Jacksonville Jaguars Are Rough, But Are They Ready for New England?
When told that the weather outside figures to be frightful in Foxborough on Sunday, Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio was unfazed.
"That would be great," he said earlier this week.
"We have a group of mudders. We don't get to see snow down here. I think our guys look forward to that sort of thing."
With rain and cold temperatures forecast for the weekend, Del Rio and his Jaguars will likely get their wish. Come one o'clock, they'll take to a soggy, cold-frosted field in Gillette Stadium to fight for their dwindling playoff hopes.
Whether they flourish or freeze on it will speak volumes about the character of this year's squad.
Jacksonville's playoff-caliber 2007 team earned the reputation Del Rio invoked this week by mashing the Pittsburgh Steelers twice in the muck at Heinz Field: a tooth-and-nail postseason win against wind, a wet field, and freezing temperatures, and a 29-22 Week 16 beating administered in heavy snowfall to the tune of 224 yards rushing.
That year, the Jaguars boasted one of the league's best run-blocking offensive lines. Guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams had the athleticism to pull as lead blockers and the strength to pave the way where they went. Tony Pashos was an aggressive right tackle, and center Brad Meester consistently made second-level blocks.
Put them together and the result was an offense capable of running downhill, chunk by four-yard chunk, against eight-man fronts and run blitzes.
In comparison, this year's unit doesn't quite stack up. Manuwai has struggled to return to form after a season-ending ACL tear last year, Jacksonville's rookie tackles lack the seasoning to handle the barrage of twists and overload blitzes sent their way, and Meester has looked lost blocking in space.
They're ranked eighth in the league in rushing, averaging over 128 yards a game, but it's not the same. The Jaguars' inability to take yards forcibly on the ground turned winnable games versus Miami and San Francisco into losses and nearly cost them a close contest against Buffalo's league-worst run defense.
The Jaguars should hope for at least half of the advantage the Buffalo Bills had in last week's 17-10 loss to New England, which Patriots defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren missed due to injuries. With Wilfork and Warren limited in practice this week, New England's defensive line might be short-handed again this Sunday.
Despite their shortcomings, Jacksonville's interior linemen would match up well against backups Ron Brace and Mike Wright, neither of whom has the overpowering strength that made Miami's Paul Soliai and San Francisco's Aubrayo Franklin and Isaac Sopoaga such tough opponents for Manuwai, Meester, and guard Uche Nwaneri.
In any case, the Patriots will look to press the advantage of their swarming linebacking corps, led by second-year man in the middle Jerod Mayo. Having either Wilfork or Warren back in front would only make their work easier by occupying potential second-level blockers for Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew.
Should the Jaguars make paths to send Manuwai, Nwaneri, and capable blocking tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Ernest Wilford ahead of Jones-Drew, they're more than capable of overpowering a New England defense that lacks the sheer size to hunker down against them.
The worry isn't that Jacksonville can't rough up a smaller opponent, as last week's grinding performance against Indianapolis showed. On 34 runs, the Jaguars were stopped for a loss or no gain only five times while amassing 139 yards.
Rather, it's that they can't do it every week. Before Jacksonville can be considered ready for a shot at the playoffs, the issue of their week-to-week readiness has to be addressed—this Sunday, in the mud and cold, ideally.
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