JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for the 2017 home opener against the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
1.Contain Marcus Mariota.The Jaguars dominated their regular-season opener in Houston for many reasons, but the overwhelming statistic was a franchise-record 10 sacks. Not only is Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota more established than either Texans quarterback – Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson – he is more multidimensional than Savage and more accurate than Watson. Pressuring Mariota will be critical, but the challenge is containing him. One approach could be having linebackers Myles Jack and/or Telvin Smith spying on Mariota – particularly in passing situations – and another will be pressuring up the middle. Interior pass rush is key against mobile quarterbacks. This is a day that Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson needs to dominate.
2.Brandon Linder needs to win.This is another big game for center Brandon Linder and the Jaguars' offensive line. The unit surprised many in Week 1 by dominating a Texans front that included pass rushers such as Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus – and rookie Cam Robinson was particularly impressive on the edge. Sunday for the Jaguars will be more about the interior. The Titans' defense ranked second in the NFL against the run last season; a key to the Titans front is defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who long has been one of the league's best at his position. The Jaguars controlled the opener largely because they rushed when they wanted to rush and didn't allow the Texans to know when they were going to pass. A similar will result may take a better performance from Linder and the Jaguars' interior line.
3.Lee and Co. must be big.The Jaguars played exactly as they wanted to play in Week 1 – with a dominant pass rush and effective run game. But while dominating both lines is a weekly goal, it's hard to win with receivers catching five passes for 71 yards and no touchdowns. Those were the receivers' totals against Houston. When the Jaguars beat Tennessee last December, quarterback Blake Bortles shined with one of his best career halves. Considering the strength of the Titans' run defense, Bortles may need a similar day Sunday. He'll also have to operate for the first time since 2014 without wide receiver Allen Robinson, out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Wide receiver Marqise Lee progressed toward being a go-to, front-line receiver last season. That progression must continue for the passing offense to thrive in Robinson's absence, and it may need to progress Sunday.
1.Blake Bortles. Back in the day, we called the Jaguars' defensive philosophy against the Titans "Dare McNair." In other words, the Jaguars were willing to sell out at the line of scrimmage against running back Eddie George and take their chances against the arm of quarterback Steve McNair. Let's call the Titans' likely approach on Sunday "Make Blake" – as in, they'll sell out up front to make sure they don't let Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory crush them for 155 yards as the Jaguars' backs did to the Texans this past Sunday. "Dare McNair" went away in 1999 when McNair threw five touchdowns in a rout of the Jaguars in Nashville the day after Christmas. The only way I see the Titans lightening up at the line of scrimmage against the Jaguars, especially without Robinson on the field, is if Bortles makes them.
2.Dante Fowler Jr.I could put Fowler here every week; I truly believe he is the conductor from good to great. The Jags' defense will continue to be very good with players such as Calais Campbell, Myles Jack, Jalen Ramsey and Co., but to me Fowler is the secret sauce that makes all those talented players that much better. Fowler is the kind of athlete that has an offensive tackle backing up before the snap of the ball, not wanting to look silly if he races by on the way to the quarterback. He and Yannick Ngakoue wreaked havoc on the Texans; as a result Campbell, couldn't be double teamed on every play. The pressure makes Ramsey and A.J. Bouye that much more dangerous – and they are very, very dangerous. Fowler HAS to show up and play like that for the Jaguars to be a great defense. Need proof? He was outstanding in Houston and they're the No. 1 defense in the NFL today. If they want to stay there, he must to play like that every week. That's the catch; last year he rarely played consistent football.
3.Marqise Lee.It's his show now. Lee is an elite athlete capable of explosive plays. He also has a knack for making difficult catches, especially along the sideline, as he did in Detroit, Buffalo and Indianapolis last season. The offense needs him to step into a huge pair of shoes left vacant with Robinson's injured knee and make plays for Bortles.