JACKSONVILLE – It's here. Strange as that may seem.
The Jaguars will play host to the Indianapolis Colts at TIAA Bank Field Sunday in a 2020 regular-season opener that will be as unusual as the months that led to it.
COVID-19, the accompanying protocols and social distancing – and the lack of a preseason – made the leadup to the '20 regular season unprecedentedly strange.
An opener with 25 percent capacity will be odd, too.
But strange or not, the regular season is at hand. And for the Jaguars, the buildup for that season has been newsy and dramatic as they parted ways with three 2019 starters – running back Leonard Fournette, safety Ronnie Harrison and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue – in the last two weeks.
The flurry caused many observers to view the season from the perspective of 2021 NFL Draft position more than competing in the 2020 regular season, but make no mistake:
That's not the perspective of players and coaches, with General Manager David Caldwell last week summing up the team's approach: "Let us play this season. Don't count these players out."
Caldwell also set the early tone in another way, noting that the team's first two opponents – the Colts and Tennessee Titans – are postseason contenders, with many considering the Colts a Super Bowl favorite. He correctly noted that the Jaguars will know quickly where they stand against some of the AFC's best teams.
The Jaguars late-season schedule is daunting. And it stands to reason that a young team needs to play well and win at home early to establish confidence.
What must the Jaguars do to beat the Colts in the regular-season opener?
Here are 10 things:
1.Play well up front. Offensive line may be the Jaguars' most important position. It's certainly its most experienced. How the group performs may well determine the effectiveness of the offense. That's asking a lot of that group. It needs to deliver beginning Sunday.
2.Get Gardner going … quickly. Gardner Minshew II's quest to show he is a franchise quarterback begins Sunday. One area he must improve from his rookie season: A tendency for slow starts and inconsistent stretches. A quick start Sunday would give him and the Jaguars much-needed early confidence.
3.Get the kid involved. Jaguars rookie Laviska Shenault Jr. has rare tackle-breaking ability for a receiver – and scored seven rushing touchdowns in college. However the Jaguars do it, he must get touches.
4.Pressure the nemesis. The Jaguars must pressure quarterback Philip Rivers with the Colts the same way they had to pressure him when he was played for the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. They didn't do it often enough in nine previous meetings with Rivers. They must do it Sunday.
5.Stop the run. The Jaguars didn't do it nearly enough last season. They tried to bulk up the defensive interior in the offseason, but the COVID-19 opt out of defensive tackle Al Woods and retirement of defensive lineman Rodney Gunter left the area thinner than expected. The free-agent signing of defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan could counter those losses. Sunday won't be easy. Even with the addition of Rivers, the Colts are a run-first team – and one of the NFL's best offensive lines makes them very good at it.
6.Stop the breakouts. The Jaguars allowed far too many breakout plays last season, particularly against the run. Signing middle linebacker Joe Schobert and moving Myles Jack to the weak side should help on that front. So, too, should starting Josh Jones at strong safety in place of Harrison. The Jaguars may not be great against the run this season, but if they can turn 50-yard runs into eight-yard runs that will be a big improvement.
7.Score early. The Jaguars struggled here too often last season, and Minshew struggled in too many first halves. He has impressive poise late in games, but it's hard to win consistently in the NFL with late-game magic. Better starts will mean depending less on late-game heroics.
8.Let Allen loose. Jaguars second-year defensive end Josh Allen has the look of a future All-Pro – a team leader capable of wrecking games. If the Jaguars' defense can stop the run and create pass-rushing situation, he can disrupt Rivers. But stopping the run must get done first.
9.Play smart. Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone has placed an emphasis on reducing penalties and mistakes. He said he likes what he saw on that front in training camp. It needs to translate to game day.
10.Ignore the noise. The great thing about professional football is power polls don't matter. What matters is what happens on the field. There's a lot of noise in the system about what the Jaguars will or won't be this season. They can quiet some of it by winning Sunday.