After their first preseason game of 2009, Jaguars' head coach Jack Del Rio made this point: "For me, it starts in the trenches. Certainly, that cohesiveness in the front five is something we are looking to have."
Unfortunately for Del Rio, offensive line cohesiveness was not something that Jacksonville accomplished this preseason. In fact, the first Jaguars' offensive snap of this Sunday's opener will mark the first time the starting unit of LT Eugene Monroe, LG Vince Manuwai, C Brad Meester, RG Mo Williams, and RT Eben Britton has been on-the-field together in a live game situation.
Coming into this year's draft, a lot of scouts loved Eugene Monroe out of the University of Virginia, and believed he possessed the skill, size, and technique to be a dominant all-around NFL tackle.
Another OT that rapidly moved up draft charts was Arizona Wildcat Eben Britton. Draft Guru Raul Colon wrote in January, "the massive Britton is one of the early risers in many 2009 draft boards and with good reason. Britton is a natural, fluid athlete who is very fast (5.05 in the 40-yard dash) for his immense size."
So, even though the Jaguars drafted Monroe with their first-round selection, when Britton was available with the 39th overall pick, Jacksonville jumped at him. The Sports Xchange explained the overall risk: "While the selection of Monroe was a no-brainer, picking Britton was a surprise considering all the other needs the Jaguars have."
NOTE: If you get a chance, read former ColtPower editor and Scout.com Senior NFL Analyst Ed Thompson's pre-draft interview with Britton here.
On Monday, Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio detailed just how Monroe and Britton worked their way into the starting lineup.
Jaguars Writer Vito Stellino bluntly asked: "Will this line be ready for the Colts? We'll see. This is what rebuilding is like. Long term, it's good to get Monroe and Britton in the lineup. They'll be the tackles for the next decade. Short term, this is why the Jaguars are likely to be suffering more growing pains this year."
Along those same lines, Florida Times-Union columnist Gene Frenette writes, "It might make quarterback David Garrard a little queasy to think a pair of rookies will be trying to keep the Colts' pass-rushing monsters of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis from collapsing the pocket. But if the Jaguars are committed to this youth movement, why delay the inevitable? Besides, we saw small pieces of evidence against Washington's backups that the push to get younger will be a good thing. What matters is the Jaguars are reinventing themselves, and there were signs that it doesn't always have to be an agonizing journey."
So what are the rookies up against on Sunday? Freeney and Mathis are coming off Pro Bowl seasons. In 2008, they combined for 22 sacks, 49 pressures and nine forced fumbles.
Let's start with Eben Britton on the right side. Britton knows how to use his size and long arms to his advantage. While his lateral movement is only a decent attribute right now, he also has the wingspan to force defenders to alter their path.
He will struggle, though, against the wide rush. Defenders who can get under the big fellow quickly with a good first step will be able to use leverage to their benefit. Britton is a very solid run-blocker; he'll maul you at the line, then use that 5.05 40 speed to get to the second level.
The fact that he can mirror and slide with the best of them, has excellent feet and outstanding balance make him a rare commodity at the tackle position.
Monroe will also want to use his wide frame and long arms to ride an edge rusher, like Dwight Freeney, past the pocket. In college, the kid displayed at powerful punch at the point and controlled his area once locked-on. But how will these skills translate to the NFL?
Its Monroe's pass protection skills that are earning him the big bucks; those skills will get a fast, early-in-the-career challenge on Sunday as he goes up against one of the league's best pass-rushers.
Simply put: it's baptism by fire for both Monroe and Britton.
As ESPN's Paul Kuharsky writes, expect TE Marcedes Lewis to line up beside the tackles often. In fact, watch Lewis close early. This will tell just what edge matchup Jaguar coaches fear the most. In addition, given that the two rookies are just that — rookies — look for Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer to challenge them with some different looks and blitzes at times. How well do they pick up outside backer or safety or quick corner blitzes?
For Jacksonville, the game is a lot simpler if they can stay out of third and longs or definite passing situations. If and how that happens might just depend on those interior trench battles.
For Jacksonville the off-season goal for the interior offensive line was simple—get healthy. After losing C Brad Meester for six weeks and both starting guards (Manuwai and Williams) for the whole 2008 season, the focus now is coming back strong and healthy. All three should be raring to go on Sunday and if they can regain their 2007 form Jacksonville's dominant physical run game should again show signs of life.
Indianapolis had an off-season goal of getting bigger at the defensive tackle position. Last season, undersized tackles like Keyunta Dawson (254 pounds) and Eric Foster (265 pounds) had trouble holding up at the point of attack and as a result yielded too much in the running game. Now Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson will start (both weighing in at over 310 pounds).
The Indianapolis Star's season preview summed up the overall dilemma facing the Colts defensive line nicely: "There's more bulk in the middle. It's imperative for the defense to tighten up against the run so new coordinator Larry Coyer can maximize the disruptive talents of Freeney, Mathis and Brock. It's tough to rush the QB when you're facing third-and-2 all day."
For years, conventional wisdom has been that you to beat Indianapolis by minimizing Peyton Manning's possessions. Jacksonville will hope to do that by pounding the ball up the middle. If Jacksonville can handle the interior with the center and one guard, it will allow the other guard to get up to the second level find a linebacker to block. This should create wider and deeper running lanes for Maurice Jones-Drew.
Still, questions dominate this interior trench battle. Will the added girth and bulk translate into a better run defense for Indianapolis? It's a cause and effect scenario for the Colts. If the Colts interior line can stay in their gaps, plug holes, and hold up at the point of attack it should create plenty of situations where Freeney and Mathis can pin their ears back and go after the new rookie Jaguar tackles. However, that all starts in the middle.
For Jacksonville, the main question is this: Is better health simply the solution to all the problems on the interior line, or is this group's better days a thing of the past?
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