8:30 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Jacksonville -3, Over/Under: 43.5
In a game that at first glance has the appearance of a bonafide Toilet Bowl, actually carries the potential of postseason implications, as perennial doormats the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars clash at EverBank Field tonight on Thursday Night Football. As the Houston Texans proved this past Monday Night, you’re never quite out of contention in the ridiculously mediocre AFC South, as they ascended to a share of first place with the Indianapolis Colts despite just 4-5 record. As crazy as it sounds, if you’re a fan of the Titans (2-7, 4th in AFC South) then you have to be asking yourself “why not us?”. After all, despite a six-game losing streak that saw Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt fired just twenty-two games into his tenure with the franchise, they stand just two games out of first place in the division. Now whether or not this team is capable of doing so is another matter altogether, but the important thing thing is that the opportunity is indeed there, and you had better believe that interim skipper Mike Mularkey is telling his charges the same thing. With two games against the Jaguars in the next three weeks, there is plenty of time to scale the division. And speaking of the Jags, Mularkey should be well-acquainted with his opponent tonight, for he served as their Head Coach in a very brief tenure that lasted just sixteen games during the 2012 season. That miserable 2-14 campaign in many ways served as the impetus for the transition to the current regime in Jacksonville, which is still attempting to return the franchise to respectability. Armed with three years of Head Coaching experience (Buffalo 2004-2005), the former Associate Head Coach was the logical choice to succeed Whisenhunt. The question remains though, will he able to move them forward? Well, he will be celebrating his 54th birthday today, so there’s that.
It’s rare that interim coaches find much success in the long term, as Dan Campbell and the Dolphins can attest to at the moment. In most cases, the ensuing change in culture brings immediate short term results, which is exactly what happened two weeks ago in New Orleans, where Mularkey watched his team outlast the Saints in a 34-28 overtime victory. Granted, Sean Payton’s outfit has been historically bad defensively, but as the old adage goes, “a win is a win”, particularly when you’re a team that has only earned four in the last twenty-five contests. That competitive streak continued against the undefeated Panthers last week, as Tennessee hung tight with Cam Newton and Co. in a 27-10 defeat that was a lot closer than the final score would indicate. Of course, it helps that Mularkey has Marcus Mariota under Center; the No. Two Overall Pick in this past May’s Draft has taken his lumps, missing games due to injury, but has generally been a pleasant surprise given the circumstances around him. In seven starts, the rookie has completed 65.6% of his attempts for an average of 256.4 yards per game (8.0 y/a), thirteen touchdowns and six interceptions, while posting a respectable Total QBR of 56.12. The former Heisman was flawless at New Orleans, deftly completing 28-of-39 passes for a staggering 371 yards, and four touchdowns. Even with the abrupt change on the sidelines, this kid hasn’t flinched, proof that he just might be the Quarterback to lead the Titans out of this malaise they’ve been stuck in for six years. He just needs some help; Tennessee isn’t very dynamic offensively, averaging just 18.8 points (27th Overall) on 343.6 total yards (30th Overall), including 97.4 yards on the ground (24th Overall) on 4.0 yards per carry (20th Overall). It’s been slim pickings here folks, for Tight End Delanie Walker has been the only Titan to crack 30 receptions and 400 receiving yards, while three different Tailbacks have received opportunities in the Backfield, with each leaving a lot to be desired. In fact, none of the Motley Crew that is Antonio Andrews, Dexter McCluster, Terrence West, or Bishop Sankey has managed to rush for over 300 yards. Fortunately, the defense has kept them in plenty of games to this point. Defensive Coordinator and Associate Head Coach Dick LeBeau have done a sound job in their second term of development. Through nine games, Tennessee has relinquished a respectable 23.8 points (18th Overall) on 326.1 yards per game (5th Overall), including a stellar 213.8 yards through the air (3rd Overall) on 6.6 net yards per attempt (20th Overall). The difference has been pressure; LeBeau’s presence has proven invaluable, as his current wards have logged an impressive twenty-seven sacks (3rd Overall), with four different Titans totaling at least four apiece. Former Redskin Brian Orakpo (6.0 sacks) has been a welcome addition on the edge, while Derrick Morgan has found his niche with 4.5 sacks.
Meanwhile, progress has been moving at the rate of evolution in Jacksonville (3-6, 3rd in AFC South) for quite some time, but recently there have been signs that seeds planted years ago are finally bearing fruit. Now in his third season, Head Coach Gus Bradley has the Jaguars competitive again, which is the first step before winning games. After all, one must learn to crawl before they walk, right? If that’s the case, it must seem like this franchise has been perpetually learning to crawl; in many regards, Bradley is fortunate that he avoided the same fate as Whisenhunt, for in forty-one games he is only 10-31 over the course of two-plus years in charge. With that said, let’s give the man some credit for getting his team to this point, for at three wins they have already matched the previous season’s total. And for that matter, let’s give their Front Office some credit for allowing him the time to see this monumental rebuild through. Winners of two out of their last three, it’s very possible that these guys can start making some noise in the AFC, what with a pair of games against the Titans over the next three contests. The Wild Card is likely out of the question at this point, but thanks to the troubles in Indianapolis, the worst division in the NFL is wide open. But back to that thing called progress for a minute… How do we know that this long downtrodden franchise is finally on the up and up? If that wasn’t the case, then their win last week in Baltimore wouldn’t have happened. Despite giving up 397 yards, including 308 through the air, against the Ravens’ toothless offense, the visitors managed to capitalize on their hosts mistakes en route to a 22-20 victory. Four turnovers and nine penalties for a staggering 121 yards doomed Joe Flacco and Co., with none more damning than the fifteen-yard Facemask booking of Elvis Dumervil, who violently pulled Quarterback Blake Bortles down by his Face Guard as time expired. Well, since the game can’t end on a penalty, Jacksonville went from a final Hail Mary from their opponent’s 49-yard line to one last chance from the 35-yard line, where Kicker Jason Myers calmly kicked the decisive 53-yard Field Goal. Even though news from the league offices came down Monday proclaiming that the Face Mask play should have never happened thanks to a missed False Start that would have effectively ended the evening, Sunday’s triumph remains a victory for a team that has had so few over the past three years. And it’s hard to believe that they would have a won a game of this nature at any point during that juncture. Progress indeed.
Upon watching the Jaguars this season, it’s been quite clear that there are two things that have been driving this step in their progression. The first, and perhaps most important has been the play of Bortles, whom they selected Third Overall in last year’s NFL Draft. There hasn’t been a Franchise Quarterback in Jacksonville since the days of Mark Brunell, and virtually everyone that watched his final season at Central Florida along with his impressive workouts was of the unanimous opinion that the potential was through the roof. Now you know what they say in this league, but potential can get you killed. Thankfully for Bradley, this kid is finally showing some signs of reaching that potential. However, let us say that like the team he is leading, Bortles has a very LONG way to go before he makes good on his lofty selection in the Draft, but again, the signs exhibited to this point are comforting. No. 5 has shown improvement across the board, which is significant for he was absolutely TERRIBLE a season ago; as a rookie, Bortles completed 58.9% of his passes for an average of 207.7 yards (6.1 y/a), eleven touchdowns and seventeen interceptions, along with a dreadful Total QBR of 25.22, but has since seen the yardage inflate to 264.6 per game (6.7 y/a), and cleaned up the turnovers with nineteen touchdowns to eleven interceptions, which has more than doubled his rating (56.13). Hell, he’s even led the Jags on three Game-Winning Drives, including a pair Fourth Quarter Comebacks, another sign of his gradual maturity. He’s managed to develop solid chemistry with those around him, particularly Receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who have accounted for 1,455 yards on eighty-six catches, with seven touchdowns apiece. However, Bortles still very much holds onto the ball too long, which has led to twenty-eight sacks thus far, a year after getting sacked more than any other Quarterback in the league a year ago (55 times). That’s not all on the second-year signal-caller though, for Bradley’s Offensive Line has left a lot to be desired in 2015. Starting Guard Brandon Linder languishing on Injured Reserve does no favors for a unit that has been short on depth, while Luke Joekel has yet to show any signs of being the franchise Left Tackle that the Jaguars drafted him to be back in 2013, and that’s when he’s been healthy enough to play. As we mentioned earlier, there is another factor that has helped to expedite the rebuilding process, and that has been the play of the defense. Jacksonville doesn’t much top-shelf talent here, or a lot of depth, but anyone who has seen them can’t deny that they are well-coached. Coming over from Seattle, where he served as their Defensive Coordinator from 2009 to 2012, Bradley has been slowly cultivating a group that can only improve with more experience. Thus far, they have allowed the third-most points in the league (28.3), but have proven dominant at times against the run, yielding just 93.7 yards (6th Overall) on a league-low 3.3 yards per carry (1st Overall). The biggest issue has been the pass defense (268.4), and that’s because there just aren’t many threats to rush the passer to be found. 2015 Third Overall Pick Dante Fowler was expected to provide heat off the edge, but tore his ACL in Training Camp, leaving Bradley to once again manufacture pressure; a respectable nineteen sacks has come courtesy of thirteen different players, led by Defensive Back Aaron Colvin with three.