JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey
1.Leonard up the middle. There will be more to the Jaguars' game plan Sunday than running back Leonard Fournette, but this much is certain: the Jaguars want to be able to run when and where they want to run this season. That means being able to run over a trio of interior linemen that form the core of the line: All-Pro free-agent left guard Andrew Norwell, center Brandon Linder and right guard A.J. Cann. The Jaguars believe they should be able to run Fournette and T.J. Yeldon effectively there. The Giants likewise believe their run defense up the middle should be a team strength early in the season. The rest of the Jaguars' offense – the run-pass options, the play-action passing by quarterback Blake Bortles – depends at least somewhat on establishing the run. If the Jaguars win this matchup, they probably win Sunday.
2.Batman versus Joker – or 2.0 versus OBJ. However you describe it, you can't talk about Sunday's Jaguars-Giants game without at least mentioning the matchup between Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. We'll call Ramsey "Batman" for this week because Beckham sometimes considers himself the "Joker." The strain Beckham puts on a defense is no joke. He's a threat to take over any game and to score from anywhere on the field. Ramsey is perhaps the NFL's best corner. The Jaguars play zone often enough that Ramsey won't cover Beckham on every play, but when the Jaguars do play man-to-man look for Ramsey to shadow Beckham all over the field. This is far from the only key matchup between the Jaguars' defense and Giants' offense – Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye versus wide receiver Sterling Shepard is nearly as key – but this is a must-watch. Given the talkative history of the players involved, you could also call it a must-listen.
3.Pressure, pressure, pressure. This is going to be key in most Jaguars games this season; that's how it is when you have one of the NFL's deepest, most-talented pass-rushing defensive lines. But the Jaguars' front is particularly key this week. The first task is to stop rookie running back Saquon Barkley, whose playmaking ability means Jaguars linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith must be aware and effective pursuing sideline to sideline. If the Jaguars can stop Barkley, then the game could turn on how effectively a Jaguars pass rush featuring Pro Bowl ends Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell and Pro Bowl tackle Malik Jackson can pressure Giants veteran quarterback Eli Manning. If the Jaguars can harass Manning into a fumble and multiple interceptions, then this game could turn in the Jaguars' favor in a hurry. If not, Manning has more than enough weapons for the Giants to upset the defending AFC South Champions.
1.Bring Sacksonville to New York City. The Jaguars' defense pressured, pursued and generally harassed quarterbacks all the way to the AFC Championship Game last season. Manning is playing behind a rebuilt offensive line which includes Patrick Omameh, who the Jaguars quickly replaced this offseason with the (then) highest-paid guard in football. The Jaguars' defensive line has an advantage nearly every time it takes the field – and that's certainly the case this week. Putting the Giants in long down-and-distance situations also has the added benefit of limiting the impact of Barkley, whose game-altering abilities in college are well-chronicled. If Sacksonville shows up in New York, the Jaguars should overwhelm a retooled offense in its first regular-season game.
2.Set the tempo and own it. The Jaguars doubled down on their "ground-and-pound" personality with the signing of Norwell in March. They led the NFL in rushing yards per game last season, yet when they most needed their ground game it left them in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game last January. A retooled front, a rejuvenated Fournette, a three-deep offensive backfield thanks to an excellent summer from Yeldon and Corey Grant plus the threat of play action give the Jaguars all the tools they need to build the tempo that best fits their game plan. It's imperative that the Jaguars are better this season at doing what they did better than any other team in the league last season; they must run the ball with force.
3.Keep Beckham and Barkley out of the end zone. Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown went off last October when the Jaguars played in Pittsburgh, catching 10 passes for 157 yards – but he didn't score, which was a big factor in that game. You'll recall Brown scoring twice in the AFC Divisional Playoff in January and the game tightened dramatically in the second half. Beckham is going to get his catches and one can only assume a talent such as Barkley is going to get his yards. Still, it will be tough for the Giants to win if you can keep those two from finding the end zone. This isn't a bend-but-don't-break kind of defense, but when you have explosive playmakers like Beckham and Barkley sometimes you have to adjust.