Jacksonville finished 11-5 in 2007 to earn its second playoff berth in three years, knocking off the Steelers in the wild-card round before falling to the eventual conference champions in Foxborough. Coming into this season, the Jags’ pounding run game and ballhawking defense had some observers pegging them as a trendy Super Bowl pick. However, as the list of injured offensive linemen continues to grow, even matching last year’s success might be more difficult than it looked just two months ago.
OFFENSE (#30 total yardage, #32 rushing, #t24 passing, #t26 scoring):
The Jaguars were reeling even before starting guards Vince Manuwai (ACL) and Maurice Williams (biceps tear) were both lost for the season against Tennessee last Sunday. Starting center Brad Meester will probably be out for another month following surgery to repair his torn biceps, but far worse news arrived at Jaguars headquarters early on the morning of Sept. 2. Backup tackle Richard Collier, out on the town with a former teammate, was shot several times in an apparently targeted attack; at press time, he remains in critical but stable condition in a local hospital. The Jaguars, who once projected Collier as a possible replacement for left tackle Khalif Barnes, are reduced to hoping he recovers from his life-threatening wounds.
Williams’ and Manuwai’s injuries leave the middle of the Jaguars’ front five in the unsteady hands of guards Tutan Reyes (remember him?) and Uche Nwaneri, a second-year player with one career start who is battling his own knee injury. Dennis Norman will fill in for Meester, as the eighth-year veteran has done on several previous occasions. Barnes and right tackle Tony Pashos, who came over from Baltimore before last season, are average at best. After the wave of injuries hit, general manager James Harris scrambled to sign journeymen Charles Spencer, Milford Brown, and Todd Wade in the last several days.
Fortunately for quarterback David Garrard, he’s far more mobile than Byron Leftwich, the man he replaced at the beginning of last season. (Behind that line, that still may not be good enough; he was sacked seven times by the Titans in the season opener.) Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio took a chance when he set Leftwich adrift; Garrard repaid the favor by completing 64 percent of his passes and throwing just three interceptions in 12 starts. He also accomplished something Leftwich could never do in his four years as the starter: win a playoff game.
Of course, the strong running game had a lot to do with that. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for the second-most yards in the league last season; only Chester Taylor and super-rookie Adrian Peterson of the Vikings were better. Taylor, who still brings back unpleasant memories of the Rob Johnson trade 11 years after Jacksonville drafted him with Buffalo’s 1998 first-round pick, trails only Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson for the most rushing yards by any currently active running back. The Bills did a decent job of corralling Jones-Drew last November, holding him to 10 yards on as many carries, but he still found the end zone – not a surprise, because he’s third in the league (behind Tomlinson and Marion Barber III) in that category since 2006. MJD is also a threat on screens, and fullback Greg Jones shouldn’t be overlooked.
Garrard is throwing to a reconfigured receiving corps. The Jags let last year’s catch leader, Ernest Wilford, leave for Miami, gave Jerry Porter a big free-agent contract, and traded for Troy Williamson. The former Vikings first-round pick is trying to shed the “bust” tag, something Reggie Williams and Matt Jones are far too familiar with. After three years of inconsistency, Williams set a franchise record
with 10 touchdown receptions last season; Jones, who many observers thought might not even make the roster, led the team with 80 yards against Tennessee. Although Williamson (thigh) and Dennis Northcutt (back) didn’t practice on Thursday, Porter, who is recovering from hamstring surgery, expects to play this weekend. Starting tight end Marcedes Lewis is talented, but hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. The Jags use a lot of two-TE sets; with George Wrightster on the reserve/PUP list, Greg Estandia and Richard Angulo will fill that role when needed.
DEFENSE (#16 total yardage, #20 rushing, #14 passing, #t13 scoring):
Will the Jaguars miss three-time Pro Bowl tackle Marcus Stroud? So far, the answer is “maybe”: Tennessee averaged 4.3 yards per rush against them last week. Rob Meier takes over the spot next to John Henderson; he’s one of those “high-motor” types new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams prefers to “fat guys” such as Ted Washington. Defensive end Bobby McCray is also gone, so Reggie Hayward returns to the starting lineup opposite Paul Spicer. They’ll eventually be pushed by this year’s top two draft picks, Derrick Harvey (Florida) and Quentin Groves (Auburn). However, Harvey didn’t do himself any favors by holding out well into the preseason.
Middle linebacker Mike Peterson missed the game last November after breaking his hand and landing on I.R. He’s back, allowing Daryl Smith to move back to the strong side. Justin Durant was pressed into service as a rookie last season and earned the starter’s reps at WLB with 31 tackles in Jacksonville’s two playoff games. Clint Ingram should also see some time at the position.
The Jags had a decent secondary last year, but think they’ve improved by bringing Florida native Drayton Florence home from San Diego to start opposite Rashean Mathis. Scott Starks is the likely choice at nickel back, and after the Bills released Will James at the final cutdown, Jacksonville signed him to provide additional depth. Brian Williams, who started at corner last year, has moved to safety ... which would seem to be an odd move for Gregg Williams, who likes his strong safeties to play like linebackers, not corners. If the move doesn’t pan out, Gerald Sensabaugh, who started there before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury last September, is an option. 2007 first-round pick Reggie Nelson started 15 games at free safety in his rookie season, pulling in five interceptions, and has worlds of potential. He’s backed up by Pierson Prioleau, who seems to follow GW wherever he goes.
Josh Scobee missed the first half of the 2007 season with a strained quadriceps muscle, but was 12-for-13 when he returned. When his leg is all right, he’s also one of the deepest kickoff men in the league.
Last year, the Jaguars spent a fourth-round pick on Maryland punter (and Pittsford, N.Y. native) Adam Podlesh to upgrade that part of their kicking game. Of course, to be an upgrade from Chris Hanson, Podlesh had merely to keep from frying himself with a fondue pot, slicing his leg open with an ax, or pulling some other stupid-kicker trick. The fact that the rookie finished with a net average of 36.9 yards, just behind Brian Moorman (37.6), has to be seen as an additional bonus.
Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis can thank Roscoe Parrish for his job in Jacksonville; Parrish’s 82-yard punt-return touchdown in the 2006 game helped get the last guy who held that job fired. In just one season, DeCamillis, who earned leaguewide respect for his work in Atlanta, has already improved the coverage squads; the kickoff unit finished in the top five last year.
Reserve defensive back Brian Witherspoon, who played for former Bills cornerback Derrick Burroughs at tiny Stillman College before the Jaguars signed him as an undrafted free agent, has been a revelation on kick returns. The rookie led the league in punt return average during the preseason, then burned the Titans with kickoff runbacks of 49 and 51 yards last week. The Bills had some trouble tracking down Nate Burleson last week; Bobby April will no doubt have his coverage teams pay close attention to the lightning-quick Witherspoon, a Division II first-team All-America selection in both football and track.
Although Buffalo’s defense managed to keep the score close until the end of the game, the Jaguars were clearly better when the two teams played last November. However, between the Bills’ offseason additions and Jacksonville’s ailing line, that may not be true this time.
Trent Edwards doesn’t have much experience starting road games, but having Marshawn Lynch instead of Anthony Thomas lining up behind him has to help. Oh, and if he plays, welcome back, Mr. Peters. On defense, think Marcus Stroud will be a little amped for this game? And if his old teammates concentrate too much on neutralizing No. 99, the rest of the suddenly resurgent Bills pass rush might have something to say about the final outcome.
Jacksonville, a playoff team used to the Florida heat, is still a sizable favorite ... but I like the Bills’ chances in this one.
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