After two promising away games the Jaguars return to play in Everbank Field this Sunday. So far home field has definitely not been an advantage for Jacksonville – they lost all 3 games with a brutal 20-95 point differential. Also once again the home team has a tons of injuries (5 key players – Maurice Jones-Drew, Dwight Lowery, Rashean Mathis, Greg Jones and Montell Owens have already been ruled out). Despite the injuries the defense is slowly starting to look similar to last year’s much more impressive version. Against the Detroit Lions the Jaguars need to make sure that the new life of the offense continues.
The feel good stories of the last two weeks have been the improved pass rush and Blaine Gabbert starting to show real progress in the passing game. Both will be needed against a talented Lions team. Since the Maurice Jones-Drew injury Jacksonville has become a throw first team. Partly because they now have many backs dealing with injury (Jones-Drew, Owens and Greg Jones are all out for Sunday) and partly because Rashad Jennings is more effective as a receiver than as a runner (2.9 yards per carry this season – his average was 4.5 in his first two seasons). Plus besides Maurice Jones-Drew, the only real consistent play maker is wide receiver Cecil Shorts. Just like Gabbert, who had his 1st 300 yard passing game last week in Green Bay, Shorts crossed the century mark in receiving for the first time in his young career. His 20 yards per catch average is absolutely great. Justin Blackmon also had his best day as a pro last week. He still has room to develop, however. He was targeted this year 45 times yet he caught just 18 balls. Looks like Laurent Robinson will play too after he was cleared from his 2 concussions in 2 weeks. He will be needed. The Jags receivers may have an easier day of it as starting safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey will miss the game. Ricardo Silva and Erik Coleman will start instead of them. An ex-Jag (one of the many), Don Carey, was signed this week to provide some depth.The bad news is, although this will be the 8th different starting secondary line-up for Detroit, they always play rather well. One of their two corners will be familiar (Jacob Lacey – from the Colts). The other CB will be Chris Houston.
As I wrote the secondary is good on their own, but for sure the frightening and powerful Lions front seven sure boost their chances. Head Coach Jim Schwartz put together a unit which, when focused, is a major problem for the best offensive lines in the NFL. Their defensive line, when they are on, are scary to say the least. Kyle Vanden Bosch (3.5 sacks) is a very familiar face for Jaguars fans from the time he played with the Titans. Cameron Bradfield has never played against him and it will be a big test for the improving 2nd year player. Eugene Monroe will face one of the the best young pass rushers in Jacksonville native Cliff Avril (4.5 sacks). I hope his good streak continues against him. The Jaguars will face for the first time the unpredictable and very dangerous Ndamukong Suh (3.5 sacks) as well. If he’s on then Brad Meester (who was rested all week) and Uche Nwaneri/Mike Brewster will have a long afternoon. Since Gabbert still plays with an injured shoulder, they simply cannot let him near the young QB. Next to him is either Corey Williams (2.0 sacks) or the young Nick Fairley (1.5 sacks). All I can say is the Jaguars interior offensive line will face the toughest test so far against these players. Luckily they are (especially the young players) often inconsistent and can kill their momentum with unnecessary penalties. Behind them are 3 really good LBs. Among there are (once again) familiar faces. Their leading tackler is ex-Jaguar Justin Durant who is proving big time that it was a mistake letting him go 2 years ago. Next to him is Stephen Tulloch who played against the Jaguars a lot when he was with the Titans. Deandre Leavy is also contributing. Since key blockers like Jones-Drew and Greg Jones are missing, I think we will see Guy Whimper or Marcedes Lewis serving as an extra blocker to protect the QB. I don’t expect big things for the running game since this front seven is good and Jennings is struggling (and he will be basically alone). This is another big test for the Jaguars passing game.
Sadly 2 out of 4 starting DBs are already out and Derek Cox is questionable for the game. I’m sure Mel Tucker wants as many quality players in the secondary as possible. Because the lions and QB Matthew Stafford can throw the ball really well. Although Stafford has struggled often this season, he had one of his best games last week at home versus the Seattle Seahawks which included a game winning TD run. But when you think about the Lions you not think about their running game. You think about their receivers, staring with Calvin Johnson. Although “Megatron” didn’t practice all week, he’ll play. It’s a big question of how effective he will be since he is struggling compared to his past seasons (Madden curse, anyone?). He only has one TD on the season (Just like Guy Whimper…). Luckily for the Lions they have enough threats even without him and Nate Burleson, who is on IR. One of them is 2nd year player Titus Young, who is becoming a great Nr. 2 threat for Detroit. Also TE Brandon Pettigrew is among Stafford’s favorite targets, he is the second best receiver on the team in yards and catches. Tony Scheffler is a decent Nr. 2 behind him. There is also Ryan Broyles, the rookie out of Oklahoma, who now has more TD catches than Calvin Johnson. Since Burleson is out, Broyles’ role is getting bigger. RB Joique Bell is more efficient in the passing game than in the running game, he is a little bit similar like Rashad Jennings.
Then there are the ex-Jaguars receivers. 3 of them.
The news of the week was the Mike Thomas trade. The Jaguars got a 2014 5th round pick for their leading WR the last 2 years who was not the same since he got his new contract last year. Now he can prove himself against his old team. I hope he’ll drop the ball in this game like he did against the Packers. Other than him there is Brian Robiskie and special teams ace Kassim Osgood. Neither of them has a catch this season. Mike Harris, Chris Prosinski and Aaron Ross had a better than expected performance last week. They will need another one this week against the Lions receivers. A little help could come from the pass rush which was significantly better in the last few games, but the Detroit Lions offensive line is also quite good in pass protection.
Jeff Backus is as good at pass protecting as he is bad in run support. Dominic Raiola is the Lions version of Brad Meester, he is with the franchise more a decade. The others (guards Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman as well as RT Gosder Cherlius) have been with the team since 2010. So Jeremy Mincey and co will be challenged to find holes and put pressure on Stafford. Luckily the unit is not so good in run blocking. Although Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell are talented, neither of them have had good games recently. Leshoure had a 100 yard rushing game against the Titans but since then has done nothing special. The Jaguars stopped Darren McFadden and the Packers running game, so limiting the Lions ground game shouldn’t be a major issue.
The Lions are especially vulnerable on special teams. Although the weakest link there is returner Stefan Logan, if they think Thomas will be a boost there… well good luck. The Lions punter will be Nick Harris who had the same duties last year in Jacksonville. He and Bryan Anger are both from California, they know each other quite well, so it will be interesting to see who will have a better day. Anger had 2 not so good games in Oakland and Green Bay (he had a blocked punt returned for a TD which sealed the deal for the Packers) so he needs to bounce back.
This game is a bit special. Not just because there are a lot of ex-Jaguars returning to Everbank Filed but because of Shack Harris. He ran the show in Jacksonville between 2003-08. He is now serving the Lions as a Senior Personnel Executive. This game is a bit special to GM Gene Smith. He will go against a team which also restarted from scratch in ’09 (the year he took over for the Jaguars) and let’s be honest they are far more successful than the Jaguars. Smith’s job is on the brink as the fanbase has clearly turned against him. This team is standing on 1-6 in his fourth year as general manager. The team is now a contender for the Nr. 1 draft pick instead of a playoff spot. Although in the last 2 weeks some of his picks started to contribute well (Gabbert, Shorts, Prosinksi, Mike Harris to name a few), that’s still not enough. This team must start to win games and must start it now. Defeating a clearly more talented team is a good start. Also it is high time to put together a competitive and watchable game at home. The challenge is tough but I think manageable if the Jaguars play at home the way they have on the road. I wonder if that (and a little luck) is finally enough for a win.
Jaguars 24- Lions 23
– Zoltan Paksa