Thanks to Ryan O’Bleness for answering these. Check out BigCatCountry.com for a Jaguars’ perspective leading up to this one. Onto the questions.
1) No Blake Bortles in this one — what have you seen so far from Cody Kessler?
In his first start against the Indianapolis Colts last week, Kessler was ineffective for the most part, but he did was he was supposed to do and earned his first career win thanks to a dominating defensive performance from Jacksonville. Kessler led the Jags to just six points, but he protected the ball, was very accurate (18-24, 75 percent completion rate) and didn’t make bad decisions that would have costed his team in a close game. A lot of the passes he threw were checkdowns or passes to running backs in the flats. He was getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Kessler also made a huge play by recovering his own fumble late in the game, which would have put the Colts deep into Jags territory. He’s not going to drive the ball downfield often, though, he did say he would like to take more deep shots.
Kessler is not going to put the team on his shoulders and win it for them with his play, but if he can effectively manage the game and avoid turnovers, then the Jags may be able to end the year on a positive note with a couple more wins. The change from Blake Bortles to Cody Kessler was much needed for the Jags, and you could tell that team came out with a new kind of energy this past Sunday, but I don’t see Kessler as a long term option, at least as a starter, in Jacksonville.
2) Small sample size here, but how has (or how will) the offense change post-Hackett?
As I expected, the Jaguars had a very conservative game plan last week with Kessler starting and Scott Milanovich taking over play-calling duties. The Jaguars ran the ball 27 times, with Carlos Hyde getting the most carries (13) without Leonard Fournette in the fold, and T.J. Yeldon getting eight rushes. Kessler also rushed for 28 yards, and did attempt a healthy number of passes with 24, but as I’ve mentioned a lot of those were checkdowns or short throws. Milanovich doesn’t exactly have a great stable of playmakers to work with on the offensive side of the ball given all of the injuries, and the offensive line is depleted as well. I am not sure that last week’s game plan will be effective against a team like the Titans that have a good passing defense, though, so I think Milanovich will have to add a few wrinkles in the game and take more risks. He’ll also be able to ride Fournette as the bell cow back this week, as the running back returns from suspension. Look for the Jaguars to try to control the clock with the running game and eventually try to open things up in the passing game with some play-action if the ground game is successful. We’ve seen very low-scoring games the last couple of times these two teams have gotten together, and I would expect more of the same Thursday night.
3) This defense still ranks inside the top five this year, but they’ve had their down moments. What’s different?
The biggest issues that have plagued the Jaguars throughout the season are lack of big plays: sacks and turnovers and defensive scores. There have also been some communication issues that are inexcusable, but appear to have been fixed as of late. As you’ve mentioned, the Jaguars still rank very well statistically — third in total defense, third in passing defense, fifth in scoring defense and middle of the pack in rushing defense, but this defense prided itself on explosive plays last season and that just has not been the case this year. The team scored a league-leading seven defensive touchdowns last season, but only has one this year. Last year’s unit has 55 sacks, while this year’s unit has only 24. The unit also only has 13 takeaways this season (33 last year). “Sacksonville” returned for at least one Sunday this past week, pitching a shut out, sacking Andrew Luck three times and forcing two turnovers, but consistency has escaped this group in 2018.
4) Indy scores 29 points against the Jaguars on November 11th. Jacksonville shuts them out on December 2nd. How did they manage to pull that off?
The interesting thing about that is that Jacksonville has actually shut the Colts out for six consecutive quarters now. Indianapolis scored all 29 points in the first half of the first meeting. I am not sure exactly what adjustments were made at halftime of that game, but whatever it was worked. There was communication errors between the secondary in the first half of the game, which led to some big plays for the Colts in the first two quarters. Jacksonville remedied that and kept in going in this past Sunday’s contest. Despite playing with a hurt knee, Jalen Ramsey played another really strong game, which included stopping the runner’s forward progress in bounds on the final play of the game to seal the win for Jacksonville. Telvin Smith, who has struggled at times this season, looked more like his old self. Myles Jack was making plays all over the field. Yannick Ngakoue made a big impact with his pass rushing. The Jaguars also decided to start rookie strong safety Ronnie Harrison over Barry Church this week and it paid off. The team just played with a renewed energy, and were feeding off of the home crowd. So it was really a collective effort from a very talented defense finally playing up to its potential this season.
5) It’s been 712 days since the Jaguars beat the Titans. Do they break that streak on Thursday? Give me your prediction.
Which is strange, because the one thing you could always count on is Jacksonville and Tennessee splitting a season series, as the two teams did every year from 2009 through 2016. The Jaguars are a depleted bunch right now, and Cody Kessler doesn’t inspire much confidence in leading the offense to a ton of points. As I said previously, I expect the game to be ugly with some hard-hitting defenses and offenses that struggle to move the ball and put up points. I think the first team to get into the 13 to 17 points range will win. The Jaguars would love to ruin the rival Titans’ chances at the playoffs, so I think the Jags will be plenty motivated despite not playing for much. I really don’t know what to make of this game, as I can see it going either way, but given what I know it’s hard for me to pick the Jaguars to win.
Score: Titans 13, Jaguars 10