It's time for the Jaguars offensive line to make its big push – figuratively and literally – for the playoffs.
At this time last year, the Jaguars offensive line began a second half of the season that would produce the best performance in team history. They cleared the way for Fred Taylor to rush for 989 yards in those final eight games. The Jaguars offensive line finished the season having allowed a franchise-low 28 sacks.
They're off their game a little at the halfway point of this season, but not as much as you might think. Taylor had rushed for only 583 yards at this point last year; he has 510 yards this season. Sacks are up a little at 18, but a greater emphasis on the running game in the second half of the season could level the margin.
This is the game it has to begin. Head coach Jack Del Rio said as much to reporters earlier this week. It's time for the Jaguars to run the ball; rest its fate on the shoulders of its offensive line.
"Like any good team, it starts in the trenches and we consider our offensive line to be the strength of the team," Del Rio said on Thursday.
"We haven't had an awful game," offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said, but "we'd like to get the running game going more. We had a few games where we had 12 or 13 carries."
Del Rio has all but promised there will be no more 12-carry games. That's not Jaguars football, as this team established in the second half of last season.
"It'll give us a better feel for the players we're up against," right tackle Maurice Williams said of run-blocking. "It's always fun to run the ball. A little more pride goes into the run game. It's a little more physical; a different mentality"
This year's offensive line has been dogged by injuries to two of its members. The Jaguars lost left tackle Mike Pearson for the season to a major knee injury in week four. At the same time, left guard Vince Manuwai was hobbled by a calf injury that made it difficult for him to push off in short-yardage blocking.
"Losing Mike early in the season, we had to adjust with Ephraim (Salaam) and I think he's settled in a little now. In Mike's case, he was having an excellent year. He really took to the changes we had been working on all through the offseason. He was feeling comfortable. It hurt a lot because in his own quiet way he was becoming a leader. He's the kind of guy who's never going to take the easy way out. I could see everything he was working on coming to fruition," Boudreau said.
Manuwai is now off the Jaguars' injury report and Salaam has settled in at left tackle. The Jaguars have re-established the continuity they lost when Pearson went down, and now it's time to re-establish the identity they lost in the first half of this season.
"I'd like to have 33 minutes time of possession and 40 carries every game, but we've been winning games. We have to keep on plugging and keep on working and I think the total runs and total yards per carry will pick up," Boudreau said. "The second half of the season, if you want to get to where you want to be at the end of the year, you have to be a complete team. If you totally rely on throwing the ball; if you get balance on offense, then they have to defend everything. If you look at teams that go far in the playoffs, you'll see they run the ball. You can't be stubborn, but if you run the ball successfully or have even a threat of the run, (pass) protection becomes easier."
The formula for achieving balance between run and pass involves the defense. The Jaguars defense allowed Houston and San Diego to get out to early leads, and that forced the Jaguars into a catch-up mode that tilted play selection toward the passing game.
"I think two things will help us (maintain balance): Keeping it close and being able to stay with the running game. Coming from behind you're not going to be able to run the ball. It takes you out of a balanced attack. If the score lets you stay with the running game, I think we'll be able to achieve those numbers. You have to have the balance if you want to go far," Boudreau added.
This is the time for it.