CHANDLER'S CROSS, England – Senior writer John Oehser addresses five topics as Cowboys-Jaguars nears, including finishing, special teams and the Jaguars' Most "Valuable" Defensive Player
1. Closer and closer.We begin this pre-Cowboys, London-town edition of Into Focus with a topic as frustrating to Jaguars observers as it is real. The subject is the very real difference between the team as it enters this year's London Week compared to last season. Remember? Last season? The Jaguars left London 0-8 off back-to-back one-sided losses to San Diego and San Francisco. At that point, they had played two games that were remotely close in the fourth quarter: losses at Oakland and St. Louis. This season, the Jaguars enter the 10th game of the season with a 1-8 record, but they have been in the game in the second half of six of those losses. Perhaps most telling is that this time last season the Jaguars were talking about being more competitive, about keeping games close. Now, the buzzword around the Jaguars this week is "finishing," meaning finding a way to turn close losses into victories. "That's the biggest thing that we have to learn now," Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said. "It has been something that we talked about all year. We're seeing these great strides in other areas. The drives, but just not being able to finish. That's just concerning. That's a challenge to our team."
2. Confident and correct.If there has been a surprise for the Jaguars' offense this season outside of Denard Robinson, it has been rookie wide receiver Allen Hurns. After signing as a collegiate free agent shortly after the 2014 NFL Draft, Hurns has looked the part from the start, playing well enough in training camp and preseason that his spot was a forgone conclusion when the Jaguars cut the roster in late August. Hurns has approached the season with maturity beyond his experience, and said he gained confidence as he learned from wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. "Once preseason came, I got a good feeling for this game," he said. Hurns' 16.1 yards per reception on 29 receptions leads the Jaguars, as do his five touchdown receptions. He also has five drops this season, and said getting past those was his biggest challenge of the first half of the season. "The main thing was I had drops," he said. "I had separation in my routes, but the main thing in this game is you have to be consistent and make those catches when they come to you. You have to accountable."
3. Special cases.As expected, special teams have been a topic around the Jaguars in London this week, with Bradley addressing the area Wednesday. The unit has allowed three blocked field goals, a tipped punt and a blocked punt this season. The tipped punt and the blocked punt came against Cincinnati, with the blocked punt resulting in a safety. Kicker Josh Scobee also had a kickoff go out of bounds late in the game to give the Bengals field position at the 40-yard line. "Whenever you have two blocked punts, it's concerning," Bradley said, but added that he believed the area throughout the season has been "solid and improved. We had a couple of unfortunate things happen. We need to get those things corrected but not get away from what we're doing on all of the other special teams things that we're doing, and keep growing in those areas. It is something that needs to be addressed." The special teams haven't been without strengths this season, with running back Jordan Todman playing particularly well as a returner and in coverage.
4. Very, very valuable.We're not going to put an "MVP" intro line on this entry, because it would be disingenuous to make a case for linebacker J.T. Thomas as the defensive Most Valuable Player through nine games. But in terms of "value" there aren't many defenders worth more to the Jaguars. While defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks has made a strong case for the Pro Bowl with a second consecutive disruptive, productive season, Thomas' versatility and ability to be a leader when needed has been in valuable. He started the season as a reserve, and since he began starting at Otto linebacker in Week 4, the defense has made marked improvement. He also has been able to move inside and play in place first of Paul Posluszny and last week of Jeremiah George and play effectively. He has been comfortable making defensive calls, and has interceptions in the last two games. Marks may be the MVP of the defense, but you do wonder where it would be without Thomas, too.
5. Pro Bowl consideration?Speaking of Marks – and speaking of him making a case for the Pro Bowl … well, the sixth-year veteran indeed spoke on that issue Thursday. Marks, one of the Jaguars' better players handling the media, handled the question the right way, saying essentially that as a player such an accolade always is a preseason goal but that once the season began it gave way to team pursuits. Marks is the only member of the Jaguars' starting front seven with a positive overall seasonal grade from Pro Football Focus through nine games, and has tied the season-high four sacks he set last season. He also leads the team in quarterback hits and quarterback hurries. Marks statistically has a case for the Pro Bowl, and he passes the eye test, too. He has been quick to the ball and through nine games he appears to be playing at an even higher level than last season. He also has been a reason for a very tangible improvement in the defense, with the Jaguars' record being the one factor that might hurt his cause. Asked if he was playing the best football of his career, Marks said, "I feel like I'm playing at a high level and I haven't slowed down from when I first started playing, so I feel like I am getting better and I'm just going to continue to work at doing that."