JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines the Jaguars at the 2016 bye week before they visit the Chicago Bears on October 16
RUN TO WIN
The Jaguars' offense may have glimpsed the future Sunday.
That's the hope around the Jaguars this week, anyway – that in their first victory of the 2016 season this past Sunday, they found the beginnings of an effective offensive formula.
A huge part of that formula involves quarterback Blake Bortles, who after seven turnovers in the first three games of the regular season showed during Sunday's victory over the Colts how effective he and the offense can be when he plays turnover-free.
But Jaguars' Head Coach Gus Bradley said this week there will be another focus as the team begins looking ahead to the final 12 games.
That focus? A running game that against the Colts showed long-awaited signs of life.
"We did better," Bradley said of a running attack that produced 136 yards and a touchdown against the Colts. "We need to put more attention on there. It's like: All right, we found some things that we're [doing] better. Where do we go from here?"
It's understandable the running game now would be a focus. The offense struggled through most of the first three games with defenses at times playing safeties back to take away a deep passing game that had been much of the Jaguars' offense a year ago.
The Jaguars rushed for 165 yards during the first three games of the season, with running backs rushing for 112 yards on 50 carries.
The Jaguars ran effectively from the first series Sunday, with T.J. Yeldon rushing for 71 yards on 14 carries and Chris Ivory rushing for 29 yards on eight carries. That was a positive first step, and it helped the Jaguars produce a season-high 30 points on five scoring series.
Continued success in that vein could have the dual effect of allowing the Jaguars to dictate tempo – and to create more opportunities for the explosive plays that defined the offense last season.
"I do believe that if you get the run game going, the passing game will follow," Bradley said. "You'll get more explosive plays. That's not necessarily the case with us last year. We had explosive plays without a run game that was at a high level. I think both of those areas we'll take a look at. Both will be emphasized."
The Jaguars rank sixth in the NFL in total defense, a dramatic improvement for a unit that ranked 24th last season – and one that at times seemed to play well below that ranking.
Newcomers such as defensive tackle Malik Jackson and free safety Tashaun Gipson have been big reasons for the early turnaround, but perhaps the most notable contributions have come from five rookies who before September 11 never had played a regular-season NFL down.
That group: cornerback Jalen Ramsey, defensive ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Yannick Ngakoue, defensive tackle Sheldon Day and linebacker Myles Jack. Ramsey, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, has started since the regular-season opener and played at a high level, while Jack – a second-round selection this past offseason – made his first NFL start this past Sunday.
Fowler, the No. 3 overall selection in the '15 draft who missed his rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, has two sacks and he has tipped passes that led to interceptions in each of the last two games. Day, a fourth-round selection in the '16 draft, made several impact plays that led to teammates' sacks Sunday.
Perhaps no newcomer has made a bigger impact than Ngakoue, a third-round rookie from Maryland who has a team-high three sacks with two forced fumbles and an interception.
"Every year in this league you have young guys stepping up, so it's no surprise," third-year linebacker Telvin Smith said. "Players are supposed to be players, so when a guy comes and he's who he's supposed to be, you don't say, 'Congratulations.' You say, 'that's who you're supposed to be. That's the standard we're holding you to.' You're supposed to bring that intensity and that level every day."
Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny remains one of the Jaguars' best defensive players. Still, there are observers/fans who weekly call for the veteran to be replaced. Teammates couldn't feel more differently, and Smith explained why this week. "I know they don't know the true essence, the true leadership and the poise he brings to this team,'' Smith said. "Just him being on the field, lining up things … sometimes a guy can just be standing there and you feel him. That's Poz. You don't have to see him. You hear him closing and just that dominance of a player that he is. That's what he brings to this team and that's why needs to be out there on the field. I know a lot of people say, 'Oh, Myles Jack is this or that.' It's more than just an athlete to be out there on that field.' Experience is a lot and he has a lot of it that helps us get there.''
"When you have a choice and you make the wrong choice and it's a penalty, that's where it is a problem. … The DPIs [defensive pass interference], the long yardage ones – those are ones we lost our eyes. We grabbed. We weren't in good position. Those are the plays we need to correct and get them out. Those are happening too often."