NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Another week, another chance to be mean.
That’s what it has come to for the Jaguars after 12 games of the 2018 season: yes, a chance to win and feel better about themselves – but also a chance to do bad things to other teams.
A chance to play spoiler? That’s what the Jaguars did to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday and it’s what they can do to the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium Thursday at 8:20 p.m.
And wouldn’t that be just a little sweet for these Jaguars?
The answer is yes. This is, after all, the Titans team that declined to acknowledge the Jaguars’ AFC South title last season – because they beat the Jaguars twice during the regular season. Never mind that the Jaguars won the division at 10-6 while the Titans finished second at 9-7; the Titans after a victory in a bone-chilling regular-season finale declared themselves the real “Kings” of the division.
The Jaguars’ reality is while a 4-8 record is nowhere near what they anticipated, Thursday’s prime-time matchup does give them an opportunity for a second time in three seasons to seriously damage to the Titans’ playoff hopes.
Remember? Christmas Eve 2016? The Jaguars eliminated the Titans from the postseason with a 38-17 victory over the Titans in Jacksonville in Doug Marrone’s first game as the interim head coach.
The Jaguars’ task Thursday is anything but easy. They have struggled offensively against the Titans since that December ‘16 game, and playing on the road on Thursday night historically is difficult. Throw in the Jaguars’ injury situation and this is a tough one.
But running back Leonard Fournette is back for the Jaguars. And even in difficult situations, this Jaguars defense gives them a chance.
In this case, it’s a chance to be mean. Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to do that:
1.Run. Whoever the quarterback – Cody Kessler or Blake Bortles – the Jaguars’ offense has struggled much of the last two months. The exceptions have been when Fournette has been healthy. He is expected to be healthy and in the lineup Thursday.
2.Spoil. The Jaguars don’t realistically have the playoffs as motivation. They do have knocking other teams from the playoffs as motivation. That worked last Sunday against the Colts. The Jaguars must use it again. It’s what’s left.
3.Hold the Titans under 10 points. That’s a monumental task against any opponent in the NFL these days, but that’s the standard this defense needs to meet with an offense that figures to struggle to get near 20 points. The good news for the Jaguars? They have a defense capable of achieving that task.
4.Take shots downfield. Kessler didn’t do this enough in his first Jaguars start last Sunday. He, actually, hardly did at all. He must do it at least a few times Thursday.
5.Contain Marcus Mariota … The Titans’ quarterback hasn’t always been spectacular against the Jaguars. What he has done more often than not is be good enough to win. That often has meant extending a key third-down play late in the game with his legs. Mariota can beat you in a lot of ways. The Jaguars must be aware and alert to prevent him from doing that.
6. … but pressure him, too. The Titans have struggled at times to protect Mariota this season, and the Jaguars’ defense had perhaps its best pass-rushing game Sunday. If the Jaguars are to get an edge Thursday in a tough environment, it needs to happen by harassing Mariota into crowd-silencing mistakes.
7.Stop the run. The Jaguars couldn’t do this in critical times against the Titans in Jacksonville in September. It was a major reason for their first loss of the season.
8.Protect Kessler. Kessler was sacked three times Sunday, and he had short runs escaping pressure on several more pass attempts. He doesn’t have the escapability of his predecessor, Bortles, who often bailed out the offensive line. Kessler needs more protection from a beat-up offensive line if the Jaguars are to move more effectively than they did Sunday.
9.Get turnovers – and turn them into points. It’s hard to see this not being key for the Jaguars the rest of the season, but it’s particularly key Thursday. The best way to quiet a prime-time home crowd? Score defensively. Shock and awe.
10.Embrace the present. OK, this is a bit buzzword-y, but the Jaguars played perhaps their best defensive game of the season Sunday because they put aside for a week the fact that they are out of the postseason. They found their motivation in playing as well as they could and winning that day. They must take that approach a lot in the final month.