Identity Crisis: Jacksonville Jaguars' Passing Game Humbled in Loss
Jacksonville's 30-13 whipping at the hands of the previously winless Tennessee Titans Sunday sent out a news flash that should hardly have been news:
Nor, for that matter, are they the Indianapolis Colts.
After watching two of the NFL's perennial passing powerhouses drub Tennessee by a combined score of 100-9, Jacksonville's aerial attack came into Sunday's game smelling blood.
Five of the Titans' first six opponents had gained over 300 yards through the air—including a 323-yard effort by Jaguars quarterback David Garrard and his receivers in the teams' first meeting, a 37-17 blowout win for Jacksonville.
As the Jaguars' 14th-ranked passing offense traveled to Nashville, they clearly intended to trounce Tennessee with more of the same. Their play-calling suggested as much: of Jacksonville's first nine plays from scrimmage, eight were passes.
Five yards, incomplete, intentional grounding—punt.
Four yards, sacked, incomplete—punt.
Incomplete—then a seven-yard end-around run—and an interception.
Three drives. Eight passes for nine yards and a turnover. Three three-and-outs.
Try as he might, Garrard couldn't crack the Titans' pass defense the way New England's Tom Brady and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning did in throwing for 689 yards in two dominating performances—or, indeed, the way Garrard himself had done against Tennessee back in early October.
Part of the problem was the return of All-Pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan to the Titans' secondary. Finnegan, who missed Tennessee's three blowout losses while recovering from a hamstring injury, hounded the Jaguars' receivers in coverage while recording three tackles and an interception in his first game back.
Torry Holt and Mike Sims-Walker, who had been combining for nearly 150 yards per game as Jacksonville's two top pass-catchers, managed only four receptions for 26 yards between them against the Titans' recharged defensive backfield.
So much for exploiting the NFL's statistically-worst pass defense.
The Jaguars' bigger issue, though, was a lack of trust in their wildly successful rushing attack—an uncharacteristic lapse for a Jack Del Rio-coached team.
In four of Del Rio's six years in Jacksonville, the Jaguars' ground game has ranked among the league's top 10. Emphasizing a tough brand of "run the ball, stop the run" football, his teams have always prided themselves on running early and often—with varying degrees of success.
Entering Sunday's contest, Tennessee did boast a run defense which, outside of a miserable effort against the Patriots, had held opponents to an average of less than 80 yards per game.
On the rare occasions when Jacksonville deigned to run, though, the Jaguars had their way with the Titans, who seemed unwilling—or unable—to tackle running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Two of Jones-Drew's first five carries were spectacular 80- and 79-yard touchdowns, and only one of his eight runs gained less than three yards.
When asked after the game why his offense had shied away from running the ball, Del Rio noted that several called runs had been audibled to passes in Jacksonville's first three drives.
Eventually, he said, Garrard was told, in no uncertain terms, "Look, just hand it to [Jones-Drew] and let him run with the ball."
The concern, here, isn't that the Jaguars had to force themselves to commit to their ground game, even in the face of its marked success—or, for that matter, that Jacksonville strayed once more to the pass, down 23-13 with 20 minutes still to play.
It's that it was even a question to begin with.
Past Del Rio's preferred "smash-mouth" style, these Jaguars just aren't built to be a pass-first team. With a pair of road-grading guards in Vince Manuwai and Uche Nwaneri, a stable of capable blocking tight ends, and a top-caliber feature back in Jones-Drew, Jacksonville's offense has the tools for a knockout rushing attack.
Add to that mix a pair of rookie tackles (Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton) who have blocked well for runs while struggling against pass-rushing defensive ends, and the argument for favoring the ground game becomes even stronger.
Running the ball hasn't always been a viable option this season, of course. Facing three-score halftime deficits against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks—and having to drive downfield late in the fourth quarter to tie the St. Louis Rams—the Jaguars have needed Garrard to step up more than in years past.
But when Jacksonville's rushing attack is working, as it was Sunday against Tennessee, there shouldn't be a moment's hesitation to ride it.
Whether that's a matter of having Garrard be less of a leader and more of a lead blocker—as he was on both of Jones-Drew's long touchdowns—or refocusing the offense as a whole is up to the coaches as the Jaguars prepare for next week's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
From Del Rio at the top down to his position coaches, after six years of run-first football and a blowout loss marked by ineffective passing, they should know that it needs to be done.
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