Although rookie bookends Eben Britton and Eugene Monroe draw a difficult challenge in their first professional start, facing off against 2008 Pro Bowlers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the issue with defending the Jaguars for the Colts has always been on the interior.
Working with mostly second-string players along the interior of their offensive line last season, Jacksonville destroyed Indianapolis up the middle in Week 3 last season, rushing for 236 yards on 48 carries with one touchdown.
After some adjustments by the Colts to their front seven — they were on their way to be one of the worst run defenses in league history before "rallying" to finish 24th overall in 2008 — Indianapolis performed much better in Week 16, allowing only 105 yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns.
Two players that factored heavily in that "turnaround" were Eric Foster and Antonio Johnson. Johnson should be in the starting lineup on Sunday and, along with some combination of Daniel Muir and Fili Moala, the Colts should be stouter up the middle and won't be as easily pushed around at the point of attack.
Foster is still on the roster, but will most likely be used in known passing situations and to give the big boys a breather, since he is not as skilled an anchor as the other men in the rotation.
However, it should be noted that Jacksonville lost a total of 36 starts along the interior last year, as current starting guards Maurice Williams and Vince Manuwai missed 15 games each and center Brad Meester was absent for six games.
With those men back in place, they should be able to attack the line of scrimmage more effectively and the new-and-improved bigger bodies at defensive tackle will need to push back just hard if they want to keep Gary Brackett clean.
This is the one area where Indianapolis is at a disadvantage, since Manuwai, Williams, and Meester are not known for their pass-blocking expertise and two rookies against two Pro Bowl players on the edges is a big-time mismatch that Greg Talmage will tackle in further detail.
If the Johnsons, Muir, and Moala are able to win their matchups, it will be a long day for the Jacksonville offense. If the big men on the inside for the Jaguars win, it will open up play-action for the passing offense, slowing down the pass rush and eventually wearing down Freeney and Mathis, who are smaller players and can only hold the point of attack for so long.
Britton and Monroe will need help regardless, but if Freeney and Mathis are able to pin their ears back and not worry about the running game, then the help that Britton and Monroe get will be less effective.
Of the seven wide receivers the Jaguars have on their roster, two are rookies, four have three years of experience or less, one is speedster Troy Williamson, one is former Dolphin and Jaguar Ernest Wilford, and one is the legendary Torry Holt.
Williamson has been impressive so far this preseason, but has yet to prove that he can be consistently effective as a receiver at this level when it counts. Wilford was released in the last round of cuts by the Dolphins last week and was quickly scooped up by Jacksonville because he knows the system, coaches, and personnel. He was never overly impressive when he was with the Jaguars and and has languished in Miami for the past two years.
Mike Sims-Walker appears to have won the third receiver job, but, again, is a player that hasn't shown much to this point in his career. It is unlikely that Jacksonville can help Holt find his youth, have Williamson realize his potential, Wilford forget the last two seasons and dominate, and that, in addition, a collection of inexperienced receivers will all play like young veterans.
But, they don't need all that. They basically need to Holt to be about as good as he was in 2007, Williamson to play about as well as he's played in the preseason, and Wilfold to play to the level at which he played during his first stint with the team.
This is a group whose whole is better than the sum of its parts. They will improve as the season goes on and everyone continues to get on the same page. This is a different crew than in years past, as it has a number of different body types.
While the wide receiving corps for Jacksonville from 2005-2008 ran the gamut from big and slow to big and fairly quick, this year's group features a couple of younger, smaller receivers, as well as a couple of guys in the six foot one range that are slender and more quick than fast, more agile than lumbering. Fortunately for the Colts, they play the Jaguars in Week 1, when Jacksonville is no doubt still ironing out a few wrinkles.
Considering the fact that the Jaguars finished in the top half of the league in pass offense last season with a group of wide receivers that did not have a player of Holt's caliber and that David Garrard passing for 329 yards in the Week 16 meeting in 2008, this group may be good enough to get the job done . . . provided the running game is working.
Garrard has taken on more and more responsibility over the past season and a half, but this is still an offense that lives and dies by the running game.
No one is questioning Jones-Drew's toughness or his ability to withstand the punishment of 20 or more carries every game — he proved himself to be capable of this towards the end of last season — they're mostly questioning his inexperience at the featured back position.
Jones-Drew is not accustomed to being "the guy" that the offense revolves around and no one quite knows how he will respond to the pressure. When Taylor was still with the team, he was the starting back and Jones-Drew was the change-of-pace back. Though title did not dictate carry distribution, it is still important.
Rookie tailback Rashad Jennings — a big, powerful runner that tips the scales at 235 pounds — will get some of the work, but it will ultimately be Jones-Drew's job to keep the chains moving.
As long as the line is opening up holes for him between the tackles, allowing him to get a head of steam, make his way to the second level, and make some defenders miss in the open field, Jones-Drew will be just fine.
But, if the Colts are able to jam up the middle of the field and force him to run wide into the waiting arms of rangy defenders like Tyjuan Hagler, Philip Wheeler and Clint Session, then he will start to feel the pressure. Once again, this is a period of transition for the Jaguars and Indianapolis is lucky to catch them in the first game of this transition.
The more uncomfortable they can make an offensive squad that is already not in their comfort zone and has not yet hit their stride, the better.
Garrard is far more than a game manager at this point in his career, but Jacksonville also learned the hard way last season that he cannot be given too many reads and too much responsibility and still be able to maintain a six-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio.
With a receiving corps littered with new faces, a tailback making only his fifth career start, and two rookies at the tackle positions, chances are that the Jaguars coaches are going to play it safe.
They are going to max protect. They are going to roll Garrard to his right frequently. They are going to set it up so that he only needs to make three reads: deep right, intermediate right, checkdown. They are going to trust the players that they have available, trust Garrard, and trust the fact that this system has worked for them in the past with less talent and less versatility.
The secondary should be able to keep Holt in check for the most part. Kelvin Hayden, if healthy, should be able to handle Williamson with help over the top from Melvin Bullitt. Antoine Bethea will need to play an awful lot of center field, only cheating to his left — Garrard's right — when the situation dictates.
Given all the variables and everything Jacksonville needs to overcome on offense — not to mention the fact that they also must overcome a very capable Indianapolis defense — this should be an easy game for the Colts defense.
However, if the Jaguars are successful running the ball early, can stick to the basics in the passing game, work in some roll-outs, bootlegs, and play-action with Garrard, and slowing introduce other wrinkles, including double moves and draw plays, they can keep pace with the Indianapolis offense.
It's a tall order and it's probably too much to ask of the Jacksonville offense at this early stage, but that's what they need to do to be competitive. Conversely, that's what the Colts need to keep them from doing in order to win.
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