JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Thursday’s game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee
1.Lean on Leonard. This may be the most obvious “key to victory” for any Jaguars game this season. Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette missed this past Sunday’s game while serving a one-game suspension for fighting in a loss to the Buffalo Bills the week before. The Jaguars’ rushing offense stagnated accordingly, producing 79 yards in a 6-0 victory over the Colts after rushing for 179 and 226 in losses to Pittsburgh and Buffalo the previous two games, respectively. The Jaguars tried a new quarterback (Cody Kessler) and a new play-caller (Scott Milanovich) against the Colts, but the reality is the offense looked essentially as it has looked most weeks since injuries overwhelmed the unit in early October. The signs of life since then mostly have centered around Fournette. The Jaguars must take advantage of his return Thursday – and he must produce for the Jaguars’ offense to produce touchdowns rather than field goals.
2.Take some shots downfield – at least a few. Quick, name the last meaningful offensive touchdown the Jaguars scored against Tennessee … It came in the Jaguars’ 38-17 victory over the Titans on Christmas Eve 2016. The Jaguars haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in either of the teams’ last two meetings, and they didn’t score in the teams’ first meeting last season until they trailed 30-3. Breaking that streak Thursday won’t be easy with the injuries and changes on offense, but they figure to need to hit a big or two to do it. Kessler showed little inclination to go downfield in his first start of the season Sunday against Indianapolis, opting to check down to running backs or tight ends far more often than not. The guess here is the return of Fournette will help on this front. If the Titans are concerned about Fournette’s power and breakaway speed that could create chances for Kessler to throw to wide receivers downfield. If the chances are there, he must take them. The Jaguars found a way to win with an offense that wouldn’t look downfield on Sunday against the Colts. It’s difficult to imagine them repeating that on Thursday.
3.Be dominant on “D” again. Is it fair to ask the Jaguars’ defense to repeat its performance from Sunday against the Colts? Of course not. But this team’s reality for the final four games this season is it will need to dominate defensively to win. Here’s the tricky part against the Titans: It’s very possibly to play really well – and to even be dominant – and still not hold the Tennessee offense completely in check. That’s because of quarterback Marcus Mariota’s escapability and knack for the clutch play. This will be a monstrously tough task for the Jaguars’ defense because it must get up again emotionally four days after one of its most emotionally-charged performances of the season. It also must do it on the road on a Thursday night, which historically is difficult on road teams. It also must do it against a physical, scrappy opponent with a quarterback that tests discipline on every play. Yes, a dominant performance is a big ask from this Jaguars defense. But that’s still the Jaguars’ best chance to win.
1.Feed Fournette the football. Before his untimely departure in Buffalo, the second-year running back looked like a dominant player – much more than he did at any point in 2017. He ran with power, with vision and with aggression – plus he has become a fantastic screen back who is a mismatch running downhill against the secondary. If Kessler is to have any chance to show his wares at quarterback, he has to have some balance offensively – something that will give him the chance to keep the defense off balance. Fournette is the best chance of doing that; he should be well-rested after a week off and motivated to play in a prime-time game against a division rival.
2.Find Marcus Mariota. Mariota won’t dazzle you with his numbers: 11 touchdowns, seven interceptions, two rushing scores this season; he isn’t going to the Pro Bowl with numbers like those. But the guy finds a way to disappear from the defense when the game gets tight. He has done it to the Jaguars on third down more often than I can count since he was drafted in 2015, and if you watched any of the Titans’ come-from-behind-victory over the Jets on Sunday you know what I mean. He’s just sneaky good – at least against this team, with three consecutive victories and five in seven starts. You have to know where he is at all times.
3.Don’t beat yourself. The Jaguars on Sunday against the Colts nearly gave the game away in the first half. Senseless penalties put quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts’ offense on the Jaguars doorstep with a first-and-goal; they were utterly stupid penalties that showed little situational awareness. The margin for error is so thin with this team that you can’t put yourself in an uphill battle. If the Colts scored on fourth-and-goal to take a 7-0 lead, would the Jaguars have been able to match them? Who knows? … but I wouldn’t bet on it. The Jaguars must play smart football and not give the Titans anything they don’t earn.