Jacksonville Jaguars  

 

Jags imposing will on foes en route to becoming contenders

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Joe Howell / Associated Press
Maurice Jones-Drew hit the century mark rushing for the fifth straight game to help keep the Jaguars in first place.


After watching the Jacksonville Jaguars fail to reach the playoffs the past two years, coach Jack Del Rio has re-established a smash-mouth identity that has the team in position to return to the postseason.

In fact, a close look at Jacksonville's physical dismantling of the Tennessee Titans reveals a budding powerhouse in the AFC South. Led by a powerful running game keyed by Maurice Jones-Drew and an emerging offensive line that relies on rough and rugged play, the Jaguars posted a 17-6 win that wasn't nearly as close as the final score.

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The Jaguars rolled up 377 yards of total offense, with 258 coming on the ground. The 53 rushing plays (out of 73 total plays) led Jacksonville controlling the ball for nearly 40 minutes, which eventually wore down Tennessee's defense late in the contest. The combination of grinding and keep away allowed the Jaguars' 25th-ranked defense to spend most of the game on the sidelines.

While some will dismiss the dominant performance due to the Titans' midseason swoon, those cynics would be wise not to overlook Del Rio's squad.

Jacksonville has won four of its last five games in similar fashion, and the formula is a good recipe for postseason success. A solid running game is weather-resistant and travels well, which is important considering the road to the Super Bowl will likely go through Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England or New York.

In examining the offense, it is obvious that the Jaguars are relying on an old-school approach to bludgeon opponents. Operating out of the traditional I-formation with regular or 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver) on the field, the Jaguars feature isolations, powers and toss sweeps with Jones-Drew as the focal point.

Jones-Drew, a powerful runner with outstanding quickness and vision, shows good pop on contact and has a knack for running through arm tackles. Given his ability to gain yards after contact, the Jaguars continue to feed him despite facing a host of eight-man fronts. This has been their formula throughout their recent hot streak (Jones-Drew has carried the ball at least 21 times in each of the last five games and has topped the century mark in each of those contests), and was on full display against the Titans.

The Jaguars opened up the game with 15 runs in their first 17 plays, including a 12-play, 77-yard drive that opened up the scoring. Jones-Drew tallied 44 yards on that drive, and set the tone for the offense by repeatedly running through the unblocked eighth defender in the hole. With the Titans seemingly having no answers for the power approach, the Jaguars pounded the ball off tackle with Jones-Drew to maintain control of the game while chewing up precious moments off the clock. The commitment to running the ball doesn't always produce good results early, but the cumulative effect of running between the tackles typically leads to big gains in the fourth quarter against a tired defense. Jones-Drew's 37-yard run at the end of the game was a prime example of the defense wilting under the grind-it-out approach.

Although Jones-Drew is clearly the focus of the running game, the Jaguars have incorporated a few wrinkles to exploit the extra attention directed at their top playmaker. Coordinator Dirk Koetter has mixed in reverses to wide receivers and tight ends to take advantage of the over aggression. Tight end Zach Miller, in particular, has become a threat to run when the team operates out of its tight I-wing formation from their 22 personnel package. While he only tallied nine yards on his two carries against the Titans, the threat of the reverse forced the backside defensive end to slow his pursuit of Jones-Drew.

Another tactic that the Jaguars use to slow the defensive pursuit is the quarterback bootleg. David Garrard is a masterful ball handler with the speed to run around the corner after the fake. Even though the Jaguars will typically incorporate a run-pass option with the deception, Garrard has been lethal running the play near the goal line without a passing threat. His 4-yard touchdown was his fourth rushing score of the season, and adds another dimension to the fourth-ranked rushing offense.

With the Jaguars' running game starting to emerge as a force, it is not a surprise that Garrard's effectiveness as a passer has returned to a high level this season. Over the past five weeks, he has completed 67.9 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only four interceptions. Though his 228.8 passing yards per game during that span doesn't jump off the stat sheet, it is just enough to keep defenses honest on early downs. Given the imminent return of Mike Sims-Walker to a unit that features an emerging trio of young pass catchers in Miller, Marcedes Lewis and Mike Thomas, Garrard might see a surge in production as the Jaguars take more shots down the field instead of settling for the safe underneath throws off play-action.

The Jaguars have surprisingly emerged as the team to beat in the AFC South despite lacking the pizzazz of their counterparts. However, an old-school blueprint built around a dynamic runner and a playmaking quarterback has Jacksonville in position to finally grab an elusive division crown.

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