JACKSONVILLE – Here are ten things to watch Thursday when the Jacksonville Jaguars play the Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in the final 2013 preseason game . . .
1. Chad Henne will start . . .The veteran backup quarterback will start a second consecutive preseason game in place of Blaine Gabbert, who is out until at least the regular-season opener with a right thumb injury. Henne lost the preseason quarterback competition, but started and threw two touchdown passes in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Saturday. Gabbert is expected to start gripping the ball this weekend with the idea to begin practicing next week, but if Gabbert can't go, Henne will start against the Kansas City Chiefs September 8.
2. . . . but don't blink, or you'll miss it. Look for Henne and most starters to play 10-to-15 plays against Atlanta. The idea is to get players such as offensive tackle Luke Joeckel and wide receiver Cecil Shorts III – each of whom missed preseason repetitions because of injury – reps with the starting group. Henne and the starters likely will play a series or two, but if the first series is extended, it could be just one.
3. Don't look for Maurice Jones-Drew.Head Coach Gus Bradley this week said veterans such as Jones-Drew, middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and defensive tackle Roy Miller will be game-time decisions, but that the team will err on the side of caution. Caution in Jones-Drew's case probably will mean not playing. There's no need to risk injury with him.
4. Knocking off the rust.Shorts really wants to play this game. More than that, he wants to play a little longer than the other starters. He was practicing at a high level before missing two preseason games with a calf injury. He said he's not quite back to that level, but he's close. An additional series or two Thursday, he said, could get him there.
5. Continuity continued . . .The offensive line allowed seven sacks last week, including four by the starting group. The starters weren't thrilled with that, but overall, they played well enough for the team to score three touchdowns while the starters were in the game. That group has played well the last two weeks, and with starter Luke Joeckel, getting a series or two for more continuity will be a focus on Thursday.
6. . . . but depth needed.The Jaguars are looking for depth along the offensive line. Eugene Monroe, Will Rackley, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri and Luke Joeckel are the starters, with Cameron Bradfield the third tackle and Mike Brewster the third guard. Austin Pasztor also has worked extensively with the backups. The reserves have struggled at times. Will that group earn roster spots? Will the Jaguars keep scanning the waiver wire? The latter is very possible.
7. Putting in time.Joeckel and Shorts are just two of the projected starters who will get extended playing time. Look for rookie wide receiver Ace Sanders to maybe play with Shorts, along with tight end Allen Reisner. Defensively, look for cornerback Dwayne Gratz and safeties Johnathan Cyprien to get additional work. They'll be playing key roles early in the season, and Bradley said this week in their case, the benefit of extra reps outweighs the risk.
8. The last glimpse.Wide receiver Justin Blackmon won't play the first four games of the regular season because of a suspension. He practiced for the final time before that suspension Tuesday, and he won't be able to practice again until Week 5. The Jaguars played Blackmon into the second half on Saturday against the Eagles. He has performed well in the two games he has played, but don't look for him to play as much Thursday.
- A pass rush. **The Jaguars sure want to see pressure, because if there has been a concern in the preseason, that has been it. The defensive front had two sacks against Philadelphia Saturday, and there have been glimpses of pressure. But there have been too many instances when quarterbacks have had too much time to throw. Most quarterbacks in the NFL are good enough to beat a young secondary such as that of the Jaguars if they have time, so some way, somehow – by talent, by effort, by blitz—the Jaguars must create pressure.
10. The bubble.The Jaguars have been about competition since Bradley arrived as head coach. On Thursday, that competition reaches a crescendo for reserves. Players such as defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith, cornerback Marcus Trufant, defensive end Andre Branch, defensive end Ryan Davis are fighting for roster spots. Only so much gets decided in a final preseason game. But in other cases, such as the fullback battle between Lonnie Pryor and Will Ta'ufo'ou, a solid performance could make a difference. Either way, if you think the fourth quarter of a preseason game is meaningless, you're wrong. To the guys battling for roster positions, it's some of the most important football of their careers.
11. (Bonus, bonus, bonus!!!) With apologies to Spinal Tap, this one goes to 11 – and No. 11 goes to the quarterback position. Bradley said Tuesday the team hadn't decided whether Henne will be replaced by Matt Scott or veteran Mike Kafka Thursday. This was before the team acquired Ricky Stanzi off waivers, giving them five quarterbacks. The guess here is Matt Scott will replace Henne Thursday, with Kafka playing next and Stanzi likely not being familiar enough with the playbook to play. As for what happens at quarterback after that, a lot depends on Gabbert's health. If Gabbert's healthy, he will start with Henne as backup, and Scott could be on the practice squad. If Gabbert's not ready for Kansas City, Henne starts and the question could become whether or not you're more confident in Kafka, Stanzi or Scott as your backup. There may not be a clear answer to that for another day or two.