JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams at EverBank Field in Jacksonville
1. Leonard Fournette, Jaguars running game.It doesn't take an insider to know this, but the Jaguars' offense goes as Fournette and the running game go. The Jaguars lead the NFL in rushing, and they rushed on 37 of 53 offensive plays in a victory at Pittsburgh Sunday. They also rushed on 18 consecutive second-half plays. While those numbers are unlikely on a weekly basis, the Jaguars likely won't abandon the approach. Fournette has rushed for 466 yards and five touchdowns, and has scored in all five games. The Jaguars' concern Sunday: the Rams are a more talented defense than their 27th-ranking against the run indicates, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald is one of the NFL's best at his position.
2. First-half defense.A lot of positive threads have run through the Jaguars' 3-2 start. Oft-overlooked has been the defense's ability to not only keep games close, but to create first-half leads. The Jaguars' defense this season has allowed one first-half touchdown – a 75-yard run on which defenders failed to touch Jets running back Bilal Powell down. Aside from that, the Jaguars have allowed five first-half field goals. The Jaguars have forced five first-half turnovers this season, but while the defense has created most of its chaos in the second half (10 takeaways, seven sacks), first-half performances have kept the Jaguars in games enough to create second-half opportunities. The Jaguars have trailed at halftime once this season – 6-3 to Tennessee in Week 2. They were tied with the New York Jets, 10-10, in Week 4 and led in all three of their victories – 19-0 at Houston, 23-0 over Baltimore and 7-6 at Pittsburgh.
3. Slowing Todd Gurley.When the Jaguars' defense has struggled this season, it has been against the run. They rank 31st in the NFL in the area, and Rams running back Todd Gurley can exploit the defense as the Jets did in Week 4 – and as Titans running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry did in Week 2. Gurley has rushed for 405 yards and five touchdowns on 100 carries, but the Colts held him to 40 yards on 19 carries in Week 1 and he rushed for 43 yards on 14 carries against Seattle Sunday. Stopping Gurley is key; that would enable the Jaguars to rush the passer, which has been their formula for an NFL-best 20 sacks and 15 takeaways. The Rams have allowed six sacks in five games, but their 10 giveaways – three interceptions, seven lost fumbles – are the fourth most in the NFL.
*Sexton … *
1. The interior of the Jaguars' offensive line. Donald is a baaaad man. The Rams defensive tackle looks like an all-time great – and this is only his third NFL season. He's incredibly quick and powerfully disruptive – and if the guards and center aren't on their game, he's prone to wreck the offensive line from the very first snap. You would like to have your starting center and the best offensive lineman on your team, Brandon Linder, back in the lineup this week to help neutralize Donald. However, backup center Tyler Shatley played very well in Pittsburgh Sunday for an offensive line that gouged the Steelers in the fourth quarter with 18 rushing attempts, many of them greater than 10 yards and most of them moving the chains and eating the clock. No matter who plays in the middle, the impact of Donald on the Jags' running game will go a long way toward telling the story of the game.
2. Jalen Ramsey and the best secondary in football. Those are his words, and those of his teammates last weekend in Pittsburgh. Who can dispute them? Ramsey, the Jaguars' second-year cornerback, in 21 games has evolved into the NFL's best cornerback and his impact goes far beyond whomever he is covering. He tilts the field the other direction, because average quarterbacks won't throw anywhere near him; even the great ones – ask Ben Roethlisberger – are hesitant. It's difficult to see their ceiling because Ramsey is still so young and fellow corner A.J. Bouye isn't exactly long in the tooth; they've played just five games together. Mix in a safety tandem that has four interceptions between them and the Jaguars' secondary has eight this season – and more, many more to come. On Sunday they get a hot young quarterback (Jared Goff) with a trio of explosive receivers led by Sammy Watkins, who got behind Ramsey for a 62-yard completion in Buffalo last November. Rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp also already has made a name for himself in five games. Consistency has been the buzzword in the Jaguars' locker room; this week they need their secondary to stay at the top of their game.
3. The Jaguars receivers' ability to make plays. They didn't have to last week in Pittsburgh, but when they were needed late in a Week 4 loss to the New York Jets, the Jaguars' receivers were absent. Arrelious Benn was hit for a holding penalty on what should have been Fournette's game-winning touchdown and Marqise Lee dropped a pass that would have set up a game-winning overtime field goal. It is highly likely the Rams will put the vast majority of their defensive resources near the line to avoid having their 27th-ranked run defense embarrassed as badly as the Steelers 28th-ranked unit was by Fournette. That means Lee, Allen Hurns and whoever else is on the field must take advantage of their shots when the ball comes their way. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles made a couple of game-winning plays in New York, but his receivers didn't help him. He's going to need to take a couple shots against Los Angeles this week; those guys better step up big.