Hungary for the Truth: Jaguars Preseason Diary, Part II
By Zoltan Paksa
After 8 months, the Jaguars finally returned to the field for an actual NFL game last Thursday. The bad thing is, they left with a lopsided loss and surrendered 47 points to the Patriots. As the preseason is infamous for doing, the final score masks what really matters. In this case, our A/B team held their own against the Patriots A/B team, which is a completely satisfactory result this soon after returning to “normal” football life. Although there are some concerns with the first unit, I found reasons to be optimistic.
Let me start with Vic Ketchman. “Why?” you might ask – it’s simple, he was a major proponent of the “Run the Ball, Stop the Run” philosophy, which may again be the mantra of 2011 Jaguars. I expect this team to return to what they have always done best under Jack Del Rio. Right now, we can only guess how Maurice Jones-Drew’s knee is really feeling, but he insists that it is now pain free. His backups Rashad Jennings and Deji Karim are looking capable of sharing the load with our franchise player – Jennings especially looks ready to make a major step forward this year, which will send a message that the Jaguars running game will not slow down in the absence of “Pocket Hercules”. Karim looks to return as a very effective special teams weapon and Dirk Koetter will hopefully find ways to use his explosiveness in the offense, as well. There is a lot to like about the run defense, as well – Session, Posluszny and Landry were each acquired to support the effort to stop the run and proved their worth last week. Assuming he stays healthy, Session could be a great fit on the Jaguars, as many predicted. Here’s a Stat of the Week that I found interesting – Clint Session produced 2 forced fumbles in one game (10 snaps), his predecessor Justin Durant had the same amount in 4 years as a Jaguars player! And one of the biggest (no pun intended) contributors for a great run defense just returned to training with his teammates. With Terrance Knighton returning to playing shape, I think few running backs will find success against this defense. Many will remain skeptical that a defense designed to stifle the opposing running game can be effective in this era of pass-first offenses. Time will tell, but I believe great results are still obtainable by running the ball and stopping the run. If the Jaguars are able to do this, our receivers will naturally have bigger passing lanes to exploit and opposing offenses will be forced to be one dimensional – sounds like a viable formula.
After his first preseason game, I think we can be excited about Blaine Gabbert’s future. Although it wasn’t particularly special, Blaine did a solid job for his first NFL game and could have used a little more help from his receivers (What was that, Mike Thomas?! You had only 4 drops in 99 targets last year). More than likely, it was just a little rust and nothing we should be concerned about. Gabbert threw a few balls off target and over his receivers (probably from nerves), but overall showed some raw ability to be optimistic about for the future, even though his final performance did not look overwhelmingly impressive.
Now let’s move on to some topics that could become legitimate red flags, if they are not corrected soon. I won’t bother to write about the bottom of the roster, because even Jack Del Rio and the other personnel evaluators are sending these players out on the field to see how they react in certain situations and if they have a chance to contribute to the team in the future. My biggest concerns were along the trenches on both sides of the ball, specifically the offensive tackles and defensive ends.
It was clear that Gabbert was feeling too much pressure from the Patriots pass rushers. The Jaguars need Eben Britton to return to practice and start building on his first two years in a hurry, as currently the RT position is looking like it could be a question mark for yet another season. Excuse the bad joke, but Guy Whimper is just “a guy” and we don’t know how effective could Tony Moll, who was signed by the Jaguars last week, can be at the RT position yet. The former Raven has plenty of experience and can hopefully contribute until Britton fully recovers from his minor surgery. LT Eugene Monroe had looked great early in training camp, yet his side of the line seemed vulnerable in the game, which should not be the case with a first round, franchise left tackle. Monroe noted that he is used to playing with Vinnie Manuwai to his right and is just now learning to gain rapport and play together next to the Jaguars 3rd round pick, rookie LG Will Rackley.
The Jaguars complete lack of pressure from the pass rush was also disconcerting last Thursday. I know our best DT and DE, Kampman and Knighton, missed the game, but I thought we would see flashes from the Jeremy Mincey or Austen Lane, who had supposedly been the star of training camp. Patriots backup QB Brian Hoyer had all day to make the throws on most of the Patriots passing plays; I expected to at least get a glimpse of a stronger pass after all the buzz in training camp, but it appeared quite vanilla in its first televised appearance this year. This is not a new theme for the Jaguars – last summer, it was Derrick Harvey who looked very good early on in camp, only to disappoint in the preseason and regular season games thereafter. It seems the Jaguars’ newest member, DE Matt Roth, will likely be the other starting defensive end along with Aaron Kampman, with the entire line working in a constantly rotating manner. Mincey and Lane will still have their opportunities to contribute, with the idea being that fewer snaps will keep players fresher, hungrier, and more effective.
Speaking of Kampman, there have been some very unexpected developments concerning the leader of the Rushmen. First, it was reported that he’d be moving to the left defensive end spot, despite the right side being the typical position of a team’s best pass rusher (which Kampman undoubtedly is on the Jaguars), rushing the quarterbacks blindside and matching up against the offense’s premier pass protector. Now we are hearing that his snap count will be reduced from nearly every defensive snap to approximately 45 snaps per game. The Colts have employed this strategy for some time with their dominated rushing duo , Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, who also play about 40 snaps per game to maximize their effectiveness in-game and keep them fresh for December and January. It seems apparent that preserving Kampman’s health, specifically his two restructured knees, is no small concern for the coaching staff.
I’m also wary to call the Roth signing a great move just yet. He’s played primary as a OLB in the 3-4 in Miami and Cleveland, so is he really a great fit for the Jaguars’ 4-3? He played in Iowa in that system, but that was long time ago. He’s certainly capable of a high playing level, as he showed in Cleveland in the first half of 2010, and he’s got a reputation for being a nasty fella, elected “Guy I Most Want on My Side in a Barfight” for three consecutive years in Miami.
The final area that needs to be settled before the preseason concludes is the punter position. Matt Turk didn’t exactly start the new chapter of his long career off very impressively with the Jaguars. His first two attempts yielded a 30 yard punt and a 14 yard punt. Interesting note: his 14 yard “long” punt is not the shortest in Turk’s long career; while playing with the Raiders in 2007, he blasted a 10 yard punt versus Cleveland – so he has that going for him, which is nice. The Jaguars have developed an elite special teams unit in the past few years, placing among the league’s best last year for opponent’s starting field position. Turk (or whoever earns the starting punter job) must pick up where Adam Podlesh left off or the defense’s job just got a lot more difficult. Those covering the team maintain that Turk’s leg is stronger then Podlesh’s, but he’s relearning the directional punting style that the Jaguars special teams prefer to use. Turk and the Jacksonville coaches say there’s nothing to worry about, but another game as bad as last week’s could mean the Jags send the 43 year old packing. Despite cutting Turk’s competition, Durant Brooks, on Friday, they signed 2010 6th rounder Brent Bowden this week. Losing Podlesh was an unexpected and painful blow to the Jaguars, but the team’s best option is for Turk to return to form and win the job. However, I think the front office will be addressing this issue next offseason to find a better long term solution.
– Zoltan Paksa