Bills vs. Jaguars: Takeaways from Jacksonville's 27-20 Loss to Buffalo
The Week 15 matchup between the Bills and Jaguars went about as expected. Jacksonville was missing several starters, including strong safety Johnathan Cyprien, running back Maurice Jones-Drew and wide receiver Cecil Shorts. The Jaguars had been playing well, but those injuries seemed likely to make an impact on the game.
And they did. The Jaguars were unable to hold the Bills off the scoreboard after Buffalo's disappointing six-point performance last week in Tampa Bay, eliminating Jacksonville from playoff contention and dropping the team to 4-10.
The Bills were able to stuff the ball down Jacksonville's throat via the run and made enough plays in the passing game to get in the end zone three times. The Jaguars committed four turnovers and made enough mistakes to prevent them from winning their second consecutive home game.
In Weeks 12-14, we learned that the Jaguars were closer to being fully rebuilt than many previously thought. In Week 15, we learned that they're definitely not there yet.
Let's take a look at exactly what we learned.
Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Jordan Todman: Who Is Jacksonville's Best Running Back?
Entering Week 15, Maurice Jones-Drew had started all 13 games in 2013 and had a season-high 144 total yards in Week 12 against the Houston Texans.
Jordan Todman broke that mark in his first start on Sunday, rushing for 109 yards on 25 carries and adding four catches for 44 yards for a total of 153 total yards.
Todman has impressed all season, but he really put on a show against the Bills. He looked explosive, bursting through holes and blowing through arm tackles. He was patient, often waiting a second for his block to develop before slashing through the opening created by his blocker.
Maurice Jones-Drew has been solid enough for Jacksonville, but he will be 29 years old in 2014 and is a free agent following the conclusion of this season. He's averaging a career-low 3.5 yards per carry this season, the first season of his career in which he's been below 4.2. MJD simply isn't the player he used to be.
Todman has played well enough to get a shot at being MJD's long-term replacement; he'll only be 24 next year and has shown enough talent that the Jaguars should be comfortable giving him a heavier load next season.
My analysis? Jordan Todman is currently a better running back than Maurice Jones-Drew. I expect the Jaguars to give Todman expanded touches in the last two games of this season, as they wrestle with this decision themselves.
The Run Defense Isn't Completely Fixed Yet
Two weeks ago, the Jaguars allowed 97 rushing yards in a road win over the Cleveland Browns. Last week, Jacksonville allowed 83 yards on the ground in a home win over the Houston Texans. The Jaguars' run defense has been significantly better following their Week 9 bye, and they hoped to maintain that momentum in Week 15 against the Bills.
With safety Johnathan Cyprien out of the lineup, however, things did not exactly go as planned. Jacksonville surrendered a combined 198 rushing yards to Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller, EJ Manuel and Frank Summers, allowing the Bills to gash them on the ground, again and again.
In the first quarter, the Jaguars run defense looked as solid as it had the past few weeks, but the Buffalo offensive line wore the Jacksonville defenders down and started to create holes for its running backs as the game wore on.
The Bills' runners also broke Jacksonville tackles and picked up yardage in chunks. Though they didn't have a single run longer than 19 yards, the Bills marched their way downfield by using the run and picked up 12 first downs on the ground.
Again, the team's run defense had been impressive in recent weeks, but it's definitely not a finished product. I don't even think Johnathan Cyprien's presence would have fixed what was simply a disastrous performance by this unit.
The Offensive Line Struggled Big Time
Next man up!
The Jaguars started the 2013 season with an offensive line of Eugene Monroe, Will Rackley, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri and Luke Joeckel. Those same 2013 Jaguars ended their Week 15 loss to Buffalo with an offensive line consisting of Cameron Bradfield, Jacques McClendon, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri and Austin Pasztor.
Jacksonville traded starting left tackle Eugene Monroe to the Baltimore Ravens earlier in the season, then the team lost Luke Joeckel for the season due to a fractured ankle soon after. This week, Will Rackley suffered a concussion, leaving Mike Brewster as the starter at left guard, and even he left during the game and did not return.
Per John Oehser of Jaguars.com, Brewster also suffered a fractured ankle:
Jaguars OG Mike Brewster has a fractured left ankle.— John Oehser (@JohnOehser) December 15, 2013
Brewster's injury left the Jaguars scrambling and forced Jacques McClendon into his first action of the season.
As a result of the Jacksonville line-shuffling, the Bills defense amassed five sacks, eight quarterback hits and eight tackles for loss.
Jacksonville created some push in the running game, but they also allowed quarterback Chad Henne to be battered all game long by the Buffalo defensive front. The makeshift group performed about as well as can be expected, but that isn't a difficult baseline to meet.
Turnovers Were a Killer
Jacksonville isn't the type of team that can withstand turnovers and still win football games, and Week 15 was no exception. The Jaguars turned the ball over four times against the Bills (two interceptions and two lost fumbles) and were generally careless with the football.
The turnovers in this contest were especially costly. The first, an interception by Buffalo's Aaron Williams, came on the Jaguars' opening offensive drive, immediately following a fantastic seam route by Marcedes Lewis that brought the ball near midfield.
Turnover No. 2 came near the end of the first half, when Jacksonville receiver Mike Brown came down with a one-handed catch, only to have the ball stripped out of his hands by Bills cornerback Nickell Robey. The play was reviewed to see if Brown had controlled the ball long enough to call it a fumble, and the call on the field was upheld.
Jacksonville had been driving for a score before the end of the half. However, after the turnover, Buffalo took the ball downfield and kicked a field goal to stretch their halftime lead to 20-10. It was a costly turnover, to say the least.
The third Jaguars turnover was a fumble by Denard Robinson. "Shoelace" took the handoff and raced through a hole on the right side, heading toward the end zone. He almost reached pay dirt and stretched the ball out to try to break the plane. Unfortunately, Aaron Williams knocked the ball out of Robinson's hands as he stretched, and it was knocked out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
Chad Henne accounted for the fourth Jaguars turnover on a game-clinching interception that appeared to be thrown directly to Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the end zone.
As you can see, the fact that Jacksonville even had a shot to win this game is a testament to its fortitude. The Jaguars repeatedly shot themselves in the foot against the Bills. They can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win football games.
Jacksonville Missed Johnathan Cyprien
The Jaguars were without rookie free safety Johnathan Cyprien against the Bills after he suffered a thigh injury in practice on Wednesday. The results were predictably disappointing.
With Cyprien out of the lineup, Gene Smith draftee Chris Prosinski took his place. With Cyprien in the lineup, Winston Guy had been playing primarily as a free safety; with Prosinski joining him in the defensive backfield, the Jaguars were forced to use Prosinski at strong safety, a position which he is sorely inadequate. They could have also used Prosinski at free safety and Guy at strong safety, but that would have downgraded both positions.
The Jacksonville scheme involves semi-interchangeable safeties, and the Jaguars safeties were certainly interchangeable against the Bills on Sunday—in that they were both similarly awful.
Prosinski missed his share of tackles, including a "should have been" sack, a play in which he came on a safety blitz and flew right past Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Guy struggled a bit as well, picking up a defenseless receiver penalty and allowing Robert Woods to catch a touchdown pass right in front of him.
The Jaguars need Cyprien back in the lineup; that much is clear. Hopefully, his thigh is healed enough for him to give it a go in the Jaguars' final home game of the season against the Tennessee Titans next week.
The Team Missed Cecil Shorts (and Still Misses Justin Blackmon)
Jacksonville wide receiver Cecil Shorts entered Week 15 as the team's leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. With Justin Blackmon suspended indefinitely for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Shorts was the focal point of the team's aerial attack and had almost twice the amount of receiving yardage of any other player on the roster.
Unfortunately for the Jaguars, Shorts isn't at 100 percent. As noted by Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, Shorts has been nursing a groin injury since Week 10, and it flared up last Thursday against the Texans. As a result, he sat out the team's week contest against the Bills.
Without their leading receiver, the Jaguars turned to tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Clay Harbor, as well as running back Jordan Todman, in the passing game. Those three players accounted for 150 of the Jaguars' 237 passing yards on Sunday, meaning that Jaguars wide receivers, led by the relatively unknown Kerry Taylor, only mustered 10 grabs for 87 yards through the air.
The Jaguars need Shorts back, or they're going to have to get a whole lot more creative in the passing game. Jacksonville was unable to move the ball through the air, and without their top two targets, the box score should have a similar feel over the final two weeks of this season.
Hopefully, Shorts can tough out his injury and make an impact in the final two contests, but it might be in the team's best interest to shut their talented young receiver down.
Denard Robinson Has to Hold onto the Football
Denard Robinson entered Week 15 with 17 career carries for an uninspiring 27 yards.
The worst part? He has two fumbles in those 17 carries.
Robinson received two carries against the Bills and managed to double his career yardage by picking up 28 yards, most of which was picked up on a 24-yard run on the Jaguars' initial drive of the third quarter.
The Jaguars defense started the second half by forcing a three-and-out by the Buffalo offense. The ensuing punt return and a penalty against the Bills gave the Jaguars starting field position near midfield, following which they drove to the Bills 25-yard line.
"Shoelace" entered the game on first down. He took the handoff from Chad Henne and headed right, blowing through a huge hole on the right side and accelerating into the secondary.
The goal line was in sight. Robinson cut inside and leaned toward the goal line as a defender made contact with him. He stretched the ball to try and break the plane, only to have Bills safety Aaron Williams knock the ball out of his hands. The football squirted out the back of the end zone for a touchback, and Buffalo took possession at their own 20-yard line.
This play went from a potential touchdown to a crushing turnover. Head coach Gus Bradley confirmed that Robinson's mistake was stretching the ball toward the goal line, as he might have crossed the plane anyway:
Bradley: Robinson's mistake on fumble was reaching ball for end zone and not keeping it high and tight.— John Oehser (@JohnOehser) December 15, 2013
Robinson ended Week 15 with 19 career carries and three fumbles, a ratio sure that is sure to keep him from getting increased work over the next two weeks. Hopefully, this talented young player can learn to hold onto the football, because besides the fumble at the end, he flashed incredible talent on his 24-yard run against Buffalo.
The Draft Pick "Race" May Not Be over After All
Jacksonville entered Week 15 slated to pick fifth in the 2014 NFL draft, but their recent play had caused fans to stop looking at top-three prospects and start looking at who might be available closer to the end of the top ten.
With the loss to the Bills, Jaguars fans may want to take another look at those top prospects. Jaguars fan Stevie Howlin has a tracker on his website that shows where the Jaguars would select if the season ended today. After today's loss, the Jaguars would select third overall, as they hold the strength of schedule tiebreaker over all the other four-win teams.
The Jaguars players and coaches will do their very best to win their final two games, but those games are far from being automatic wins. The Titans, Jacksonville's Week 16 opponent, will likely want revenge due to the Jaguars' win in Tennessee in Week 10.
Indianapolis, meanwhile, is the top team in the AFC South and will likely be playing for playoff positioning. The Colts are unlikely to get a bye, but they would still prefer to end the season as the No. 3 seed.
Jacksonville's fans can start looking at those top prospects again, because a 4-12 finish might be enough to finish with the No. 3 overall pick. Heck, it might be enough for the No. 2 pick.
Though I'll be rooting for the Jaguars to win both games, there's a silver lining that exists in the form of improved draft positioning if they happen to lose.