The problem with the NFL is there are no breathers from one week to the next. Just ask the Green Bay Packers, double-digit favorites at home against a struggling Arizona team that had won just two of its first 11 games, yet posted a 20-17 win over the Packers last Sunday.
Or ask the Indianapolis Colts, one of the hottest teams in the NFL last week with a five-game winning streak who came to Jacksonville last Sunday to take on a Jaguars team that was deflated and frustrated with a seven-game losing streak. Yet the Jaguars pulled off a 6-0 win. It’s an indication that no team can take another team for granted. It’s also a reason that almost to a man among the nearly 1,700 players on one of the 32 rosters in the league, their claim of taking things one game at a time is indeed an accurate statement.
That’s why there won’t be any Tennessee Titans players taking Jacksonville lightly this week in an abbreviated work-week with the teams playing on national TV Thursday night. The Titans are in the hunt for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, currently tied with three other teams all sporting 6-6 records and a game behind Baltimore (7-5) who is in that final playoff spot, at least for this week.
But the Titans would currently fall behind Miami, Indianapolis and Denver in a tie-breaker if they were to finish in a tie for the sixth and final playoff spot. That puts Tennessee 10th in the playoff hunt, which doesn’t sound good unless you compare it to Jacksonville which sits 14th in the playoff race, ahead of only the New York Jets (3-9) and Oakland (2-10).
While there is still a mathematical chance that the Jaguars could make the playoffs at 8-8, there is no longer talk about the playoffs in their locker room. Even with the win over Indianapolis last week, it turned playoff talk into “finish strong” talk.
“We’re all professionals and we take pride in our game,” defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “We want to finish as strong as we can and put together a winning streak. There’s no reason we can’t win these final five games and at least get to 8-8. That’s not the record we wanted, but right now that’s the goal we’re striving to get.”
The first of the five is behind them with the win over the Colts. But now comes the Titans, a team that has had Jacksonville’s number in recent years (winning five of the last six meetings). This is Jacksonville’s most-despised team, dating back to the Titans’ AFC Championship game win over the Jaguars in 2000 that cost Jacksonville its best chance of appearing in the Super Bowl until last year’s fiasco against New England in the AFC title game. The Tennessee loss came on Jacksonville’s home turf, was the third straight win by the Titans over the Jaguars that season, and strengthened former Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher’s claim as Jacksonville being the Titans’ “home away from home.”
Fisher has long since departed from Tennessee but the memories of Tennessee’s dominance over the Jaguars in the early 2000s (10 wins in a 12-game span from 1998 to 2003) still haunts many Jaguars fans. But with the recent Titans success in the series, it’s rekindled some bitter memories.
With Tennessee playing at home on national TV in prime time and still in the playoff hunt, winning on the Titans field won’t be an easy task on Thursday.
“Tennessee has an excellent defense. The front seven is outstanding: big, strong, powerful,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “Linebackers are downhill, hit. Secondary plays well. We’re going to have to do a good job up front. It’ll be a great challenge for those guys on the [offensive] line.”
Among those challenged, will be two players who were starters with the lowly New York Giants (also 4-8) but who were released because they weren’t getting the job done. Now, OT Ereck Flowers and OG Patrick Omameh line up next to each other in the Jaguars starting lineup. Add in backup center Tyler Shatley and it makes a trio of players who are only starting because of injuries to others.
Flowers and Omameh will have a major task on hand in Thursday’s game as both will likely take on the Titans’ talented defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. At 305 pounds Casey is a load to contain. His strength is his ability to stuff runners at the line, not a good mix for the Jaguars who like to run Leonard Fournette off the left side of the line, right where Casey will be stationed.
“He’s tough. We probably don’t have enough guys to put on him at a time,” Marrone said about Casey. “He has always played well. He’s one of the better inside players in the league. He’s up there when you mention Aaron Donald and players like that that play inside; he’s right up there with them. I have a lot of respect for him.
“Their whole defense, all of those guys play extremely hard. They really do. Their effort is outstanding. We have not played well against them, that’s a fact.”
NOTES and QUOTES:
--After winning three of four games the month of September, the Jaguars were winless in both October and November. Now they’re hoping that they can finish with a flurry and possibly close out the season with a five-game winning streak in December. They were victorious in the first of their five December games when they posted a 6-0 win over Indianapolis last Sunday. But after winning for the first time in eight weeks, the Jaguars won’t have any time to bask in their first home shutout in 12 years. Their only prime time appearance of the season takes place on Thursday when they travel to Tennessee to take on the Titans on national TV (FOX/NFL Network).
For Cody Kessler, victorious in his first start with the Jaguars last week, he’s glad it’s a quick turn-around.
“You get to play again early,” Kessler said about the Thursday game. “I’m excited. I’m ready to get back out there. Obviously, to get that first win felt great, but there are a lot of things that I want to improve and as an offense, we want to continue to do. Me and [Quarterbacks Coach] Scott Milanovich both kind of talked after the game like, ‘Hey, we’ll get to know each other better. We’ll get more comfortable.’
“We both will improve and that’s something that we get to do early this week and get back out there.”
After the win over the Colts, Kessler went to Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey and told him that he will play better the next time out. Kessler explained his thinking about the statement on Tuesday when he met with local media. “When the defense holds them to zero, you want to put up touchdowns. You want to score points and as the quarterback of an offense, that’s on me first,” Kessler said. “There is stuff that we want to improve on and you want to give them [the defense] the comfort level of them knowing, ‘Hey, they’re going to go out there and score some points.’ That’s something that we want to improve on this week.”
GAME NOTES & QUOTES:
--The Jaguars trio of defensive tackles – Marcell Dareus, Abry Jones and Malik Jackson – have made life difficult for opposing teams’ guards and center. It’s a trio that has size, strength and finesse and is a group that has made it tough on opposing teams to run up the middle. This group will now encounter a Tennessee interior offensive line that has struggled at times this year.
The Titans are solid at the two tackle spots with Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan and All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin on the other side. But in-between, it’s been nothing short of a disaster for the Colts. In last Sunday’s game against the Jets, left guard Quinton Spain was yanked, center Ben Jones slid to the left to replace Spain and Corey Levin was inserted at center in place of Jones. But the Jets were still able to register three sacks in the game, leaving Tennessee on pace to surrender the most sacks in a single season since the franchise moved to Nashville in 1997.
“Just kind of something I felt like needed to be done at that time,” Colts head coach Mike Vrabel said. “That might change each week but I wanted to try to get Corey in at center and see what Ben looked like at left guard.”
Opposing teams have been able to get to Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. He’s been sacked 11 times in the past three games and has been dropped 42 times for a minus 253 yards. The sack total ranks 31st in the NFL this week.
But the Jaguars haven’t gotten to opposing quarterbacks nearly like they did a year ago. Through the first 12 games, Jacksonville has recorded just 24 sacks, ranking 27th in the league. If they maintain that pace of two sacks per game, the Jaguars will finish with 32 sacks compared to the 55 they recorded last year in the regular season, second to only Pittsburgh (56) for the most sacks.
--Anyone who wonders why NFL players watch so much tape leading up to their next game, should talk to Jaguars defensive tackle Yannick Ngakoue. He gives credit to his tape-watching leading up to the Indianapolis Colts game Sunday as a major reason why the Jaguars were able to end their losing streak and post their first home shutout in 12 years.
The play that helps verify Ngakoue’s claim came in a Colts’ lengthy first-half drive that stretched from the Colts’ 37 and reached the Jaguars 1-yard line. It was a 17-play series that took 7:50 to complete and ended with the Colts first converting a field goal, then taking the points off the board due to a Jaguars penalty, but eventually leaving the Colts with no points when they failed to convert on a 4th-and-goal play from the 1-yard line.
On the final play, Andrew Luck threw a shovel pass toward the middle of the field to tailback Jordan Wilkins who had started the play adjacent to Luck. The play was designed to leave Ngakoue unblocked with the idea that he would rush towards Luck and leave an opening. But Ngakoue read the play and stayed home and had a good angle to hit Wilkins and drop him for no gain.
When asked about the play after the game, Ngakoue said the NFL is a “copy-cat” league and he remembered to expect that play in the red zone after seeing it so many times on tape. The play was of course a huge momentum swing for the Jaguars. It prevented the Colts from scoring what would have been the game’s only touchdown and what would likely have resulted in a one-point Colts win had Ngakoue not watched so much tape leading up to the game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL:
--DE Yannick Ngakoue and DL Calais Campbell have combined for 17.5 sacks against AFC South opponents since Campbell signed with the Jaguars in 2017. The two linemen both recorded a sack last week against Indianapolis and now lead the Jaguars with 7.0 sacks each.
--CB Dee Delaney ws waived from the active roster on Monday when RB Leonard Fournette returned from a one-game suspension.
--CB Jalen Ramsey will wear shoes with cleats that will represent Ramsey’s Reach in Thursday’s game at Tennessee. It’s part of the third annual My Cause, My Cleats campaign across the NFL during which players debut custom cleats on the field. Ramsey’s Reach is an organization that fosters educational and developmental opportunities for youth in the Nashville area. Ramsey grew up in Smyrna, Tenn., not far from Nashville.
--RB T.J. Yeldon has totaled 472 receiving yards this season, 93 behind the all-time Jaguars record of 565 (Maurice Jones-Drew, 2008) receiving yards by a running back in a single season. Yeldon’s 53 receptions in a single season are tied for second (Jones-Drew, 2009) among Jaguars running backs. Yeldon needs 10 more catches to surpass Jones-Drew record of 62 receptions in the 2008 season.
--WR DJ Chark Jr. is still out with a quadriceps injury and is likely out of Thursday’s game against the Titans.
--NT Abry Jones has a shin contusion and was wearing a boot earlier in the week. He’ll likely miss the Tennessee game after starting the previous two weeks.