At last, the 2012 regular season is upon us.
All of the questions Jacksonville Jaguars fans have been asking all offseason will finally begin to be answered when they travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings at Mall of America Field at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.
This is a matchup between two teams that struggled throughout the 2011 season with rookie quarterbacks most of the way.
Those two quarterbacks, Blaine Gabbert for Jacksonville and Christian Ponder of Minnesota, are looking to improve upon their less-than-stellar rookie seasons, and it starts against each other.
The Jaguars begin this season with a lot of new beginnings: a new owner, a new head coach and a new rookie wide receiver who is expected to make an immediate impact for the team.
Let's take a look at the five keys to the Jaguars starting this new season on a good note with a win over the Vikings.
Protect Blaine Gabbert
Gabbert was much-maligned last season for never settling down within the pocket. He routinely threw the ball without stepping into his throws, which made for inaccurate balls to his targets.
Gabbert showed improvement upon this during the preseason as he stood tall in the pocket.
But that was during the preseason, where teams are not showing their entire hand when it comes to their defensive schemes.
That will not be the case Sunday. Gabbert will have the league's best sack artist from 2011, Jared Allen, breathing down his neck.
Allen finished last season with 22 sacks, tied for the second most in NFL history in a single season.
That doesn't necessarily bode well for an offensive line that allowed Gabbert to be sacked 40 times last season.
If the offensive line can make Gabbert feel comfortable in the pocket against Allen, things could be looking up for the rest of the season.
Disrupt Christian Ponder
On the flip side of protecting Gabbert and making him feel comfortable in the pocket, the Jaguars defense should try to get to know Ponder as much as possible during the game.
Ponder was sacked 30 times last season, and much like Gabbert, nothing would get in the head of a young quarterback more than pressure.
The Jaguars drafted Andre Branch just for this task. Branch, Jeremy Mincey, Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton should give the Jaguars their best front four in a long time. They should be in the face of Ponder all game long.
The Jags were 25th in the NFL in sacks last season. Improving upon that ranking begins this Sunday.
Get Gabbert into a rhythm early, build his confidence
What's the best way for a quarterback to get better? Let him throw the ball.
That's right. It's that simple.
The Jaguars may have a very good running game with Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings, but they have to let Gabbert get into a flow early. That means more throws on first and second down as opposed to running it on first and second down and throwing it on third, when the defense is expecting pass.
This may take away carries from two playmakers in Jones-Drew and Jennings, but it will help the offense as a whole become multidimensional and get the ball into the hands of other playmakers, such as Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson.
Not to mention, get Gabbert into a rhythm. If Gabbert is only throwing the ball on 3rd-and-long, he will struggle.
I'm not saying the Jags should air it out, but they should get Gabbert started with simple throws to simply get him completions.
Stay committed to the run
Now this may sound like the complete opposite of what I just wrote, but really it's not.
The Jaguars are a run-first team. They've shown that during the preseason. The reason why I say get the passing game going a little bit early on is that if the running game is shut down, the Jags could turn to the passing game with Gabbert in rhythm.
The likelihood of the running attack being completely shut down is unlikely, but being slowed down is definitely possible. The Vikings finished 11th in the league last year against the run, giving up an average of 107 yards per game.
They no longer possess the Williams Wall, but one half of it is still on the roster in Kevin Williams, who is still capable of stuffing the run.
If this situation were to arise, the Jaguars can not begin to air it out. They have to stay committed to the run in order to, at the very least, keep the Vikings honest.
It also keeps the weight of the entire offense off Gabbert.
Win the battle of field position
This is a game that features two offenses that struggled last season. With it being the first game of the season, there are sure to be struggles on offense for both of the second-year quarterbacks.
With that being the case, the game could come down to field position—a battle the Jaguars have to win.
With the struggles of former punter Nick Harris last season, the Jags routinely lost this battle, which put the defense in bad situations.
Now that the Jaguars have drafted Bryan Anger, a guy who routinely averages 40 yards per punt, the Jaguars should win this battle more often.
Making Ponder and the Vikings offense travel long distances would not be advantageous for them and would be a plus for the Jaguars.
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