This Week 16 Tennessee Titans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars matchup was bittersweet for the home crowd at EverBank Field. On one hand, it watched the Jaguars fall to a hated division rival and watched Brad Meester and likely others play their final game in Jacksonville.
On the other hand, fans got to witness "Meester-fest," which included a postgame ceremony honoring the longtime Jaguars center and a tight end-eligible play in which Meester lined up outside the right tackle and caught a screen pass for his first and only NFL reception.
There were flashes of brilliance from unknowns and difficult days for some, but one thing is for sure: Down many starters and contributors, the Jaguars competed hard for 60 minutes and had a chance to win the game on its final possession.
Nobody can say a Gus Bradley team doesn't play hard; the Jaguars have proven that all season long. Let's see what we learned from this week's war of attrition.
The Jaguars' inactives list included two starters, defensive tackle Roy Miller and linebacker Geno Hayes. Their injured reserve list includes even more contributors: wide receiver Cecil Shorts, linebacker Russell Allen, tackle Luke Joeckel, guard Will Rackley and guard Mike Brewster.
During the game, cornerback Dwayne Gratz, wide receiver Ace Sanders, tackle Cameron Bradfield, defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick, linebacker J.T. Thomas and linebacker LaRoy Reynolds left the field with injuries. It was, figuratively speaking, a bloodbath.
With the Jaguars relying on inexperienced players such as defensive tackle Jordan Miller, wide receiver Kerry Taylor and guard Jacques McClendon, the Titans simply wore them down in the second half. Jacksonville allowed 114 rushing yards after halftime and wasn't able to move the ball, only picking up 85 total yards after the break.
It's been a long season full of ups and downs, and the plethora of injuries seems like a big-time downer for the Jaguars, especially in a divisional loss such as this. However...
The Jaguars' massive injury issues pressed players into service who would usually be coming off the bench or be on the practice squad. Several players took advantage of the opportunity and impressed against the Titans.
Wide receiver Mike Brown, a converted quarterback out of Liberty, entered the season fourth—at best—on the depth chart behind Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders. With Blackmon and Shorts out of the lineup, Brown stepped in and grabbed five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. He displayed great hands and made some strong moves after the catch, picking up additional yardage after initial contact.
Undrafted defensive tackle Abry Jones, pressed into service due to injuries to Roy Miller and Brandon Deaderick, picked up four tackles, combined on a sack with linebacker Paul Posluszny and picked up a quarterback hit as well.
Linebacker J.T. Thomas, playing due to injuries to starters Russell Allen and Geno Hayes, picked up six solo tackles while spending the game rotating with John Lotulelei and LaRoy Reynolds and played a solid overall game.
Jacksonville seems to keep finding contributors out of nowhere; the Jaguars pick up players off the scrap heap only to have them contribute on a weekly basis. Is there a reason for this?
Yes, Gus Bradley is the reason.
The Jaguars head coach believes in the power of teamwork over the power of individuals. Instead of worrying about the players missing from the lineup, Coach Bradley focused on opportunities and making the most of them. Via former Jaguars sports broadcaster Cole Pepper:
Gus: Really didn't make that big of a deal about (all the new players). We really tried to have the mindset of thinking about opportunities.— Cole Pepper (@ColePepper) December 22, 2013
Many players took advantage of their opportunities to impress despite the circumstances. The Jaguars competed hard all game long and have done so all season, a testament to the message Gus Bradley has been pushing.
The Jaguars' effort has not gone unnoticed by the fans:
Again, competitive with this roster with these injuries is a win. I’m proud to be a Jaguars fan.— uncle chaps (@UncleChaps) December 22, 2013
The way the Jaguars are playing while struggling to win games will translate to many, many more wins when the personnel catches up. Playing hard with banged-up backups doesn't always translate to wins, but playing hard with a talented roster can yield home playoff games.
The Jaguars had a tough time against the Buffalo Bills running game last week, allowing 198 yards on the ground. The trend repeated itself against the Titans this week, as Tennessee piled up 182 rushing yards on 44 attempts.
Tennessee won the time-of-possession battle 35:39 to 24:21. Coach Bradley wasn't happy with the 44 attempts allowed; it spoke to the Jaguars' inability to get the Titans offense off the field:
Gus: Tennessee had 44 carries. That tells you that they were dedicated to running the ball. We don't want that.— Cole Pepper (@ColePepper) December 22, 2013
The Jaguars ran out of gas in the second half, allowing 114 rushing yards after the break. They allowed Shonn Greene and Chris Johnson to pick up big chunks of yardage and keep the clock moving.
Jacksonville entered Week 16 ranked 30th in the league in run defense with an average of 131.9 yards allowed per game, and this performance is likely to push it even further toward the bottom of the pile.
With the Jaguars pass rush struggling again in 2013, second-year player Andre Branch has been a bright spot. Entering Week 16, the Jaguars ranked 31st in the NFL with only 27 sacks on the season.
Jacksonville picked up three more against Tennessee to push its total to 30, and Andre Branch picked up another sack this week, pushing his season total to six.
All hail Jaguars DE Andre Branch! That's 3 straight games with a sack for the Human Windmill and 5 in last 6 games— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) December 22, 2013
Per The Associated Press' Mark Long, the sack this week was Branch's third consecutive game with a sack and his fifth in six games.
Branch now leads the Jaguars in sacks on the season with his six takedowns and has accounted for 20 percent of the team's sacks. Though he appeared to be a likely bust through the first half of the season, he's stepped up his game in the second half and appears poised to be a significant contributor down the road for the Jaguars.
With longtime center Brad Meester set to retire following this season, the Jaguars' final home game of 2013 was all about the veteran center. Prior to the game, when the starters on either side of the ball are usually announced, the Jaguars only announced one player:
Jaguars introduced one player before home finale: retiring C Brad Meester, who spent all 14 seasons in Jax— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) December 22, 2013
On a 2nd-and-8 from the Tennessee 13, left guard Jacques McClendon shifted to Meester's center spot and Drew Nowak slid in at left guard. Meester lined up as an eligible receiver in a tight end position, caught a screen pass and rumbled nine yards for a Jaguars first down. It was Meester's first and only career catch, and it set up a touchdown, as Marcedes Lewis caught a fade in the end zone on the very next play.
Following the game, the Jaguars honored Meester by presenting him with four framed jerseys to the approval of the home crowd:
My favorite piece of Meester paraphernalia was the Meester "Fathead" created by Bold City Brigade member @MadeByTim:
All in all, it was a great day for the Jaguars center. Fans will miss the longtime Jaguar as he enjoys his retirement.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is a free agent after the 2013 season, and the question is whether or not he will return to Jacksonville in 2014. MJD has had a fantastic career in Jacksonville; this week he broke the 8,000 career rushing yards mark, becoming only the 46th player in NFL history to do so:
MJD become 46th player in NFL history with 8,000 yards rushing— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) December 22, 2013
With the roster in transition and young backs Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson on the roster, many feel it would be in the Jaguars' best interests to let Jones-Drew leave in free agency and give his touches to other players.
MJD would like to be back, but he doesn't seem interested in taking a hometown discount, per Vito Stellino of Jacksonville.com:
MJD says he would like to return but it depends on whether they can reach a number they both agree on.— Vito Stellino (@vitostellino) December 22, 2013
Though it would be nice to see MJD play his entire career in a Jaguars jersey, both sides know it's a business, and his return will depend on them agreeing on a number that fits into the Jaguars' plans going forward.
With the loss to the Titans, the Jaguars appear to have clinched a top-eight pick in the 2014 NFL draft. I plugged the worst-case scenario for the Jaguars into @IrishJaguar's draft order calculator and couldn't push Jacksonville's pick below eighth regardless of the outcomes of the remaining games.
Losses hurt, but improvement makes them OK in hindsight, and the Jaguars appear to be on the brink of landing a potential difference-maker in the 2014 draft. The lower end of the range is the eighth pick, but the upper end is even more exciting.
If the Washington Redskins defeat the New York Giants in Week 17 and the Jaguars lose to the Indianapolis Colts, the Jaguars can select as high as second overall. If the Jaguars defeat the Colts but the right teams win, Jacksonville can still select as high as third overall.
With Indianapolis gunning for a first-round bye, I fully expect it to beat the Jaguars at home next week, but stranger things have happened. Still, the Jaguars are in good shape either way. Jacksonville will be selecting between second and eighth, and I'm completely OK with that.