Game Preview: Jaguars at Carolina Panthers
By Zoltan Paksa
The NFL is really a “week to week” league. Otherwise how can you not love, that a game between an 0-2 team versus another one, who just got beat very badly last Sunday is all of sudden is in the center of everybody’s attention. There will be plenty of great games this Sunday (besides the Steelers-Colts on Sunday night, oh my that will be ugly…) and still it was the Panthers-Jaguars game which was on front page Thursday on Sports Illustrated website. But the reason is easy. Carolina’s QB, the Nr. 1 pick of this year’s draft, Cam Newton looking like a offensive rookie of the year winner already. Meanwhile the Jaguars will start a new era in the franchise history with starting there QB if the future, Blaine Gabbert. During the road to the draft, everybody had their opinion about which of these QBs are the best in this draft class. Now everybody can watch them head to head against each other. But there will plenty of other key figure in this ball game. Let’s take a deeper look.
I think we can all agree, the Jaguars Nr. 1 goal for this game, is to stop or at least limit Carolina’s offense, which is ranked Nr. 2 in passing and total yards. In 2 game the rookie QB out of Auburn, Cam Newton, passed for 854 yards in 2 games. Only Tom Brady (who looks unstoppable right now) have thrown more. This will be the first (among the many) real test for the Jaguars reshaped secondary. Looks like starting CB Derek Cox will return, and Dwight Lowery will replace Courtney Greene at safety. Along with Rashean Mathis and Dawan Landry they will have there hands full this Sunday. WR Steve Smith is once again looking like one of the best receiver of the NFL. He got 334 receiving yards (the Jaguars didn’t produce that much passing yards in 2 games combine) and 2 TDs. Also we will see how the big problem for a long time (defending good TEs) improved or not, because Carolina has not 1 but 2 great tight ends in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Not to mention WR Brandon LaFell and WR Legedu Naanee. And they have 2 very good RBs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart but these two are now a bigger threat as receivers then play makers on the ground. The Panthers are struggling on the ground, and I think it’s safe to say they will not blossom against the Jaguars run defense which is really starting to become a real force. Partly because the Panthers O-line is banged up a little, but partly because of Newton’s playing style. By the way, did I mentioned that Newton is the leading rusher of the Panthers? The Jaguars defensive line must find the way to rush Newton, who is much less accurate when he’s chased out of the pocket. His 4 interceptions came mostly when he got pressure. The left side of the Panthers O-line is solig with LT Jordan Gross and LG Travelle Wharton. Center Ryan Kalil also a solid veteran. Where the Jaguars pass rush might can find his way to Newton is the right side. RT Jeff Otah is suffered a concussion, but he’ll play although I expect he might struggle a bit because of that. Byron Bell will play at RG, and although he was vs. Clay Matthews as a RT last week, he might struggle against Knighton or Alualu. Anyway, if Newton will have the time, he can teared this defense apart easily. The Jaguars must rush the QB; and that could lead to turnovers (Newton throw 4 interceptions already). As you can see the jaguars defense must play very well to at least limit this very impressing offfense. But I have a good news. Jaguars can stop Newton and co in a different way too!
How can they manage that? It’s simple – keep him and the Panthers offense off the field with long, I mean really long drives by the Jaguars offense. I’m not going to lie, the Panthers defense is looking like a picture perfect opponent for the Jaguars offense, and for Blaine Gabbert. Let me explain. Other then the starting DEs (Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy) and maybe starting CB Captain Munnerlyn not many representing that much of a threat. And Carolina got not much at the middle. They lost already the heart and soul of the Panthers defense, LB Jon Beason in Week 1, and last week Thomas Davis joined him on IR (the veteran already announced his retirement).That means backup LB Omar Gaither and Jason Williams will start and try to helping the 2 rookie staring DTs Sione Fua and Terrell McClain has to limit Maurice Jones-Drew. Good luck with that. Also most likely the starting SS Charles Godfrey will also miss the game. Either Jordan Pugh or ex-Jaguar Sean Considine will replace him. Although I hope Blaine Gabbert can show some flashses in the passing game, to what can we expect from the rookie QB, I hope the Jaguars will run the ball, and run if very effectively on Sunday (this matchup could benefit even Deji Karim as well).
The other reason I want to see the a very powerful running game from the Jaguars is that they are currently quite thin at the receiver position. Jason Hill and Kassim Osgood will most likely not play. That means next to Mike Thomas we might see the rookie Cecil Shorts starting or maybe Jarrett Dillard. And other then these 3 players the Jaguars have only got Chastin West, who just joined the team from the Packers practice squad. Add to the mix that Marcedes Lewis is probably not 100% healthy yet, and you got some issues at WR. I know Jones-Drew, Karim and TE Zach Miller can catch the ball as well, (and I really want to see finally something from Miller). but I think the Jaguars must establish the run first (because that is this team strength, and of course it helps controlling the clock), which can open up the backfield before Gabbert and his receivers.
By the way I mentioned Johnson and Hardy. Eugene Monroe is facing his biggest test yet in the ’11 season. Although he allowed only 1 QB hit in 2 games, it was against Williams Hayes, and Jets DEs, who are not exactly represent big threat in the pass rush. Opposite to them, Charles Johnson will and he plays like he want to pay back on the field all the huge amount of money Carolina spent extending him in last July. I think that(Monroe vs. Johnson) will be the second great battle to watch after the “main event” – Newton vs. Gabbert. On the right side, Eben Britton will take back his starting job from the all of sudden quite solid Guy Whimper. He’ll face Greg Hardy who looks like a steal right now from last years draft, and it will be a good test to see if he is returned to his ’10 form, when he played quite good until he was injured. If Britton struggles, Whimper is still there to help.
And what can we expect from Blaine Gabbert? Nobody knows, although he is a bit lucky to start against this Panthers defense. I hope he continue this year’s trend, and will be as impressing as Newton and Bengals staring rookie QB Andy Dalton played so far. But to be realistic, I expect errors. Maybe even an interception or even two. But I want to see some flashes as well. Throws we didn’t see for a while from the starting QB of the Jaguars. I want to see 1 or 2 deep passes and 1 or 2 big passing plays. And I really want to see how Gabbert will handle pressure. That is an area of concern with him, and I want to see if he developed for the better already or not. When Jack Del Rio made Luke McCown to the starter, the main reason against Gabbert was, that he is not ready yet. I really hope he developed quickly in the past 2 weeks. Becasue as many wrote before me this week, there is no turning back. Unless he is injured, he will be the starting QB of this team in ’11 and beyond (at least 2-3 years, I hope it will be at least a decade). He is the most important piece in Gene Smith’s rebuilding puzzle. And there is a secret mission he got as a bonus when he was drafted with the 10th overall pick. He must save the profesional football in Jacksonville. Tall orders for a 21 years old young man, but we all hope he can grow up to the challenges and he can deliver them all.
I think despite what almost all experts projecting, the Jaguars have pretty good chances to win this game. They must run the ball as effective they can, eat the clock, protect Gabbert from Johnson (and Hardy) and not beat themselves on offense again. And when Cam Newton is on the field, limit the big plays and chase him out of the pocket. Yeah I know to do all these things in 1 game may be a little bit of a tall order to this team, but let’s face it, if they really want to play for something real (at least for a wildcard spot) later in the season, this is almost a “must win” game. The schedule soon will become much, much tougher (games against the Saints, Steelers, Ravens, Texans will come in the next 5 weeks). If this team want to be a contender late in the season for a playoff birth, they better start winning now. No matter who plays at QB.
Prediction: Jaguars 28 – Panthers 27