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Week in focus: "We have to run the ball"

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JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser takes a look at the week that was around the Jaguars …

Run to win

Gus Bradley covered a slew of topics at the NFL 2016 Annual Meetings this week.

One issue the Jaguars' head coach covered in his hour-plus session at the AFC Head Coaches breakfast Tuesday morning that didn't get discussed much afterward involved the running game.

"It's not that we're going to run the ball 70 percent of the time," Bradley said at the Boca Raton Resort. "That's not who we want to become, but we have to have the ability to run the ball in certain situations."

Those situations are key, game-changing and game-clinching situations.

"Some might be a four-minute situation," Bradley said. "It might be third-and-one. It might be goal line. Those situations are non-negotiable; we have to be able to run the ball. Then, there are other times you want to be able to run to set up play passes and get explosive plays."

While improving the defense is Priority No. 1 of the offseason, improving the running game – and the offensive line – is a close second. That's because while the offense was improved and explosive last season, it lacked efficiency.

The signings of running back Chris Ivory and offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum …

The potential moving of Brandon Linder to center and the ongoing search to improve the interior of the line …

All of those moves are designed at least in part to improve a running game that ranked 27th in the NFL last season, and that wasn't as efficient on short yardage as necessary.

"It keeps coming back to the importance of it," Bradley said. "That goes back to the offensive line, then having enough versatility and enough backs that create different issues for the defense with their style."

Bradley said while the Jaguars aren't likely to be a run-first, ground-and-pound offense – not with an offense that includes rising players such as quarterback Blake Bortles, wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns and tight end Julius Thomas – an improved running game is important for a bigger reason than to just improve the statistics.

Bradley has talked previously about needing to run better to take advantage of Bortles' strength as a play-action passer. Having had more than two-and-a-half months to digest and reassess last season, Bradley this week sounded more committed to that stance than ever.

"I think one of Blake Bortles' greatest strengths is off of play passes," Bradley said. "In order to do that, you have to establish the run game."

 

Two Leos? No problem …

Defensive flexibility also remained a major topic for Bradley this week.

Bradley talked extensively about the need to get the team's best players on the field – even if that meant adjusting slightly the team's hybrid-front, single-high safety defensive scheme.

One adjustment will be using newly-acquired defensive tackle Malik Jackson and veteran defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks together in pass-rushing packages. Both are three-technique tackles, and dual three-technique packages haven't been common in pass-rush situations under Bradley.

Another wrinkle is the expected use of Dan Skuta as a pass rusher. Whereas Skuta is typically an Otto linebacker, Bradley said again this week that he would be used more in a Leo, pass-rushing role next season. The Jaguars typically have used multiple Leos in their three-Leo, pass-rushing, "lightning" package, but Bradley said two-Leo, non-lightning looks are possible as well.

"We can put that in our scheme," Bradley said. "We're flexible enough to do it. We can play with two Leos and be fine. It's a different deal. We might have five or six calls we can live in when those guys are on the field at the same time, but that kind of flexibility is what we want to make sure we protect."

 

Around the Jaguars …

*One of the most-watched areas involving defensive flexibility next season will involve second-year veteran/defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash, General Manager David Caldwell and Bradley all have talked about this offseason about the possibility of moving Fowler around in the defense. That's something the 2015 No. 3 overall draft selection did while at the University of Florida. The Jaguars' initial plan is to allow Fowler to focus on the Leo and become comfortable there. Still, Bradley said the staff absolutely is open to moving Fowler around once he is ready. "If it gives us the flexibility to get the guys we want on the field, that's something we'll look at," he said. …

*Bradley was asked this week if sharing time with newly-signed Ivory might "stunt" second-year veteran running back T.J. Yeldon's growth. Not a bit, was Bradley's stance. "We look at it as a way to help him – just for his health," Bradley said. "It's a long season. To have two or three backs you can count on, that would be an asset for our team." Ivory-Yeldon illustrates a key part of the Jaguars' 2016 free-agent class: depth. Offensive tackle, cornerback, interior offensive line, running back … all are significantly deeper than this time a year ago. …

*It's become vogue to forget about Denard Robinson in the running-back rotation. Listening to Bradley this week, that may be premature. "He'll get in there, too," Bradley said of Robinson, who started nine games at running back in 2014. "He's our speed back – again, a different style of running back. So you have Ivory, T.J. … Denard comes in there and the style of runs you're going to see are going to be different with him." …

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