Pack Your Brooms: Jacksonville Jaguars' Keys to Complete Sweep of Tennessee Titans
For the first time in three years, Jacksonville's second game against Tennessee offers a shot at a season sweep.
The Titans spoiled the Jaguars' season openers in 2007 and 2008. Last year, Tennessee followed up on that Week 1 triumph with a 24-14 road win in Jacksonville—their third sweep in the series since 2000.
Over that stretch, the Jaguars have lost 11 of 19 games in the rivalry.
In the teams' Week 4 meeting this year, though, Jacksonville thumped the Titans 37-17.
But, even with Tennessee still winless on the season, the Jaguars travel to Nashville this weekend as three-point underdogs.
To beat those odds and improve to 4-3, they'll need to do three key jobs.
Second and Long: Stop Their Rushing Attack on First Downs
Jacksonville jumped out to a 27-3 lead in Week 4, driven by a defensive effort that held five of the Titans' first six drives to four plays or less.
To force Tennessee's offense off the field, the Jaguars stalled the Titans' vaunted ground game—ranked sixth in the NFL, despite Tennessee's overall struggles—on early downs, creating second- and third-and-long situations.
The Titans' five first-down rushes on those first six drives netted only 17 yards, nine of which came on one run.
Taking to the air, Tennessee's inept passing game failed to move the ball against Jacksonville's less-than-stellar secondary.
Though winless, the Titans' downhill rushing attack has kept on trucking. Averaging just under 140 yards a game, they're still capable of pounding an opponent into submission with clock-killing drives if given the chance.
Over 60 minutes, the Jaguars would be hard-pressed to smother running back Chris Johnson and Tennessee's road-grading offensive line.
Instead, they'll look to short-circuit the Titans early by repeating their Week 4 success in run defense on first downs.
Rookie nose tackle Terrance Knighton will be central—literally—in that effort.
Sporting the NFL's 31st-ranked pass defense, Jacksonville can't be too confident in committing too many defenders to stop the run.
If Knighton can anchor in the middle of Tennessee's line, he'll keep their interior linemen from making second-level blocks and pulling out to lead sweeps.
Without big-body blockers to handle, the Jaguars' linebackers and defensive backs can leave coverage to make tackles cleanly in run support—clamping down on the ground game without leaving holes in the secondary.
Cheap Yards: Make Gains After the Catch Against Their Corners
When the Titans first limped into Jacksonville, they were missing Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The Jaguars, smelling blood, hit Tennessee's wounded secondary for 323 yards and three touchdowns.
A week later, veteran Nick Harper—Finnegan's counterpart coming into this season—was injured, leaving the Titans' secondary more hobbled than the unit that faced the Jaguars.
On Sunday, the Titans' two best corners will be Rod Hood, a cast-off from the Arizona Cardinals who failed to stick in stints with Cleveland and Chicago this past offseason, and sixth-round rookie Jason McCourty.
Tennessee's run defense, on the other hand, ranks among the league's Top 10 against the run. In the teams' last meeting, the Titans held Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew to 14 yards on six early carries.
Rather than crash against Tennessee's solid front four, the Jaguars will likely look to move the ball downfield by taking chunks of yardage against the Titans' scraped-together pass defense.
With safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope still struggling in deep zone coverage, Jacksonville receiver Mike Sims-Walker should find the same openings that he exploited for 91 yards and two Jaguars touchdowns in Week 4.
In four starts this season, Sims-Walker has been a revelation for the Jaguars. Hampered by knee injuries in his first two seasons, Jacksonville's third-year receiver has blossomed into a favorite target of quarterback David Garrard—on quick slant routes, over the middle, and in the red zone.
Against Tennessee's depleted defensive backfield, Sims-Walker and rookie slot receiver Mike Thomas have the athleticism to take yards in bunches after the catch, saving Jacksonville the trouble of grinding them out on the ground.
Pressure Cooker: Rush Their Quarterbacks the Right Way
In the two weeks leading up to Sunday's game, Titans coach Jeff Fisher has been reluctant to name his starting quarterback, citing "competitive advantage."
Whether Kerry Collins remains Tennessee's signal-caller or former first-round pick Vince Young takes over, Jacksonville will need to apply pressure to keep the Titans from picking apart one of the league's worst pass defenses.
Each quarterback, though, requires a different approach.
When the Jaguars faced Kerry Collins in Week 4, they blitzed Tennessee's line to try and disrupt his pocket, with mixed results.
Pressure from Jacksonville's linebackers up the middle forced him into two interceptions and several key incompletions, but too often he had room and time to throw.
If Collins is sent out against the Jaguars again, Jacksonville's edge rushers and down linemen will have to do a better job of breaking through the line to disrupt the Titans' timing, rather than relying on passes falling incomplete.
Should Tennessee owner Bud Adams' call for Young prevail, however, the Jaguars' approach to the Titans' pocket would change drastically.
Through his 29 games as a starter, Young's 979 rushing yards have contributed more to his reputation than his 22 passing touchdowns and 33 interceptions.
As a quarterback, he poses the greatest threat to opposing defenses when given space to make plays—not, as his 56.9 career passer rating suggests, by dissecting coverage schemes as a pocket passer.
Against Young, that space behind Tennessee's offensive line would be Jacksonville's biggest ally.
Contained and forced to throw, he's twice as likely to turn the ball over as to lead the Titans to a score: in five games against the Jaguars, Young has thrown four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
For both strategies—penetration and containment—Jacksonville will depend on 2008 first-rounder Derrick Harvey to set the tone.
Pitted against All-Pro tackle Michael Roos in the Jaguars' win earlier this year, Harvey had limited success in collapsing the pocket as a down lineman.
If Collins is behind center, Harvey will face the difficult task of bulling Roos, one of the league's most technically-sound blockers, backwards to break Tennessee's pass protection. A pinched pocket would flush Collins out, into the path of Jacksonville's blitzing linebackers.
To harass Young, though, a repeat performance of his solid containment job against running back Chris Johnson would suffice. Without the threat of a scrambling quarterback, the Jaguars can blanket the Titans' receivers in coverage.
[Photo courtesy of Jaguars.com's gallery.]
Bring Those Brooms: Great Teams Play With Competence, Confidence
Behind all the minutiae of this weekend's game, Jacksonville's most important job is to face Tennessee with the cold-hearted ruthlessness of a superior team.
Two weeks ago, before the Jaguars' last drive in regulation against the St. Louis Rams, receiver Torry Holt exhorted his teammates to rise above their competition.
"This is where you become great," Holt told Jacksonville's offense as they took the field, down 17-13 with five minutes left to play. "Great teams finish here."
The flip side of Holt's message, of course, is that great teams don't find themselves in comeback situations against winless opponents.
In falling to 0-6 since playing the Jaguars, the Titans have faced halftime deficits of 21-9 and 45-0 against the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, respectively. Jacksonville's 27-3 lead in the teams' Week 4 meeting fits right in.
At 3-3, the Jaguars enter Sunday's game fresh off a bye week and at a crossroads in their young season. With a loss, they'll dip back under .500, continuing their expected, if underwhelming, up-and-down performance.
With a win, they'll move into second place in the AFC South—and, at 4-3, into the thick of a mid-season playoff push.
Odds are, Jacksonville's result against Tennessee will make or break this season. The key, above all, is to take charge.