The Jacksonville Jaguars' 31-28 win over the Indianapolis Colts evened their record to 2-2 through four games. It brought them back into the thick of the AFC South race, and it definitely left a better taste in their mouths than the past two weeks' blowout losses.
Throughout Sunday's nail-biter at EverBank Field, the Jaguars learned more about themselves as a team than in either of their 25-point meltdown defeats against the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite the winning result and the fine Florida weather, not all of the lessons were sunny.
By the game's end, Maurice Jones-Drew was a sight to see.
There was tape behind his ears, patching damage where an Indianapolis defender had knocked the helmet clean off Jones-Drew's head on Jacksonville's second touchdown. He limped off the field more than once, his legs battered from 28 ball-in-hand collisions with the Colts' defense.
Above his neck, of course, Jones-Drew was all smiles. If the Jaguars are to win again in 2010, they'll need to go with their diminutive superstar as early and as often as they did Sunday.
He might not start out with five runs on the first five plays again, but he's in for more hard work.
For David Garrard's part in Sunday's win, he did well to stay out of Jones-Drew's way.
Aside from handing off early and often to Jacksonville's primary offensive option, Garrard moved the Jaguars down the field with low-risk passes. Where he'd been gunning for well-covered targets in his poor showings of late, Garrard stuck to the playbook against Indianapolis.
When called on, he played his part. He threw a jump-ball touchdown that took advantage of 6'6" tight end Marcedes Lewis' size, got the ball out quickly to Mike Thomas on screens and slants, and hit speedy second-year receiver Tiquan Underwood with two key on-time throws late.
Going forward, Jacksonville's success will hinge on that kind of game management from Garrard.
It's not entirely fair to crown second-year tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton for "shutting out" the Colts' pass-rushing tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on Sunday.
Monroe and Britton are due some credit for holding Freeney and Mathis without a sack, something few NFL tackles have been able to do in the past. But the Jaguars' offensive game plan was clearly designed to limit Indianapolis' ability to tee off on David Garrard.
By running the ball on five consecutive first-quarter plays, Jacksonville put the Colts' front four on their heels. As consummate team players, Freeney and Mathis spent most of the afternoon trying to plug the gaping running lanes in their defense.
Monroe made an impressive stop against Freeney's inside spin move on one play, and Britton used his size to great advantage against Mathis, but there were bigger forces at work than their blocking.
As Marcedes Lewis goes, so go the Jaguars—though not in the way that phrase usually suggests.
Amidst the negativity surrounding Jacksonville's consecutive blowout losses, Lewis' eight catches for 85 yards in those games seemed like a small bright spot. Oddly enough, he only has four catches from the Jaguars' two wins in 2010.
Then again, those games against the Colts and Denver Broncos were also his only appearances in the scoring summary. Sunday, Jacksonville utilized Lewis' underrated ability as an in-line blocker to seal the edge for Maurice Jones-Drew and the rushing attack.
He leaped up and caught a big-play touchdown, but Lewis served the team best on the ground.
In past weeks, the Jaguars' non-traditional usage of Mike Thomas has looked like a random gimmick.
He'd run a reverse here, a quick screen there—just different looks peppered in for variety's sake.
But Sunday, Jacksonville wielded Thomas like a weapon: with skill, precision, and the intent to harm. His one carry on a reverse went to the strong side, where Mike Sims-Walker and the meat of the offensive line waited to escort him ahead, and David Garrard didn't dawdle in getting the ball out on screens.
Thomas has proven himself a capable option in the Jaguars' passing game, and he could be even more of a threat with play-calling and execution like Jacksonville flashed against the Colts.
On the topic of threats, weapons, and the intent to kill, the Jaguars' linebackers come readily to mind.
With regular starter Justin Durant out injured, Jacksonville leaned heavily on veterans Kirk Morrison and Daryl Smith in a nickel defense designed to blanket Indianapolis' receivers. Down to what amounted to a "front six," the Jaguars gave up a few slashing runs to Joseph Addai.
But more importantly, they gave Peyton Manning two different kinds of hell. Neither Morrison nor Smith registered a sack, but both got their shots in on the Colts' franchise quarterback, and each had a big-time hit on a receiver to jar the ball free.
It wasn't two-way domination, but Jacksonville's two men in the middle had the kind of physical and tactical impact that had been missing from them the past two weeks.
On most plays, the Jaguars don't seem to have upgraded at cornerback across from Rashean Mathis.
Since Week 2, the recently-acquired David Jones has been starting in place of second-year rising star Derek Cox. Not that you'd know, judging by the ample cushion given by both to opposing receivers.
Even Jones' leaping near-interception of a Peyton Manning floater late in Sunday's game looked an awful lot like Cox's end-zone pick against the Colts in 2009.
There were a few times where Jones strayed close enough to his man to deflect a pass against Indianapolis, but Jacksonville won't be getting lock-down play from this spot any time soon.
Gerald Alexander would be forgiven for balking at the yo-yo treatment he received over the past few months.
Back in 2009, he started 10 games at safety for the Jaguars. Entering training camp, they seemed to have given him a leg up in a position battle with Reggie Nelson.
Jacksonville then dumped both players, opting for the combination of Anthony Smith and Sean Considine up top. Only with Smith hurt and Considine reeling did the Jaguars ask Alexander to step back into his starting role.
Unlike either of the position battle winners, Alexander managed to deliver several "kill shots" on running backs Sunday without foolishly abandoning his coverage responsibilities. If the Jaguars picked the wrong guys at first—and, yes, they did—here's hoping that performance will rectify the mistake going forward.
On the day, Indianapolis didn't gain much ground against Jacksonville's much-ballyhooed special teams. The Colts' average starting field position was their own 21-yard line in the first half and their own 23 in the second half.
As much as the Jaguars pride themselves on top-notch kick coverage, though, they should be kicking themselves for giving up returns of 33 and 39 yards Sunday.
Normally a disciplined unit, Jacksonville overran those kicks and left wide open lanes up the field. Both plays were contained by kicker Josh Scobee's smart positioning and players hustling to get back to the ball, but better returners than Justin Tryon might have gone the distance.
The Jaguars' last lesson—but by no measure their least important—came from Josh Scobee.
Iced by Colts coach Jim Caldwell and with a stadium full of pressure on his back, Scobee punched his third game-winning field goal against Indianapolis through with the kind of composure Jacksonville should aspire to.
Granted, he yanked his helmet off and ran a happy-go-lucky lap around EverBank Field afterward. But between taking the field, bunting the first snap down after the whistle, and striking the knockout kick, Scobee acted as though he'd been there a thousand times before.
And 2-2, as ugly as the Jaguars' losses were, is a place successful Jaguars teams have been before.