Providing Perspective Against the Saints
By Daniel Lago
The cliché during the preseason is that every team thinks they can compete for a playoff spot. I tend to give fans around the league a little more credit than that – there are some teams that are clearly multiple pieces away from being a consistent contender (Browns, Colts, Vikings for example).
The Colts may not have to wait long. Andrew Luck made Jaguar fans very sad after his terrific preseason debut.
Likewise, some teams who have the most important piece in place (quarterback) know they can compete for a playoff spot and beyond based on the performance of other units on the team (Saints, Patriots, Packers, …). So where do the Jaguars fall in that spectrum? Let’s do a quick breakdown on both sides of the ball comparing the Jaguars and this week’s opponent, the Saints.
The comparison here starts and ends with the quarterback. Drew Brees is an All-Pro QB coming off a historic passing season and a massive new contract. Blaine Gabbert is the most scrutinized QB in the league coming off a horrific rookie season. While some buffoons outside of Jacksonville claim the front office doesn’t believe in Blaine and or that Blaine looked bad in his first preseason game and could somehow be worse than last year, reports coming out of the Jacksonville paint the story of a more confident quarterback ready to improve in his second year. New Orleans’ fans have no reason to believe Drew Brees will drop off significantly.
The Saints have an underrated rushing attack spearheaded by four capable backs – Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory. Despite having the league’s leading rusher, the Jaguars still ran for almost 10 yards less per game than the Saints (123.1 to 132.9). If Maurice Jones-Drew comes back anytime soon, the Jags might be able to develop a potent two-headed rushing attack with Rashad Jennings.
Despite losing Carl Nicks, the Saints still have a solid offensive line. The Jaguars are currently in a minor state of flux due to injuries, but they should have a solid unit if everyone is healthy to start the regular season.
Even with their revamped receiving unit, the Jaguars will still likely lag behind the Saints in production. Drew Brees has effective weapons in any direction he looks: Marques Colston and Lance Moore on the outside, Jimmy Graham down the seam, Darren Sproles out of the backfield. Again, most of this production depends on the quarterback, and substantial improvements by Blaine will yield improvements in the receiving core.
The defensive side of the ball is a completely different story between the two clubs. The Saints replaced their defensive leader in Jonathan Vilma with Curtis Lofton (I consider it an upgrade) and they are installing a new system after moving on from disgraced defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. They have a few nice pieces in place like Malcom Jenkins and Cameron Jordan, but the defense is likely going to have a hard time keeping pace with the offense and protecting the leads Drew Brees is going to provide.
The Jaguars are coming off a strong defensive showing in 2011 led by coordinator Mel Tucker. Despite getting no help from the offense and a slew of season-ending injuries, the unit finished 6th overall in total yards allowed. Newly acquired linebacker Paul Posluszny and veteran Daryl Smith lead one of the best one-two linebacker punches in the NFL and the defensive backfield should be strong with Derek Cox, Dwight Lowery, Dawan Landry, Rashean Mathis and Aaron Ross. The Jaguars also addressed their most pressing defensive need in the draft by snagging Andre Branch in the second round. Pairing him with Jeremy Mincey and healthy versions of Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu should result in an even better defense than 2011.
Both clubs faced big changes on the sideline this offseason but with two different outlooks. New Orleans lost one of the brightest offensive minds in football when head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the year. Interim head coach Joe Vitt is also suspended for the first 6 games. Few would argue that this puts the Saints at an advantageous position.
The Saints decided to hang 10 feet of irony in their practice building.
Contrastingly, the Jaguars are in the middle of a wholesale culture change led by head coach Mike Mularkey. The Jags have improved at nearly every coaching position and the result is a staggering difference in practices this year compared to last. The real barometer will be the regular season, but the early dividends from the new coaching staff are promising.
As one would expect, the Saints are significantly more reliable offensively than the Jags, while Jacksonville is putting a stronger defense on the field. The Saints have an elite offense, so the Jaguars shouldn’t feel too bad about all the X’s on the Saints side. If Blaine can improve, the Jaguars might be able to claim an offensive advantage over a few other teams. Unfortunately, Blaine still “crumbles” in the pocket, so I guess we’re screwed.