JACKSONVILLE – The urgency is real. Really, really real.
We won't call Sunday in Cincinnati a must-win game for the Jaguars, if only because that's a tough trap to escape in the NFL. What do we call next week's game if this one's so critical?
But Sunday has a critical feel. Really, really critical.
The Jaguars have lost two consecutive games – one close and encouraging, one discouragingly and decidedly not close – and that means they're 1-2 headed to Paul Brown Stadium. The momentum of a Week 1 victory over Indianapolis and the good feeling of good performance in a Week 2 loss at Tennessee? Those things are gone.
The Jaguars last Thursday did more than lose to the Miami Dolphins. They lost on national television in one-sided fashion, and the 31-13 loss continued a disturbing early-season trend of slow starts – not only by a defense that has allowed touchdowns on all three game-opening drives this season, but by an offense that has yet to score on its first drive.
Now, the Jaguars travel to Cincinnati to play a second winless team in as many weeks. It's too early in the season to say one team should beat another because of record. But it's not too early to say a game looms important. A 2-2 record feels much different than 1-3, and 1-3 for the Jaguars would mean a three-game losing streak after that uplifting Week 1 victory.
It would also mean missing a chance to beat a team starting a rookie quarterback, one that won just two games last season.
No, this is big for many reasons for the Jaguars – and one they need to win.
Here are 10 things they must do to make it happen:
1.Get a first-drive stop. This has been discussed ad nauseum this week. Nauseum or not, the fact remains: The Jaguars have trailed after the first quarter in all three games this season and have allowed 35 first-quarter points. The early deficits start with the woes on the opponents' first possession.
2.Get a first-drive score. The early-game defensive struggles have been well-documented. But the Jaguars this season have yet to score on their first offensive drive of the game. Head Coach Doug Marrone is considering taking the ball instead of deferring if the Jaguars win the toss. If the offense can't score early, a change in philosophy may not matter.
3.Pressure Joe Burrow. The Cincinnati rookie quarterback looks special. He's tough, accurate and he has talented skill players. The Bengals have allowed a league-high 14 sacks in three games, but the question is whether a Jaguars pass rush that has three sacks in three games can pressure without blitzing. Pressuring with linebackers isn't the Jaguars' normal approach. With the way the pass rush is struggling, it may be time to go outside the norm.
4.Cover. The Jaguars didn't do it nearly well enough against Miami, and the lack of pass rush has as much to do with those coverage struggles as the front seven. The Bengals have talented skill players. Coverage must improve. A lot.
5.Make Minshew-to-Chark a thing. Wide receiver DJ Chark's absence with a chest/back injury was felt big-time against the Dolphins. If he's back this week, the Jaguars must get him involved. The combination of Chark and quarterback Gardner Minshew II is this offense's best chance for chunk plays. It's also the best chance to pick up key first downs. Chark's their best, most-explosive player – and his return gives them a chance to their scoring back into the high 20s.
6.Run. The Jaguars have felt at their best this season when running effectively – and rookie James Robinson has run effectively more often than not. This is why scoring early and getting an early stop matters. It's hard to run when you're down 14-0. The Jaguars should be able to do this; the Bengals have struggled against the run for three seasons and those struggles have continued this season.
7.Force turnovers. This starts with pressuring Burrow, and the lack of pressure is a reason the Jaguars have struggled to create takeaways this season. They have lost the turnover statistic 2-0 twice this season – and lost both games. They won the statistic in the opener and won. Look for that to be a season-long trend.
8.Convert third downs. The Jaguars entered Week 3 converting 62.5 percent and not coincidentally had played well in Weeks 1 and 2. They converted 30 percent in Week 3 and the game never was close.
9.Get the ends blocked. The Bengals aren't great against the run, but their ends – Carlos Dunlap, Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson – can create pressure of the edge. The focus will be on Jaguars offensive tackles Jawaan Taylor and Cam Robinson Sunday.
10.Gut it out. Some games you just must find a way to win. Marrone talked throughout training camp and the early season about liking this team's fight. Sunday's a time to show it.