Decent Defense Trying to Carry Jags

Injuries, especially the nearly season-long one to running back Fred Taylor, have seriously limited Jacksonville's offense, but its defense can still present problems for Michael Bennett and the Vikings.

When the schedule-makers of the NFL saw Jacksonville and the Vikings playing the Sunday before Christmas, the thought was that it would be a matchup of two teams likely heading for the playoffs and a marquee game that would be ideal for a national TV audience in the 3 p.m. time slot. Instead, both teams have fallen on hard times and the game has been shifted to noon.

The decline of both the Vikings and Jaguars, two of the most successful franchises in the late 1990s, are a mirror of one another — injuries and salary cap constraints.

Like the Vikings, the Jags have the potential for a high-powered offense, led by quarterback Mark Brunell. Brunell is an efficient QB with twice as many touchdowns as interceptions and rarely throws the stupid pass that results in points for the opposition. He has battled through injuries, and the team suffered through a five-game losing streak in the process, but Brunell remains the man to stop in the Jaguars lineup, despite limited mobility Sunday with a leg injury.

That wasn't always the story. The Jags had two top-flight running backs in James Stewart and Fred Taylor, but ever since Stewart went to Detroit via free agency, Taylor has had difficulty staying healthy. When he was in the lineup, the Jags were 2-0 with wins over Pittsburgh and Tennessee. When he went out with a groin injury, the Jags lost eight of their next 10 games. Stacy Mack and Elvis Joseph have done a decent job replacing Taylor, but the offense has lacked the balance and explosion since Taylor has been out.

One consistent contributor to the Jags offense has been its receiver corps. Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell are among the best WR tandems in football and they've improved their stock with the addition of veteran Sean Dawkins. It gives Brunell three gifted receivers who can all make big plays or move the chains. In tight end Kyle Brady, the Jags have a decent blocker and solid receiver, but, with the problems on the offensive front, the need for Brady to block is more important.

When Jacksonville was at the top of its game, it had one of the best offensive lines in football. That has changed. With the release of former All-Pro Leon Searcy and injuries to tackle Tony Boselli, a perennial All-Pro, the line has become a makeshift unit of backups, youngsters and veterans. At the tackles, journeyman Todd Fordham has replaced Boselli and rookie Maurice Williams mans the right side. Injuries forced Zach Weigert to slide from tackle to guard, leaving Jeff Smith and Brad Meester as the only starters playing where they were anticipated to play in August. The shuffling has caused problems similar to those of the Vikings — Brunell has been sacked often and forced to play through injuries.

While the Jags have struggled, the defense has held things together somewhat. No team has scored more than 28 points in a game against Jacksonville, and seven of its first 12 opponents scored 20 points or less. The defense has done its job under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Up front, the Jaguars have talent in defensive ends Tony Brackens and Renaldo Wynn, tackles Gary Walker and Seth Payne and rookie lineman Marcus Stroud. Brackens is the team's top pass rusher and he and Walker are on pace to combine for nearly 20 sacks. Keeping the heat on Daunte Culpepper will be their primary focus while trying to bottle up Michael Bennett and the running game.

The linebackers are led by the Hardy Boys — Kevin Hardy and Hardy Nickerson. Nickerson is one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the game and no stranger to the Vikings from his days with Tampa Bay, while Hardy is a pass rusher who excels in pass coverage. They are joined by Edward Thomas, who is a second-year player that has ascended to the starting lineup as the season has progressed. The Vikings will be looking to avoid the Hardy Boys, so expect to see the running game target Thomas,.who looks to the secondary for help.

Jacksonville built something of a reputation with its secondary, but it has been burned for big plays, especially late in games, all season. At the corners are Fernando Bryant and Aaron Beasley, two solid cover corners, but players known for taking unnecessary risks that have resulted in too many big plays. At safety, Donovin Darius is a solid player, but rookie Marlon McCree has been forced into the lineup following the season-ending loss of Carnell Lake, and McCree is learning on the job.

Perhaps the most intriguing intangible will be that the Jaguars will be coming to the Metrodome — ending a brutal 21-day span. It began with a Monday night game vs. Green Bay and followed up with a short week of preparation for the Bengals in Cincinnati. After coming home for practice, they again got on a plane and flew to Cleveland for another cold-weather road game. The Vikings will be Jacksonville's third straight road game — historically a bad omen for more than 80 percent of the teams forced to go through it. That, combined with the fact that Jacksonville will be the final home game of the season for the Vikings, could be the combination the Vikings are looking for to bring their season to an upturn. VU


Michael Bennett vs. Hardy Nickerson —
Bennett has shown the flashes of speed that made him a first-round pick, and the Vikings are convinced that he will be the key to giving the offense balance. Nickerson's job will be to keep Bennett bottled up. If he can force the Vikings to abandon the run, the Jaguars will have the advantage.

Jimmy Smith vs. Dale Carter —
While players like Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison get more ink, Smith makes as many big-play long touchdowns as any receiver in the NFL. He is a home run hitter, and the Vikings have already indicated they may put Carter on an island and have him play opposite Smith all day. It will be a true test to see just how much the former All-Pro Carter has left in him.

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