offense. The offense needs to take better care of the football and the defense needs to create more takeaways.