The Vikings look to maintain a share of the NFC North Division lead today when they meet the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that finds itself hanging by a thread for its playoff life at 4-6 and in desperate need of a win.
The Jaguars lost their first two games of the season and have spent the two months since trying simply to get back to .500. Jacksonville hasn't been over .500 all season and, losing three of their last four, find themselves again two games below .500 and struggling to maintain a spot among the playoff contenders.
The Jaguars have struggled on both sides of the ball, which on offense usually begins with the quarterback position. David Garrard hasn't been horrible, but, unlike last season when he had no interceptions in his first 200 passes, he has thrown six interceptions this year – most at critical times. Eight of the Jaguars' 10 games this season have been decided by seven points or less, so every mistake has been magnified. Garrard is a solid game manager who has completed 63 percent of passes for 2,144 yards and eight touchdowns. He is also a threat to run, having rushed 48 times for 210 yards. The Vikings' primary job will be to keep Garrard in the pocket. He has been susceptible to sacks, having gone down 26 times already this season. If the Vikings can pressure Garrard, he will make mistakes, so expect to see the Vikings mixing up blitz packages and not allow Garrard to feel comfortable in the pocket.
One of the biggest differences for the Jaguars this season has been in the running game. In 2007, the combination of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew was deadly. Taylor ran 223 times for 1,202 yards and five touchdowns, while MJD rushed 167 times for 768 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 40 passes for 407 yards. Through 10 games, both players have an identical number of carries with 115 – Jones-Drew gaining 499 yards and Taylor gaining 416. After combining to gain about 125 yards a game last year, they have averaged only 91 yards a game this season. Their average per carry has dropped a full yard and, while Jones-Drew has scored 11 rushing touchdowns, the tandem hasn't been as dominating and game-changing as in the past two seasons. With each player averaging less than 12 carries a game, they have been unable to develop a rhythm. Taylor is a glider who, despite being in his 11th season, still has good speed. Jones-Drew is a bruising back with good speed and the ability to catch passes – he is second on the team with 31 receptions. Fullback Greg Jones also factors in, but more as a blocker than an offensive threat. To date this season, he has just two rushes and 13 receptions. Expect to see a steady dose of Taylor and Jones-Drew. The Jaguars play a ball-possession offense that has averaged four more minutes of possession time per game than their opponents. If that trend is to continue, Jones-Drew and Taylor will have to find seams in the Vikings run defense, something that has been hard to detect for most Vikings opponents.
A recurring problem for the Jaguars in recent years has been the lack of a top-end go-to receiver. The team has used the first round of the draft to take wide receivers before, but none of them have become bona fide game-changers. One of them is Matt Jones, who, despite legal problems looming over him following an arrest for cocaine possession, leads the team with 50 receptions for 586 yards and two TDs – all team highs. He is a big receiver with good speed and has almost as many catches as the next two players combined and 30 more than any other wide receiver on the team. Jerry Porter has been an expensive bust in the free-agent market. A big receiver in the mold of Terrell Owens, he hasn't been mistaken for T.O. on the field, especially this season. He has just seven catches for 101 yards and a TD in an injury-marred season. But he is ready to go Sunday and could pose some mismatch problems downfield. The Jaguars also have veterans Dennis Northcutt and Reggie Williams as receiving weapons. Northcutt has 20 catches for 223 yards and Williams, who had 10 touchdown catches last season, has caught just 20 passes for 180 yards and one TD. Troy Williamson was supposed to factor into the equation, but he is out of Sunday's game with a groin injury and the only action he might see is if Brad Childress takes him up on his offer to fight UFC-style at midfield before the game.
The secret here could be tight end Marcedes Lewis. A former first-round pick, Lewis hasn't evolved into the Antonio Gates/Tony Gonzalez clone the Jaguars had hoped, but with 22 catches for 302 yards and two TDs, he is second on the team in passing yards and tied for the lead in touchdown receptions. He will likely be asked to stretch the seam on pass plays much in the same way Jerramy Stevens did last week for the Buccaneers. Expect to see Jacksonville take at least a couple of deep shots with Lewis having linebackers in coverage.
One of the problems with the Jaguars offense this season has been the offensive line. A strength of the offense the last several years, the Jacksonville run game is averaging a full yard less per carry this year, and they have allowed 26 sacks. Both guard positions have been in flux due to injuries, which has had a significant impact on how teams have attacked the Jaguars defensively. The tackles are solid with fourth-year man Khalif Barnes at left tackle and six-year man Tony Pashos at right tackle, as is center – where Brad Meester is still strong in his ninth season. But the guard positions were supposed to be manned by Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams. But both have been lost due to injury and have been replaced by second-year pro Uche Nwaneri and veteran backup Dennis Norman. Both are a step down in talent and consistency and have been blamed for some of the lack of production the Jacksonville offense has displayed this season. Look for the Vikings to focus on overwhelming those two in the middle of the line to stop the run and blitz Garrard.
While the offensive woes of the Jaguars haven't been completely unexpected, the troubles with the defense have been an extremely unpleasant surprise. The Jaguars have allowed opponents to run for 1,132 yards (a 4.3-yard average), throw 18 touchdown passes and don't have a player with three sacks on the season. The problems have started up front due to the lack of a consistent pass rush. John Henderson is one of the better defensive tackles in the league and veteran Rob Meier is a solid run-stopper when healthy. The problems have been on the outside. Rookie Derrick Harvey held out much of training camp and, while he is starting, he hasn't lived up to his hype. He has just 1.5 sacks and will disappear for long stretches of games. On the other side, eighth-year veteran Reggie Hayward had just 1.5 sacks and hasn't been as stout against the rush as he has been the last couple of seasons. The team has some depth with Quentin Groves and Paul Spicer at end and former lottery bust Jimmy Kennedy at tackle, but this has been an underachieving group all season and as big a reason as any that the Jaguars find themselves looking up at too many teams in the playoff chase.
The linebacker corps is a pretty nondescript group that got worse when starter Mike Peterson decided to lip off to head coach Jack Del Rio and was pulled from the starting lineup. A captain and vocal defensive leader, Peterson's demotion from the MLB spot has created a vacuum in the defense as a whole. Fifth-year pro Darryl Smith, who naturally plays the strong side, has been moved into the middle and was replaced on the strong side by weakside linebacker Clint Ingram. Ingram's move has opened a spot for second-year man Justin Durant to be a full-time starter on the weak side. Essentially, all three players are playing somewhat out of position – or at least what they were planning to play when the season began. When players are taken out of their comfort zone, bad things can happen and this could be a group that can be exploited.
The secondary has suffered greatly this season, which can be attributed to the lack of a consistent pass rush. The Jaguars have allowed 18 touchdown passes so far this season – only Arizona (19) has allowed more. It comes as a something of a surprise because the secondary has plenty of talent. Former Viking Brian Williams signed a mammoth contract with the Jaguars in 2006 and starts at one corner and six-year pro Rashean Mathis has earned a reputation as one of the better cover corners in the AFC. At safety, the Jaguars have a talented young pair in fourth-year pro Gerald Sensabaugh and second-year man Reggie Nelson. Both have good speed and aren't afraid to make the big hit. However, both will bite on play fakes and get caught out of position. In passing situations, the Jaguars have some depth with Drayton Florence an extra corner, but Omare Lowe has been battling injuries much of the season and won't play.
When the schedule came out, this had the looks of a very difficult matchup, much less coming on the heels of a trip to Tampa Bay the previous week. But this is a different Jaguars team than the one that was one of the hottest teams in the league heading into the playoffs last January. This is a team that might be one loss away from being all but eliminated from postseason consideration. They have given up too many yards on the ground, too many touchdowns through the air and have made too many mistakes on offense. While far from being a pushover, this is a Jacksonville team that may be ripe for the picking if the Vikings can put their foot on their throats early. This is team built to maintain a lead and, if things go badly for them early, they could snowball as the game goes on.
Preview: Jaguars teetering on elimination
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