Finding themselves in more dire straits injury-wise than the Colts, the Jaguars lost starting guards Maurice Williams and Vince Manuwai to the injured reserve and center Brad Meester is out for at least a month.
So, all three of their regular interior linemen will be absent for Sunday's game, which is similar to the situation the Colts are in, but that is only if Tony Ugoh is unable to go and Charlie Johnson needs to play left tackle.
Though there is still no lack of beef up the middle for Jacksonville — the three new starters, Milford Brown, Uche Nwaneri, and Dennis Norman are all 6-feet-5 and about 325 pounds — there is a lack of cohesion, experience, timing, and athleticism that will be sorely missed.
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Previously, the Jaguars had been able to outhit and outmuscle the Colts at the point of attack, most famously while accumulating 375 rushing yards in 2006. For this Week 3 contest in Jacksonville, the Jaguars are going to need to lean more on their talented duo of running backs in Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew than on the strength and agility of the men in the trenches.
Brown was in and out of the starting lineup in NFL precincts with questionable offensive lines such as Arizona and Houston, Nwaneri is a second-year player who was a fifth-round pick out of Purdue last season, and Norman is the experienced one of the bunch, with 12 starts spread out over his past five seasons with the Jaguars.Though they are improving, they are struggling through the same mixed signals and blown assignments that the Colts have been struggling through in the first two games. And cohesion and timing can only get you so far — the three replacement players simply aren't as nimble as the men they are substituting for and do not pull and trap as effectively, which limits what Jacksonville can do on offense.
Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Raheem Brock — should the Colts come out in their "big" package with Brock at left end — need to be especially cautious of counters and sweeps to the outside. The Jaguars realize by now that they need to take advantage of the matchups they have left and the biggest edge they have is sending Jones-Drew and Taylor to the perimeter and off tackle.
There will be gaps open on the inside and defensive tackles Keyunta Dawson, Eric Foster, and La Juan Ramsey need to shoot those gaps, penetrate into the backfield, and force Jacksonville into long and unmanageable third down situations early and often.
In the passing game, this is the opportune time to run as many stunts, twists, and cornerback/safety blitzes as possible, creating confusion on the interior and attacking from the outside. Pashos and Barnes will attempt to compensate for the lack of experience between them and may tend to overcompensate as the game wears on, jumping a stunt when there is none and leaving a blitzing defensive back an open shot at quarterback David Garrard. If they don't overcompensate, then Freeney, Mathis, and Brock will beat them to the quarterback. After all, this is a unit that allowed seven sacks against the Titans in Week 1.
They have calmed down and ironed out some of the issues that caused Garrard to be exposed to a great deal of punishment, but it is not possible to iron out all wrinkles, especially with a green offensive line.
This has, historically, been a conservative offense that uses the run to set up the pass. In order to open things up in the running game, though, they may need to think pass first and run second. The trouble with that is that their receiving corps is also banged up.
Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson, acquired in the offseason to be the new dynamic duo for the Jaguars, have been injured and out of the lineup, although Williamson does have one catch this season. That leaves Jacksonville with the very talented, but equally inconsistent pairing of Matt Jones and Reggie Williams.
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Jones and Williams both have excellent long speed and are big targets. Jacksonville primarily uses them to run slant routes between the 20s and fade routes near the end zone. In the red zone, Marlin 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.Additionly, linebackers Clint Session 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.
It will also be important for Jackson and Hayden to be physical at the line of scrimmage, since, even though they hold a size advantage over every defensive back in the league, Jones and Williams aren't particularly physical and will wear down over the course of the game if they aren't given a clean release.
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. And, with injuries to the regular wide-outs and early struggles for the offense, Jacksonville may just decide to keep it simple for Garrard, and a big target in the middle of the field is usually an excellent security blanket for a quarterback in a slump.
Dennis Northcutt, who had been cast away by Cleveland, has found a home in the starting lineup in Jacksonville. While it would be inaccurate to label him as the "deep threat," since all of the Jaguars receivers have the size and speed to fulfill that distinction, 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.
Although it is very important for Jacksonville to start simple and branch out in the passing game, it may be more important that they do so in the running game.
Jones-Drew and Taylor are one of the most feared running back tandems in the NFL, but they have not been successful thus far this season, with the Jaguars averaging a measly 65.5 yards rushing per game and an even more troubling 3.0 yards per carry.
Previously, Jacksonville was able to use the vision, patience, and decisiveness of their running backs to carve a defense up, both inside (with Taylor) and outside (Jones-Drew). However, with the inconsistencies along the interior, patience has proven to be a death knell for the two tailbacks and they have ended up either stretching a play out too far for a loss or running into the pile, resulting in a minimal gain.
If the past two weeks have proven anything, it's that quick, decisive, attacking running games are extremely effective against this Colts defense. They are simply too fast and pursue the football too well for an offense to take their time and find just the right gap or cutback lane.
The Jaguars have eaten up the rest of the league by cutting back against pursuit and allowing their massive and talented line to keep the enemy at bay at the point of attack. They can no longer count on this as a sound strategy, so they need to attack the edges — where Pashos and Barnes have the best matchups and where the Colts tend to overpursue.
Once the running back has the ball, he needs to quickly identify a seam and hit it with authority. If no seam exists, he needs to put his head down and do his best to punish whatever defender happens to be in front of him.
If the Jaguars are successful with this strategy early, then it will cause the Colts to be more aggressive, overpursue even more zealously, and open up cutback lanes, as well as natural running lanes, cleared by a defender headed with all haste to where he thinks the play is going, not where it's actually going.
In order to combat this strategy, the Colts need to stay at home on the edges, with Freeney, Mathis, and Brock not allowing Pashos and Barnes to seal them off or push them upfield. The defensive tackles need to attack the gaps on the inside and move to the ball carrier faster than the guards and center can pull and trap. And the linebackers, Gary Brackett in particular, need to fill whatever gaps or seams exist when Jacksonville gets hats on hats.
David Garrard truly is the unknown in this game. It would be shortsighted and inaccurate to assess that Garrard's struggles are only as a result of a faltering running game.
The fact that the offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, that the running game has sputtered, and that the offense itself has become more complex are all factors at play, telling the full story of why Garrard has gone from 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio to a 1:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
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The beauty of Jacksonville's offense last season was its simplicity. Jones-Drew and Taylor would carve up the defense inside-outside in the running game and Garrard would make hot reads, complete passes to isolated receivers, and run the signature play in last year's Jaguars offense — roll out and choose the best out of a two-deep read to that side or check the ball down to the running back or tight end.
Garrard ran this offense with deadly efficiency, maximizing big plays, capitalizing on scoring opportunities, and minimizing mistakes. To say that this particular offense was perfectly suited to Garrard's skill set is not an insult to Garrard, it is a compliment to the system.
As last week's Colts game showed, even Peyton Manning struggles when faced with an anemic running game, a hobbled offensive line, and a defense that seems to be a step ahead in the pass rush. And, truth be told, Manning has a lot more weapons at his disposal in the passing game than does Garrard.
Against the Vikings, Manning was able to turn things around by accounting for and anticipating the pass rush, insulating his inexperienced offensive line by giving them easier protections to run, and making fast decisions in the passing game ... all things that he needed to do early in his career just to survive the season. Manning got back to basics last week and that's exactly what the Jaguars need to do — and what the Colts need to keep from happening.
The best way to keep Garrard from finding his comfort zone is to make him as uncomfortable as possible. By bottling up the running game early, running a lot of stunts and twists in the passing game, and aggressively attacking with blitzes from the edges. The more hits Garrard takes, the more frustrated and desperate he will become.
He may be an excellent quarterback, but he is just a man. Under enough pressure, withstanding enough punishment, and seeing enough passes fall helplessly to the ground, he will eventually wear down and make a mistake. And, at that point, that will be all the break the Colts need.