JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser's five Thursday takeaways as the Jaguars prepare to play the Buffalo Bills at Wembley Stadium in London, England, Sunday
1)Challenging time.We begin Thursday takeaways with the secondary, where the Jaguars this week made a second change in as many weeks. The team inserted Josh Evans into the starting lineup at free safety over veteran Sergio Brown last week, and Evans is expected to start again Sunday. The Jaguars this week will start cornerback Dwayne Gratz over Davon House, who allowed Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins 10 receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. House – who signed in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent from Green Bay – shadowed Hopkins without much help throughout the game, playing well for three quarters before allowing two late touchdowns. "It's just playing from start to finish," Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said, adding that House is playing a more extended role than he did in Green Bay. "He's playing quite a few plays and last week we had him on a key receiver … so I think just that part of it and getting accustomed to that. He's made a lot of good plays; it's just can we be stronger and fresher through the whole game. If we're talking about the finish, how do we play our best at the end? It's important to be fresh, so there's some of that aspect as well." The Jaguars still believe in House and believe he has a chance to be a very good cover corner. The hope is he will respond well to the situation.
Images of the Jaguars' final practice before they take off for London to take on the Buffalo Bills.
2)Bouncing back. The House-Gratz story is about more than House. It also marks a return to the starting lineup for Gratz, a 2013 third-round draft selection who started eight games as a rookie in 2013 and 13 games last season. He entered 2015 training camp as essentially the team's fourth cornerback behind House, Demetrius McCray and Aaron Colvin, but will make his 22nd NFL start Sunday. "We look at it we're always trying to find a way to put the best 11 on the field," Bradley said. "Davon House has been playing pretty well. He's been doing some things, PBUs and things like that, but Gratz has been showing up as well." Said Gratz, "It's satisfying to know that I've reestablished that trust from the staff. It's a compliment to the hard work I've been putting in, and I'm going to do my best." Gratz's return to the lineup means three players drafted in General Manager David Caldwell's first draft – Gratz, second-round safety Johnathan Cyprien and Evans (a sixth-round selection) – will start in the secondary Sunday along with 2014 fourth-round selection Aaron Colvin at corner.
3)Back and forth. We'll stay on the secondary for the third takeaway with a focus on Evans, who relatively quietly returned to the starting lineup last week. Evans has been versatile in three Jaguars seasons, playing both strong and free safety and starting 25 games in his first two seasons. He played free safety as a rookie, then played in place of an injured Cyprien at strong safety early last season. He started for Cyprien again at strong safety in Week 3 this season and will make a second consecutive start at free safety Sunday, with an eight-tackle performance against Houston Sunday one of his best games in three NFL seasons. "Josh played really well (against Houston)," defensive coordinator Bob Babich said Thursday. "He did a good job of tackling and getting guys down. There was one play that I remember that broke. I think it was a 17-yard run; he had a blocker on it, came off the block, made an open field tackle down the field and he made some tackles at the line of scrimmage. We were very pleased with Josh's play."
4)Prep and sleep.The Jaguars are making a third trip to London in as many years, and finding a travel routine is still a challenge. The Jaguars traveled to London on Monday in 2013 and Sunday in 2014, with the hope that this year's Thursday evening departure with a Friday morning London time arrival will give the trip more of a routine road game feel. Quarterback Blake Bortles said it's "definitely a changeup," adding that "Ambien and sleeping will help … It's adversity. It's whatever you want to call it but guys are excited for it. Hopefully, people will be able to sleep on the plane." Bortles said he will sit next to backup quarterback Chad Henne on the plane and the two will go through their normal Thursday evening routine of watching tape before sleeping "as long as possible." Bortles also said he has it a bit easier than his offensive line. "Yeah, a tight fit is not good," he said, smiling.
5)Turnover time.Forcing turnovers was an offseason priority for the Jaguars' defense, and while takeaways have been scarce, Babich said the focus remains on the area. One issue hurting the Jaguars' takeaways has been the lack of a pass rush; with the defense struggling to create pressure, opposing quarterbacks have had time and there have been few of the errant passes that often lead to interceptions. The pass rush also hasn't forced fumbles with the same frequency as last season. A year ago, Leo ends Chris Clemons/Ryan Davis/Andre Branch combined to force eight fumbles. The trio has forced two fumbles this season. "Our guys continue to do a good job with it and we still believe that they come in bunches and we're hoping that they will show up here," Babich said. "Our guys are working hard to try to get that taken care of."