JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
1.Get points defensively or on special teams. The Jaguars' offense is struggling mightily, scoring one meaningful touchdown in three games since Cody Kessler became the starting quarterback and quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich assumed play-calling duties. Given a beat-up offensive line and broken passing game, the Jaguars seem unlikely to score 20 points or sustain many long drives. How do they score enough to win in that situation? By creating opportunities and points on special teams or defense. The defense hasn't scored since a Week 1 victory over the Giants, and the Jaguars' offense isn't getting enough leads to give the defense many opportunities. That leaves special teams. That area nearly sparked the Jaguars to a victory this past Sunday against Washington with wide receiver Dede Westbrook's 74-yard punt return accounting for the Jaguars' lone touchdown and a partially blocked punt by Lerentee McCray setting up a field goal. That was the special teams' most impactful game of the season. The Jaguars may need a similar performance Sunday.
2.Play for pride. This is vague and unexciting; it's also what remains for the Jaguars in a disappointing season. The Jaguars since a mid-October loss to Houston have been competitive in all but one game – a 30-9 loss prime-time loss to Tennessee. Despite their offensive issues, the team has fought hard and given itself a chance to win more often than not. Players such as cornerback Jalen Ramsey have played through injuries, soreness and pain to give the team a chance. That nearly resulted in a victory last week in a 16-13 loss to Washington in the regular-season home finale. The Jaguars have two games remaining, with both on the road. That historically is a tough circumstance for teams eliminated from the playoffs. Can the Jaguars pull an upset in either of the last two games? If they do, pride must play a big part.
3.Pass (somewhat) effectively. It's probably not realistic to think the Jaguars are going to put up big-time numbers passing the rest of the season. Kessler threw for 150 yards in his first start and 240 in his second, but a struggling line and lack of downfield attempts resulted in a Jaguars-franchise-record low 20 net passing yards against Washington. Still, there's a place between elite and where the Jaguars were this past Sunday – and the Jaguars need to at least get to that place. The Jaguars must start by protecting Kessler better; he has been sacked 13 times in three starts. Kessler then must get the ball out quicker; while a beat-up line has struggled, his awareness struggles have caused issues, too. Finally, wide receivers must get open and make plays downfield. Kessler completed just three passes to wide receivers against Washington, and targeted wide receivers just seven times. Somehow, some way that number must improve dramatically for the Jaguars to win Sunday.
1.Protect the quarterback. The offensive line was a sieve last week thanks to four replacement players starting. I don't think Kessler is a starter, but to be fair he was sacked six times against Washington and was forced to save himself – and the play – by scrambling on countless other occasions; he simply hasn't had enough time to work in the pocket. The receivers are capable … at least Westbrook is, although you would think Donte Moncrief should be able to contribute as long as he has time to run his route. Kessler isn't working with much, but what he does have should be able to give him at least a few seconds.
2.Do it again on special teams … Sunday's loss to Washington was easily the best game of the season for the special teams: a blocked punt, a return for a touchdown, strong coverage, a field-flipping 63-yard punt, a replacement kicker making a couple field goals. It's a lot to ask for the unit to do it again. But since we can't realistically ask the offense to score, the pressure falls on special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis and his teams for another Sunday – and another Sunday after that.
3. … or on defense. It's tough to look at a defense that has been largely healthy this season and make excuses for the unit. True, the defense has gotten little help from the offense – and in today's NFL, it's all about the offense. But, a season ago six players from this unit represented in the Pro Bowl; this season only cornerback Jalen Ramsey will go. That says a ton about the falloff on that side of the ball. The optimistic side of me says with the talent likely to return defensively in 2019 a quick turnaround isn't only possible, it's assured. The drawback: I've been waiting all season to see the defense that a season ago was made up of Pro Bowlers and guys with a legitimate beef being subbed … maybe it's not quite as talented as they seemed in 2017.