A year ago at this time there was uncertainty everywhere in Jacksonville: with the quarterback, the newly named full time head coach and with new players brought in.
And as you likely know by now, Blake Bortles played solidly and at times, well. Doug Marrone blossomed in his second NFL head coaching stint. And the likes of Leonard Fournette, Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye energized the other Jaguars in to an AFC South Title and two playoff wins.
Now, all of that is officially in the past, as the Jags host the Saints tonight at TIAA Bank Field.
Here’s what we are looking at Thursday night:
Swagger on defense
Although they may only be out there a series or two tonight, players like Campbell, Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey, Yannick Ngakoue and Bouye make up one of the most dynamic defensive rosters headed into this 2018.
Rookie first round pick DT Taven Bryan will likely be held out with a slight abdominal strain. However, a fellow draft pick, seventh rounder LB Leon Jacobs, is expected to start tonight and see significant time. It will be a challenge for he and all of the younger players to go against Hall of Famer Saints QB Drew Brees.
The Jaguars finished second in the NFL in sacks last year, and Ramsey may be the best one on one defenders in the league.
Clearly, the foundation of their success starts with defense.
Leaner Leonard Fournette
Again, he’s not expected to be out there much in the first game of August, but most Jaguars fans cannot wait to seek more of running back Leonard Fournette. Well, there’s “less” of him now, as he’s shed some 10+ lbs. to be leaner and meaner for this season.
How will help his quickness and explosiveness? Will the second year back out of LSU be able to still run through and over defenders the same way?
There is a lot of interest in North Florida and all over the country to see it.
Minimum mistakes football
One of the concerns that Marrone has repeatedly expressed is that the 2018 Jaguars can’t regress into making mistakes: penalties, turnovers, blown assignments, etc. and “rest on the laurels” of 2017.
We will see the first sample of that tonight.
Will the Jaguars be on point? Sure, there are always some errors, especially from the younger guys, but overall, will it be sound fundamental football in front of the home fans?
If Jacksonville wants to be back in the post-season and beyond, that starts Thursday night.
Even without Fowler and Ramsey- Jaguars defense flexed muscle Saturday
The Jaguars built their 2017 success largely around a dominant defense. And Saturday in Minneapolis, that defense was once, again on display, as Jacksonville stymied the Vikings starters in the first half of a 14-10 win.
Against much ballyhooed free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Jaguars were able to pressure him and keep Minnesota from having a single third down conversion, while Cousins was in the game. He finished 0-6 on the money down and just 3-8 total for a measly 12 yards.
And the Jags also got an early takeaway on this play against Latavius Murray:
— #DUUUVAL (@Jaguars) August 18, 2018
Malik Jackson actually got his hand in there for the strip tackle and big Calais Campbell fell on the ball. This erased an awful interception from Blake Bortles just earlier.
In the end, Minnesota could only muster 67 total yards in the first half. So, all in all defensive coordinator Todd Wash has to be very pleased with what his unit did.
And, this was without defensive end Dante Fowler and All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey, who both had been left behind on team suspension for the week. The hope from coach Doug Marrone and the organization is that those two will be ready to straighten back up and start contributing.
One disappointing moment was the NFL’s continued crackdown of helmet use that affected a play by Pro Bowler A.J. Bouye. Bouye did have his low, but so did Vikings FB C.J. Ham after making a catch and heading up field. It was the Jags first personal foul helmet hit in their two games.
Still, it was one half in the preseason’s second game, but still Jacksonville has to be pleased overall with what came out of it.
Three things to watch as Jaguars battle Vikings
It’s preseason game number two for the Jaguars in Minnesota after Jacksonville concluded practicing for two days with the Vikings at their facilities.
We will likely see starters on both sides for both teams play through much of the first half of the contest.
With that in mind, here are three things we’ll be watching out for Saturday afternoon:
Jaguars running game
It’s no secret that the foundation of the Jags offense is based around the ability of the backs, specifically Leonard Fournette, to get something going on the ground. This is key for the play action pass game that QB Blake Bortles succeeds the best off of, as the game where’s on.
Now, it would not be surprising if Fournette only sees a series or two. After all, he’s way to valuable to risk injury in meaningless August games. Fournette did carry it eight times for 24 yards last week against the Saints.
However, back up running back T.J. Yeldon should see some significant time in this one. Yeldon played well, as a stand-in for Fournette a couple of times a year ago. However, he’s never really lived up to his second round draft status. He carried five times last Thursday night.
Backups Corey Grant and Tim Cook will also see some action, as the game continues, especially in the second half.
Pressure on Vikings QB Kirk Cousins
Minnesota broke the bank giving Cousins a massive three year free agent contract, completely guaranteed, at over $80 million. Those staggering numbers mean that the Vikings intend to have Cousins sling the ball, a bunch, throughout 2018.
Cousins led a crisp opening drive in Denver (above) in his debut last Saturday night
However, on Saturday, he’s facing one of the top pass rushing teams in the NFL in the Jaguars.
Granted the week got off to a rocky start with defensive line mates Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue scuffling at the end of Sunday’s practice. Fowler, and defensive back Jalen Ramsey were both suspended for the rest of the week and left home for their actions.
So, now will the Jags D be able to refocus and see players like Calais Campbell, Ngakoue, Lerentee McCray and Marcel Dareus be able to solidify things along the defensive line? Also, it’s unclear if rookie first round pick DT Taven Bryan will suit up in this one. He was with the team going through part of the workouts in Minnesota, but it’s questionable as to his status.
Handle the environment
Unlike last week at home, the Jaguars are playing in the domed U.S. Bank Stadium and there is massive support and optimism for the Vikes in 2018.
Preseason or not, the loud crowd will make it hard to hear for Bortles and the offense early.
Will the Jags keep composure and mental errors to a minimum?
Will the inability to verbally communicate at times on the field rattle them?
We’re about to find out.
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles saw improved offensive play Thrusday
The Jaguars wrapped up their second day of practice with the Vikings Thursday afternoon in Minnesota and their field general on offense has liked the challenge of going against one of the better defenses in the NFL.
QB Blake Bortles and his teammates knew they would get a test for two days and that they did. And on day two, they began inside when rain and the threats of thunderstorms in the Eagan MN, area sent them scurrying. They later got back outside and finished the workout.
And the fifth year QB thought they made strides. Bortles spoke to the media after the joint practice concluded:
— #DUUUVAL (@Jaguars) August 16, 2018
Bortles made a good observation that while the Jaguars run a similar defense to the Vikes, their first team rarely goes against the Jacksonville first team even in training camp. The last 48 hours have been “good on good” or first team vs. first team,
“So, to actually get to come out here and play against that actual defense I think is good. As far as, seeing some of the stuff they do? Obviously, they’re not going to show us everything in practice. I am sure that something will happen in the game. Or, maybe not since it’s a preseason game. But, we gotta be ready to make adjustments on the sidelines if they show us something different.”
And another important factor for Bortles is that at this point in camp a year ago, he was struggling, including in the two day practices with the Buccaneers. Then, he played poorly in the second preseason game and was benched with the first team for Chad Henne.
As it turned out, Bortles continued to work and practice hard, was given the chance to get the starting job back before week one, played well and never relinquished it.
Now, he and the offense a year wiser in Nathaniel Hackett’s system and looking to make strides Saturday afternoon, when they tee it up in this preseason game.
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