A defense that was gutted by offseason salary-cap losses will open the season against what is arguably pro football's premier offense. So, for the young Jaguars defenders, does Sunday represent an opportunity or a sentence?
"This is going to show where we're at. You can't ask for anything better than this," cornerback Jason Craft said of Sunday's game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Two years ago, on a Monday night in September, Manning and the Colts pasted the Jaguars 43-14, as Manning threw for 440 yards and four touchdowns. That game was billed as a confrontation of the two teams' "Big Three" on offense: Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James for the Colts vs. Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor for the Jaguars.
Both trios are still intact, though neither James nor Smith played a down in the preseason. Sunday may, again, be a case of trio vs. trio, but each team is also sporting rebuilt defenses and the success or failure of each team this season is expected to rest on the shoulders of those defenses.
In the Jaguars' case, it's a defense that is without six of its starting front seven from a year ago. Gary Walker, Seth Payne, Renaldo Wynn, Kevin Hardy and Hardy Nickerson left Jacksonville in the offseason, and linebacker T.J. Slaughter has been sidelined by a dislocated elbow. Now there's concern that star defensive end Tony Brackens' delicate knee may limit his contribution. Brackens was added to the Jaguars' injury report today as "probable" to play.
"Manning is a very smart quarterback. We're going to have to bring our 'A' game. They have two fast receivers (Harrison and Qadry Ismail) and Manning is such an accurate thrower," Craft added.
The Jaguars failed to sack Manning in that 2000 game and that can't be the case this Sunday at Alltel Stadium if the Jaguars are to have any chance of winning. Manning is 26-14 when he has been sacked one or none times in a game; 6-18 when he has been sacked twice or more in a game.
"That's what happened; he had time to do some things. He was picking us apart. We have to put some pressure on him," Craft said of the 2000 game.
Therein lies the Jaguars' dilemma. How do you get pressure on a quarterback who has only been sacked an average of 21 times a year? And what if Brackens is unable to play?
"We're still in a feeling-out process and I still don't know how long I can play," Brackens told reporters today. "We're still trying to feel out what I can do and what I can't do. I think I can still contribute."
Paul Spicer would be Brackens' replacement and Spicer understands the value of his role. "I have to take the approach that I'm preparing myself to start the game; make some big plays for this team and give us a chance to win," Spicer said.
If the Jaguars have a matchup advantage, it may be in the interior of the line, where defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson will be confronted by the Colts trio of center Jeff Saturday and guards Rich DeMulling and Ryan Diem.
"We need to rattle the quarterback a little bit and contain the run," Stroud said. "Everybody knows the Colts have a great offense. If we have a great game against them, that'll definitely open some eyes."
That's the Jaguars defense's motivation. Gain a measure of respect against one of the NFL's most prolific offenses, which is something the players this year's starters replaced couldn't do two years ago.