Despite the big sideshow off the field around Jackosnville (the now ugly Maurice Jones-Drew holdout, the perception that some part of the mainstream media sees things around the team which don’t exist, the International Series), the Jaguars have had a pretty good preseason so far. The offense and the starting QB look like night and day compared to last year. New play makers are rising in every area of the team (offense, defense, and special teams), and so far the top 3 draft choices are having a nice early impact. Now the biggest test has arrived. Some say the most important game in the preseason is the 3rd because you often see the starters playing in the 2nd half. The Jaguars face a really good team yet again – the Baltimore Ravens. Let’s take a look at some parts of the game that should have our attention Thursday evening.
1) How will the 1st team offense play against the Ravens defense?
So far this area is the feel good story of the Jaguars. Blaine Gabbert is playing like a top 10 pick, the media (who tried to crush Blaine a mere 2-3 weeks ago) are now starting to see what everybody else has seen at OTAs, minicamp, and training camp . Peter King even selected him as the offense player of the week in his Monday Morning QB spotlight; which is quite a turnaround compared to the version 7 days earlier when he wrote he wasn’t convinced about the young signal caller’s renaissance… Gabbert has lead long opening TD drives in both games so far, he has 3 TD passes with no picks and one fumble. Although the Ravens defense suffered some losses (Terrell Suggs due to an Achilles injury, and Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding, and Tom Zbikowski via free agency, still I think these defense representing the toughest test so far to the new Jaguars offense. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Ladarius Webb are all proven difference makers, surrounded by young, hungry lions like Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger, Terrence Cody, Jimmy Smith, and their 1st choice this April, Courtney Upsaw. Their secondary will show us how much the passing game has actually improved over the last few months. CB Webb started to produce Revis-esque performances last season and Ed Reed’s ballhawking abilities still put him in the Top 3 player at his position. Bernard Pollard is hard hitter (just ask a couple Patriots players…). The other corner position besides Webb is still up for grabs between last year’s 1st round pick Jimmy Smith and recently extended Cary Williams. I wonder how the Jaguars receivers, especially Blackmon, will perform against these players.
2) State of the running game
Based on Tuesday’s events, it’s more and more likely that the Jaguars won’t miss Maurice Jones-Drew, and Rashad Jennings will be the starting RB. No matter what hurdle in placed before him – training camp, scrimmage, or even preseason – he has yet to let his teammates and coaching staff down. He has rushed for 122 yards on 23 carries so far. Cody, Ngata, Kruger, Sergio Kindle and of course Ray Lewis are waiting for him on Thursday. If Jennings can achieve success against them as well, than I have no doubt he can be successful against any defense in the NFL. Behind him is a surging Montell Owens who has all but cemented his spot as the backup running back. His only real challenger so far, Keith Toston suffered a leg injury while breaking 42 yard run against the Saints. I hope it’s not serious, and he can be healthy for the regular season, because I think he is now clearly the best 3rd option. Neither Parmele, last year’s preseason sensation DuJuan Harris, or Richard Murphy showed anything lately in the preseason games. Also I must mention, the new interior offensive line with Meester, Nwaneri and now Eben Britton is clearly a huge boost for the running game. I wonder if we see Maurice Jones-Drew running behind that line ever again…
3) Is the defense good enough this year?
I know many starters are either missing still here or just starting to return, but I have some issues with the defense as a whole. Tackling is a problem now (the Saints defense dealt with this problem too on Friday night). I know the Giants and the Saints are really powerful offenses, with Superbowl MVP QBs, yet the team hasn’t seen a Top 6 defense so far. And the bar was raised even higher this year. With Daryl Smith, Rashean Mathis, and Derek Cox returning and Tyson Alualu’s number of snaps played increasing I think we can see a more stout defense – but that has yet to come.
It looks like the starting defensive line is coming together and it will be a tough as Joe Cullen wants them. I expect that if Jeremy Mincey can stay healthy his performance will be even better than it was in ’11. It will be very good to have Andre Branch on the other side to help him out. The rookie had his first (0.5) sack and is showing no signs of having problems defending the run. They will have interesting matchups in this game. Jeremy Mincey will face Michael Oher, and Branch will see either Bryant McKinnie (who has struggled a bit in the preseason so far) or fellow rookie Kelechi Osemele. I think both of these mathcups have the potential to make for an interesting dynamic fought out in the trenches.
I wonder how the secondary will perform with Mathis returning. The Ravens pass offense have some dangerous weapons in Anquain Boldin, Ray Rice, and (if he can play) Torrey Smith.
4) QB status report
After 2 games it’s crystal clear that Blaine Gabbert is by far the best option at the QB position for the Jaguars. Right now I worry that if he goes down then the season is lost. No matter how promising Jordan Palmer looked against the Giants and the Saints, he is not at the same level as Gabbert. Chad Henne’s struggles continued last Friday, but the team has refused to shake up the QB depth chart. Since the first offense will play most of the game, I don’t think we will see Palmer in action against the Ravens. That means Henne can cement his position as the number 2 QB and Gabbert can mock the likes of Michael Lombardi with another strong performance against a really good defense. I go even further – if Gabbert plays well against Baltimore, I think the Jaguars fanbase can start to get exited about this young man and his offense in the ’12 season. No matter if Jones-Drew shows up to play or not…
5) Oh no Mojo!
Speaking of the current face of the franchise (and I know this is not related much to the Ravens game, but still we must talk about it) – I think those things which help him very well on the field – being a prideful, no compromise person – are hurting him off the field. That and his agent, Adisa Bakari, who is creating an even bigger mess than the Matt Forte deal that he orchestrated. I simply don’t understand why Maurice is upset about the comments of owner Shad Khan, GM Gene Smith, head coach Mike Mularkey. And now according to Bakari, Jones-Drew is open to be traded. There is a big problem however. The Jaguars right now would be lucky to get a 3rd round pick for him, considering the new team must give Jones-Drew the contract he wants. There a very few team left, who can actually afford to do that. I would assume those teams want to save money for the future instead of paying an “old” 27 year old RB big bucks for the next 5 years.
Khan and the Jaguars are holding all the cards right now. The offense is working, Jennings is not a big step back compared to the rushing leader, and the fanbase is on the front office’s side. Yeah the Jaguars have the biggest cap space right now, but soon they must re-sign key players. Also, you simply don’t pay a running back big so close to his 30th birthday – especially if he runs the style Jones-Drew likes the most: between the tackles. I hope Maurice will act like an adult (who doesn’t want to lose $4.5 million and his precious time) and he will play games in teal at some point during this season. But the sad fact is, this whole situation can turn real ugly very quickly…
– Zoltan Paksa
Tags: Andre Branch Baltimore Ravens Blaine Gabbert Cary Williams Chad Henne Cory Redding Courthey Upsaw DuJuan Harris Ed Reed Haloti Ngata Jacksonville Jaguars Jarret Johnson Jeremy Mincey Jimmy Smith Jordan Palmer Justin Blackmon Keith Toston Ladarius Webb Maurice Jones-drew Montell Owens Peter King Rashad Jennings Ray Lewis Shad Khan Terrance Knighton Terrell Suggs Terrence Cody Tom Zbikowski Tyson Alualu