There is something happening this week. You can probably smell it. Actually no, you can’t. Maybe something is in the air. Nah, even that would be a false statement. But I guess you can sense it in some way; that this weekend is different if you are an NFL fan. It’s opening week, and now we will see games that matter in the next five months. Since we are Jaguars fans, you know we can prepare for another wild ride on an emotional rollercoster. There will be up and downs, we will laugh or we will cry.
That roller coaster started with a turbulent offseason. The Jaguars have a new owner, new head coach, almost completely new offensive coaching staff. Add that the team handled a 38 day holdout by it’s best player from ’11 and off the field issues with it’s 1st round pick. Not to mention all the injuries. Still there is hope, and a legit shot to open the season with a road victory for the first time since ’04.
The opening opponent, the Minnesota Vikings are in many ways very similar to the Jaguars. Both teams had a rough ’11 season. Both teams have 2nd year QBs who struggled in their rookie season. Both teams’ best players caused uncertainty (although because of very different reasons). Both teams will most likely start their originally backup RBs. Both teams have very good defensive lines. Both teams are good at running the ball and effective at stopping the run. Both teams have a Top 5 player from last April’s draft. Both teams are looking at the other team and seeing a winnable game this Sunday.
I will share a secret with you. I thought weeks before the season, that the Jaguars’ defense (which ranked 6th last year) would be their calling card this season, and the offense would slowly progress. But things have changed lately. Injuries have already hit the Jaguars defense hard though. The depth of the unit will be tested on opening day.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker can’t count on the team’s best corner, Derek Cox, and now maybe the best player of the whole group, Daryl Smith. Only 3 DEs will be active on gameday, and I won’t even mention the sad situation of Clint Session. The starting back seven needs big games from the leader of the defense, MLB Paul Posluszny, and from both safeties Dawan Landry and Dwight Lowery. Three of the other four will be undrafted players, although Russell Allen is proven many times, that the Gene Smith found a gem in him back in ’09, and he is now considered a regular starter. However Kyle Bosworth will start for the 1st time in his career. CBs Aaron Ross and William Middleton struggled often in the preseason.
Luckily for the Jaguars, there is only one real WR threat in this game. Percy Harvin is the go-to guy for QB Christian Ponder. Jerome Simson who came from the Bengals this offseason is suspended and rookie Jarius Wright, who looked promising in the preseason is ruled out for this game. So the Vikings will rotate their other 3 wideouts Michael Jenkins, Stephen Burton, and Devin Aromashodu to take some pressure off from the former Florida standout. The other serious threat besides Harvin in the passing game will be TE Kyle Rudolph. The 2nd year player is expected to have a breakout year this season, so the Jaguars safties must limit him. His backup, John Carlson from Seattle is also a reliable target and could request attention from a defense that may be more slim than desired.
Ponder, like Blaine Gabbert, had a tough season. Although he is a more mobile QB than Gabbert, the defensive line could help out their back seven by effectively rushing him. The Vikings lost a great player in Steve Hutchinson at guard who is now playing for the Titans, but added 4th overall pick Matt Kalil at left tackle. His debut against either Jeremy Mincey or 2nd round pick Andre Branch will be a very interesting one. The other end, (most likely Branch) must face Phil Loadholt. The Vikings interior O-line could be a weak point. Although the fomer LT, now LG Charlie Johnson is a solid player, center John Sullivan is a journeyman (but played well in ’11), while Geoff Schwartz had injury issues in the preseason. Head Coach Leslie Frazier might rotate Brandon Fusco and Joe Berger with him at RG. That could be a good matchup for the DTs, but quite frankly I have not seen any flashes so far from Tyson Alualu, and I just don’t get why C.J. Mosley is still ahead of Terrance Knighton. Knighton played very well, and I didn’t recognize anything special from Mosley during the preseason games. I know the Jaguars are trying to be careful with Knighton’s eye, but he should be the starter on Sunday, and play the most snaps at DT. Luckily the Jaguars finished with 12 sacks in 4 games, that means defensive line coach Joe Cullen’s rushmen can put the pressure on the QB. The defensive line must do just that with Ponder as well.
But strongest part of the Vikings offense is (was?) the running game. That might be in jeopardy since Adrian Peterson tore his ACL and MCL last year. The All-pro RB slowly recovered from the major injury, and trained in the entire preseason with the team, but still he hasn’t had a single carry in the preseason. His status for the game is questionable, and according to Frazier it will be a game time decision. But I expect Peterson plays a few (10 or less) snaps on Sunday. That means backup Toby Gerhart will start and will carry the ball more of the time. He is a solid player, and the Jaguars defense has injury issues, but they must stop/limit the 3rd year player.
Conclusion: With all the injuries to the starting defense, plus the fact that the Vikings play at home, and the rather weak performance by the defense, suggests to me that Minnesota will score points. Maybe more then most people expect (20+). That means Blaine Gabbert and the offense must be much more effective from the opening whistle. Let’s see how the Jaguars offense matches with the Vikings defense.
Well there is some good news and bad news. The good news is if the offensive line can win some time for Gabbert, he might have his best game as a pro. The bad news is that that will be really, really tough to accomplish, because if there is a unit where the Vikings defense is above league average, it’s their defensive line. Jared Allen finished with 22.5 sacks (of course Nr. 1 in the league last year). Just to compare, the Jaguars defense had 32 sacks overall last year… That gives us the matchup of the game – how can keep LT Eugene Monroe keep Jared Allen away from Blaine Gabbert? Monroe had a pretty solid season last year, and many experts predict he might have a Pro Bowl level season in ’12. He will face really great pass rushers in the next months (just in the next 4 weeks he’ll play against Connor Barwin/Brooks Reed, Dwight Freeney, Carlos Dunlap and Julius Peppers…), but maybe none of them will present a bigger challenge than Allen. Let’s hope he can handle the challenge. Last year, when Mike Mularkey’s Atlanta Falcons played against Allen they used TEs Tony Gonzalez and Michael Palmer and WR Eric Weems to help out LT Will Svitek. The result: Allen didn’t sacked QB Matt Ryan. The Jaguars can use TE Marcedes Lewis and Zach Potter, and FB Greg Jones or even Maurice Jones-Drew to create the same result. Eben Britton playing at LG can be a major help in keeping Allen away from Gabbert. On the other side, Brian Robison (8 sacks last year) is also a good player, and it will be a good first test for new starting RT Cameron Bradfield. Their DTs Letroy Guion and especially Kevin Williams will represent plenty of challenges for the interior offensive line. Looks like Uche Nwaneri can play so the Jaguars will have all the starters at offensive line.
Which will be needed, because if they want to have a good ground game, then need those starters to handle Williams and co. The Vikings defense was 8th against the run last year, so rushing the ball will might be not so easy. The good news is, once if the RB can go trough the D-line they can get some nice gains. MLB Jasper Brinkley is the weakest of the starting linebackers, so the Jaguars can use that advantage out. The othere two player Chad Greenway at the strong and Erin Henderson at the weak side are both solid contributors. The Vikings safeties (just as the secondary) were the biggest weak point of the defense. They upgrade it in the offseason, trading up in back end of the first round for Notre Dame S Harrison Smith, who looked promising in the preseason. His parter Mistral Raymond also getting better. Still the Jaguars could make a play there with their back and in the passing game as well.
The passing game is important because more and more I think the key for this game will not be the defense (as I thought a month earlier) or the Jags’ strong running game, but the performance of Blaine Gabbert and his receivers. Let’s face it, the Vikings’ secondary is one of the worst in the NFL. The 2nd year QB will face better starting CBs this season than Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook, and Josh Robinson in the Metrodome. If his offensive line can keep him away from Jared Allen and Brian Robison, he should produce his best numbers as a pro. He should have a productive game along with Justin Blackmon, Laurent Robinson, Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis. I don’t care that the game is played in a hostile environment (with maybe a little help by fake crowd noise…), this is a game where he should silence his critics and restore the faith of the fanbase in him. This game could be the first where he is the reason the Jaguars left the field with a victory.
I must mention one more aspect which could be the X-factor of this game. Special teams. I have concerns with the defense, but that is partly because of injuries. I have huge concerns about the ST unit for this year. This team is so high on the depth players ability to contribute on special teams, yet the kickoff and punt coverage in the preseason was often terrible. Yeah, they had some good moments, like when UDFA rookie SS Antwan Blake forced 2 fumbles, but mostly we saw returns for big gains and often terrible decisions by the returners in Jaguars uniforms. The Vikings’ most dangerous player besides Jared Allen is undoubtedly Percy Harvin. He might have a great day as a receiver based on the Jaguars issues at CB, but he is also a dangerous returner as well. Last season he had a kickoff return TD for 104 yards! I only hope the fact that Montell Owens is now just the 3rd RB in the depth chart after Jones-Drew is back means that he can focus to make ST unit play better (he played in the last 2 Pro Bowls as the ST selection of the AFC).
Bottom line is that these are two very similar teams in many ways. I think the Jaguars’ roster is a little bit stronger, but the Vikings can equal this with playing in their own dome. I’m sure both teams think they have a pretty good chance to win this game. This will be a special game for the owners as well. This will be the 1st game for the Jaguars under the new regime of Shadid Khan, so they have an extra reason to win it (not to mention to avoid a possible 0-2 start, since the Texans will visit Jacksonville next week). Vikings owner Zygi Wilf told his players this week that this is the most important home opener in his eight-year tenure. So despite the mainstream media and the average NFL fan looking at this game as “meaningless” and “irrelevant”, this is a big game for these two teams. One month ago I thought this would be a low scoring game, but because the Jaguars offense looks better then I thought and the defense worse, both teams can score 20+ points. I think it will be close, but if the Jaguars can avoid stupid mistakes (for example at special teams), take care of the ball, and keep Jared Allen away from Blaine Gabbert, they will pull out a small margin victory.
Prediction: Vikings 21 – Jaguars 24
– Zoltan Paksa