The Jaguars offensive philosophy is to wear teams down over the course of the game with an efficient passing game run by David Garrard and a physical running game featuring the two-headed monster of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.
This philosophy is personified by the five men up front. Khalif Barnes, Tony Pashos, Brad Meester, Tutan Reyes, and Vince Manuwai are all big, physical players that are significantly more accomplished run blockers than pass blockers. They seek to punish and overwhelm the opposition's defensive line and linebackers at the point of attack.
Hank Stram once said, "Quick guys get tired. Big guys don't shrink." That's Jacksonville's offense in a nutshell. From the first whistle to the final play, they are looking to dominate the line of scrimmage, establish the run, and pummel their opponents into submission in the hope that whoever is lined up across from them gives up before the fourth quarter begins.
Of note, though, is that the smaller, quicker defensive lines that the Jaguars have faced this year — specifically, Indianapolis and Buffalo — were successful against the hulking Jacksonville linemen. At the snap, the defensive tackles used their quick first step to shoot their gaps and occupy the guards and centers. Since Jacksonville's line is athletically challenged, they don't tend to pull or trap very often, relying on their superior girth and strength to open holes.
But regardless of how well Ed Johnson and Raheem Brock shoot the gaps, a hole will still open on the left or right side between the tackles. This is, in part, because when men this size decide there's going to be a hole, there's going to be a hole.
Ends Josh Thomas and Robert Mathis will have the responsibility of sealing the edges by moving up the field and along the perimeter in order to prevent Jones-Drew or Taylor — especially Jones-Drew — from exploding off-tackle. Despite his speed and lateral movement, Jones-Drew was unable to break a play wide in Week 12 against the Bills, which is a testimony to their defensive line and their ability to stay disciplined.
When the hole does open, the Jaguars running backs tend to run a makeshift counter, even though the guards aren't pulling, cut to daylight, and run through the side that has the hole. From there, the onus falls on the linebackers.
In the passing game, the Colts have the potential to pressure Garrard and take him out of his comfort zone. None of the five men along the offensive line for Jacksonville is particularly adept at pass blocking, so there will be opportunities for Mathis, Thomas, Johnson, and Brock to get to the quarterback. But since Garrard is such a creature of habit and is entirely too obsessed with his progressions, it will be necessary to blitz him on occasion, especially off the edges, where neither Taylor nor Jones-Drew are adroit pass blocking backs. The man that comes free when Indianapolis does blitz will have an opportunity to get to the quarterback.
If the defensive linemen can stay in their gaps in the running game and take advantage of the mismatches that exist, bringing consistent and rapid pressure on Garrard, the Colts should be able to shut down the Jaguars offense.
Dennis Northcutt, who had been cast away by Cleveland, has found a home in the starting lineup in Jacksonville. It's not accurate to label him as the "deep threat," since all of the Jaguars receivers have the size and speed to fulfill that distinction, but he is usually the man Garrard looks for on deep posts, fly routes, and go routes. He still possesses tremendous speed and is crafty enough and a skilled enough route runner to create separation and get behind the defense.
Ernest Wilford was originally drafted by Jacksonville and has emerged as the go-to receiver in this offense. On third downs, Garrard will look in Wilford's direction first, so the Indianapolis defensive backs must be cognizant of him in those situations. He is also their leading receiver, so they really should be aware of him at all times, but especially on third down when Garrard needs to make a play in order to sustain the drive.
Wilford has the best hands on the squad and has a large frame, allowing him to reach around — or through — a defender to make the catch.
It will be important for Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden to be physical with both men at the line of scrimmage, but more so with Northcutt than Wilford, since Wilford is more likely to wear down Jackson over the course of a physical contest than the other way around. Plus, Wilford is considerably less dangerous in the deep passing game and will not be as lethal if given a clean release at the snap.
The most difficult aspect of the Jaguars' offense to defend is the fact that they have so many interchangeable parts at the skill positions, and nowhere is that more evident than at the receiver position. Reserve wideouts Matt Jones and Reggie Williams both have excellent speed and are big targets.
However, Jacksonville primarily uses them to run slant routes between the 20s and fade routes near the end zone. If Jones or Williams comes into the game in the red zone, Jackson and Hayden need to prepare for a fade. If they come into the game in any other situation, the Colts' cornerbacks need to turn their hips towards the line and prepare for the slant. In addition, linebackers Tyjuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho can creep over towards the short area of their zones in order to fill that passing lane and take away Garrard's first option.
At the tight end position, Jacksonville has thus far underutilized former first round pick Marcedes Lewis, but Indianapolis may see a lot of him on Sunday.
Lewis has the kind of speed and size at the position to exploit the holes in the Cover 2 zone in the intermediate middle. Garrard has targeted Lewis on a number of post and in routes in this area, but with little success. The Colts and their Tampa 2 defense should be just the tonic the Jaguars need to get this part of their game on track.
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As surprising as it may sound, considering Fred Taylor spots Maurice Jones-Drew five inches and thirty pounds, the two backs in the Jacksonville offense are fairly interchangeable. When Jones-Drew is in the game, the ends should favor the outside, since the young tailback has the speed and acceleration to get wide.
When Taylor is in the game, they should favor the space between the tackles, since he gains most of his yardage between the tackles.
That's about it as far as the defensive line is concerned. Where it gets interesting is when Jones-Drew or Taylor run the counter and cut back through the hole. From there, it's all on the linebackers.
Since the Bills gave up two long touchdown runs against the Jaguars, but the defensive line performed well, the blame must fall on Buffalo's inexperienced linebackers. On too many occasions, they took the wrong angle, attacked the wrong gap, or allowed themselves to be faked out by the myriad juke moves that Taylor and Jones-Drew employ.
When the hole opens up, Hagler, Keiaho, and Gary Brackett need to shoot the correct gap, take on whatever contact awaits them with the correct shoulder, and keep their eyes on the correct part of the anatomy of the running back they are pursuing.
With Taylor, all of his jukes and misdirection are in his head and shoulders. The Bills' linebackers made the mistake of paying attention to those areas and ended up flowing to the spot where they thought he was going, as opposed tackling him where he was. Jones-Drew's fakes are all in his hips and feet.
Indianapolis's linebackers must concentrate on Taylor's feet and Jones-Drew's shoulders if they are to be successful on Sunday.
It is a tall order and everyone on defense must stay focused, but everything Jacksonville does on offense is predicated on establishing the run, controlling the line of scrimmage, and beating their opponent into submission. If the Colts get beat in the running game, they will get beat on the scoreboard.
David Garrard, as mentioned, is a creature of habit. He prefers to sit in the pocket, go through his progressions, and hit the open receiver. While he has the speed and athleticism to break contain and run for a healthy gain, he rarely does so, preferring to stay in his pocket.
Jacksonville has simplified the offense from the Byron Leftwich days and given Garrard the middle and one side of the field. His first read is deep, usually to the outside. His second read is short, usually to the outside. His third read is a check-down, usually to fullback Greg Jones. If Matt Jones or Reggie Williams are in the game, obviously Garrard's first read is to one of those two on the slant route.
On offense, Jacksonville's persistence and stubbornness is its best friend and its worst enemy. Because of the faith that Garrard has in the system that he is tasked with running and the consistency and simplicity of the scheme, Garrard is incredibly efficient on third down, with a passer rating over 120.
He trusts the offense, trusts his progressions, and has the ability to escape the pocket and gain the necessary yardage for the first down. The Jaguars have also sustained drives, or attempted to sustain drives, by going for it on fourth down 26 times thus far this season, most in the league. If Jacksonville is able to run several long drives throughout the game, they will wear down the Colts on defense and their patience and persistence will pay off.
The key, then, is to force them into short drives and long third downs early. This means that it will be necessary to run blitz, filling the gaps in Jacksonville's counter rushing attack on early downs and pass blitz in known passing situations.
Simultaneously, Jackson and Hayden need to take away Garrard's first option — with assistance from Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea, cheating towards the sidelines deep — and Hagler and Keiaho need to take away his second option. If the Jaguars are able to beat Indianapolis with seam passes to Lewis and check-downs to Greg Jones, Jacksonville will have won the battle and the war. But it will not come down to that.
This is, essentially, a sixty-minute staring contest and it will be determined by whether the Colts or Jaguars flinches first. Jacksonville is seeking to establish the run, control the line of scrimmage, the clock and the game.
The only way to keep them from doing that is to frustrate their offense early and score on their defense early. The Jaguars are not a team that is built to come from behind. Take them out of their comfort zone and force them to change their strategy and their comfort zone and they will struggle mightily.
Garrard is a reflection of his team and his coaches. He has implicit trust in his coaches, the system, and the strategy. If he is simply asked to manage the offense and run through his progressions, he will execute the game plan to near-perfection. If he is asked to abandon the status quo, look deep first, second, and fourth on the progression ladder, and win the game on his own, he will struggle, and so will the Jaguars.