The Week 6 Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Denver Broncos matchup wasn't the blowout most expected. Sure, the final score showed a sixth consecutive loss by double-digit points for Jacksonville, but the Jaguars played the Broncos tough all game.
Peyton Manning was good enough to win, but he wasn't the quarterback who had spent the previous five weeks shredding opposing defenses. The Jaguars got pressure on Manning and were able to throw the ball against the Broncos.
Jacksonville got better this week. It used the matchup against Denver to show motivation isn't the issue; it's simply personnel. We learned a lot about the Jaguars' future Sunday. Let's see what they showed us:
"YOLO" is an acronym that means "you only live once." Many people use it as a motto; in their Week 6 matchup against the Denver Broncos, the Jaguars used it as a strategy.
Adam Stites of Big Cat Country inadvertently (or was it on purpose?) coined the phrase "YOLOball" early in the game:
I do like YOLOball, but that fake punt was basically the equivalent of saying "We really don't think we have much of a shot here."— Adam Stites (@AdamBCC) October 13, 2013
For the Jaguars, the strategy makes a ton of sense. Jacksonville is looking at a lost season; it is 0-6 with two tough matchups ahead before the bye week. This week's game against Denver was supposedly a hopeless endeavor. Why not let loose and see what happens?
What happened included some bad (including a failed fake punt), but it worked out pretty well for the Jaguars. They called downfield passes for Chad Henne, and he slung the ball downfield and piled up over 300 yards passing. They sent blitzes at Manning and held him to what for him this year is a mediocre performance. It was the most fun game of the season for Jaguars fans, even though the team lost.
The Jaguars should use this as their strategy going forward. What do they have to lose by getting burned on blitzes and throwing the ball deep? What's the worst that will happen if they try a fake punt, fake field goal or trick play?
They're not going to the playoffs, but being aggressive and trying to win instead of playing not to lose will yield the Jaguars more positive results than negative. I'm sure the fans will agree it's more fun to watch.
Many expected the Broncos offense to roll all over Jacksonville's defense, possibly to the point of Manning spending the fourth quarter on the sidelines with a comfortable lead. Surprisingly, that wasn't the case.
Who would have pegged Jacksonville to be the first team in the 2013 season to hold Manning under 300 yards? Would you have guessed it'd be the only team against which Manning didn't throw three or more touchdown passes? I didn't think so.
In my game plan earlier this week, I detailed Manning's career averages against the Jaguars. His stats this week were remarkably similar to those numbers:
|Peyton Manning vs. JAX||Cmp||Att||Cmp%||Yds||TD||INT||Yds/Att|
If you told me the Jaguars would hold Manning to those numbers, I'd expect them to hold the Broncos under their season average of 46 points per game, and I'd have been right. The 35 points Denver scored against Jacksonville was its lowest point total of the year.
The Broncos' second-quarter possessions went like this: punt, fumble, punt, interception, halftime. Paul Posluszny returned the interception for a touchdown, and the Jaguars went into the locker room trailing by only two points. The second half didn't go quite as well as the first, but the second quarter was one of their best quarters of the season.
It was a fantastic performance by the Jacksonville defense. If it can keep playing like it did against the Broncos, the Jaguars will have a chance to actually win a few games this season.
Cecil Shorts was injured early in the game against the Broncos, which left Justin Blackmon as the main man on offense. Fourteen catches and 190 receiving yards later, Blackmon had accounted for 52.5 percent of Jacksonville's offensive yardage.
Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch seemed to make a concerted effort to get Blackmon involved this week, and it showed. Henne targeted Blackmon on a whopping 20 passes, accounting for almost half of the passes he attempted.
Blackmon lined up in the slant more often than outside and consistently beat Denver cornerbacks on slants, digs, crossing routes and posts. He consistently caught the ball in space and made defenders miss, stiff-arming Broncos defensive backs out of his way and picking up significant yardage after the catch. At one point in the second half, Shannon Sharpe commented, "Do not let Justin Blackmon cross your face."
Maybe the Jaguars' historically bad offense through four games was impacted by Blackmon's absence? In four games without Blackmon, the Jaguars put up only 7.75 points per game, 175 passing yards per game and 224 total yards per game.
Denver started its first possession at the Jacksonville 27-yard line and quickly headed to the end zone for a touchdown. However, its second possession didn't go nearly as smoothly as the first.
The Broncos started their second possession from their own 5-yard line after a fantastic punt by Bryan Anger. They picked up two first downs in three plays but then immediately stalled out, forcing the punt team to come onto the field at the Denver 30.
The problem? After the third-down play, a swing pass to running back Knowshon Moreno, Denver offensive lineman Zane Beadles dove at Andre Branch, who was lying on the ground after assisting in the tackle. The officials didn't catch Beadles' dive, but they did see Branch's retaliatory shove to Beadles' head.
Fifteen yards and a first down gave the Broncos offense another shot, and this isn't an offense to which you want to give free plays. Two runs and three completions later, the Broncos were in the end zone again, extending their lead to 14-0 and making the Jaguars' comeback much more difficult.
On Denver's first possession of the second half, a stop on Moreno by safety Josh Evans left the Broncos with a 3rd-and-goal from the 5-yard line and only one more chance to get into the end zone before having to settle for a field goal. Unfortunately, after the stop Evans got up and swaggered around over Moreno, saying something to the Broncos running back. The officials flagged Evans for taunting, turning a third down into a first down, and Denver punched the ball into the end zone a few plays later.
The call on Evans was iffy, but the fact remains the Jaguars need to be more disciplined. They don't have much margin for error, and extending opponents' drives with costly penalties is a good way to lose football games.
Sunday in Denver was Henne's third start of the season. In his first, against the Oakland Raiders, he threw for 241 yards on 38 attempts for an average of 6.3 yards per attempt, the majority of which was accrued in garbage time.
In his second start, against the Seattle Seahawks, Henne similarly ineffective. He threw for 235 yards on 38 attempts for an average of 6.2 yards per attempt, and again most of it was picked up during garbage time.
During his first two starts, Henne looked short early and often, resorting to throws short of the marker and relying on his receivers to pick up first downs. He latched onto receivers and threw tons of quick slants and curls, and his numbers were better than his performance suggested.
I continued to say Blaine Gabbert was better than Henne due to the fact that Gabbert looked downfield more often than Henne. They were both bad options, and they still are.
There was no garbage time against the Broncos, and that might suggest a lower yards-per-attempt average for Henne, but that isn't the case. Against Denver, Henne looked further downfield and looked to exploit holes in Denver's coverage. He found Blackmon in space often and looked nothing like the feeble risk-averse quarterback we saw in Weeks 2 and 3.
If Henne continues to look downfield and give his receivers chances to make plays, he is absolutely a better option for the Jaguars than Blaine Gabbert. Will he continue to play like he did against Denver, or will he return to the dink-and-dunk passing he exhibited in his first two starts? That remains to be seen, but hopefully it's the former...it's a lot more effective.
Another game, another game tape on which cornerback Will Blackmon and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks stand out. Blackmon and Marks have been bright spots on what has been a surprisingly good Jaguars defense, and they've consistently made plays and showed up on the screen.
Against the Broncos, Blackmon was credited with six tackles. He wasn't awarded any passes defensed, but he did play a part in forcing a Ronnie Hillman fumble that Denver was fortunate to recover, grabbing and ripping the ball away from Hillman while Johnathan Cyprien laid the wood and helped jar it loose.
No Broncos wide receiver picked up more than Demaryius Thomas' 78 yards, the majority of which came on one 42-yard catch-and-run. Denver wideouts Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker were held to a combined 14 catches, 191 yards and one touchdown, totals almost equaled by Justin Blackmon alone.
Marks was only awarded one tackle for loss against Denver, but he was in Denver's backfield several times and forced Manning to get rid of the ball earlier than he wanted. He's shown up consistently every week, and this week was no exception.
Blackmon and Marks have proved valuable enough to be part of the Jaguars' future, and I'm sure the Jaguars' front office agrees. General manager Dave Caldwell seems uninterested in negotiating contracts during the season, but I'd be surprised if these two defenders don't sign contract extensions very soon after the conclusion of the 2013 season.
The Broncos' pass rush isn't what it was last year, when the team tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 52. Elvis Dumervil is gone, having left the Broncos for the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Von Miller missed the game against Jacksonville as well; his six-game suspension ends after this week.
None of that means, however, that what Jacksonville's makeshift offensive line accomplished in Denver is any less impressive. After losing starting left tackle No. 1, Eugene Monroe, to Baltimore via trade, and losing starting left tackle No. 2, Luke Joeckel, to a broken leg last week, the Jaguars were left with Cameron Bradfield and Austin Pasztor at the two tackle spots against the Broncos.
Despite the shuffling along the line, the Jaguars only allowed Henne to be sacked twice and hit four times. The Jaguars offensive line played well all day and kept Henne clean enough to throw for a season-high 303 yards.
I don't think anybody expected the Bradfield/Pasztor bookend combo to play this well, but they did a great job against a Broncos team that was expected to wreak havoc in the Jaguars' offensive backfield all game. Maybe the offensive line isn't in as bad of shape as many of us thought?
How they play the rest of the way remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine someone not being impressed by Bradfield and Pasztor's play in Denver.
The vibe surrounding the Jaguars all season has been positive, and this week the performance on the field matched their intensity a lot more closely than in previous weeks.
Gus Bradley is the type of coach whose personality wears off on his players, and this week they were clearly fired up to play an opponent many were crowning as one of the the best teams ever. The Jaguars were energized early and often and made the game a lot closer than the score indicates.
The Jaguars aren't 0-6 because they lack motivation; they're 0-6 because they're a rebuilding team that lacks talent. There are plenty of players who have flashed the ability to be future difference-makers, but right now the roster still contains too many remnants of the mess former general manager Gene Smith built.
With another offseason, a franchise quarterback and a few more pieces in place, the Jaguars could go from cellar dweller to playoff contender a lot quicker than people expect. They've already got the team culture of a contender; give the personnel another couple of years to catch up.