Coming off a disappointing showing against the Cowboys, the Texans will look to rebound on Sunday against their divisional rival, the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars, following their bye week, will be looking to improve upon their 3-2 record and inch closer to the division-leading Indianapolis Colts.
With one of the youngest squads in the league, not many people knew what to expect from head coach Jack Del Rio's team entering the season, despite a playoff appearance in 2005. Shortly following the NFL Draft, wide receiver Jimmy Smith, the franchise's all-time leading receiver, announced he was retiring after 13 seasons. Questions abounded as to how the young Jaguars would react, but thus far, the team has played relatively well. Although they have two losses, both were in difficult situations (one was to the first place Colts by seven and the other came on the road at
**While the Jaguars are more well-known for their prowess on the defensive side of the ball thanks to the expertise of Del Rio, Jacksonville has many nice young pieces on offense that are coming along to make this a formidable unit. Leading the way is starting quarterback Byron Leftwich. Leftwich has been the subject of fans' scrutiny because of his inability to stay healthy and his sometimes inconsistent production, but at the age of 26, he is starting to show flashes of the player he was expected to be when drafted in the first round in 2003.
In 2006, Leftwich has begun to fully grasp offensive coordinator Carl Smith's downfield passing attack, thanks in large part to his exceptional arm strength and stepping up as a leader in the wake of Smith's departure. Although he lacks gaudy numbers (7 touchdowns, 5 interceptions), Leftwich is managing the game and developing a report with his receivers that should serve them well later in the season. The backup is fan favorite David Garrard who led the team to a 4-1 record down the stretch last season when Leftwich went down with an injury. Like Leftwich he has a good arm, but Garrard is a much larger threat with his legs.
Like their quarterbacks, the Jaguars' running backs are led by an injury-plagued starter being backed up by a speedy newcomer looking to push his way into the starting lineup. Starter Fred Taylor, who has been the team's unquestioned starter since his rookie season in 1998, has only played 16 games twice in his eight year career.
would make it through a season, has forced the Jaguars to stockpile running backs thru the draft.
Although Alvin Pearman and LaBrandon Toefield have provided good depth at the running back position and on special teams, none of them emerged the way Maurice Jones-Drew has this season. A second round pick out of UCLA after an outstanding college career that saw him named a first-team All-American his junior season in 2005, Jones-Drew was viewed by many as being too small (5-7, 212) to make an impact anywhere but on special teams in the NFL. But size has proved to be irrelevant so far as Jones-Drew has been a threat on the ground, through the air and in the return game on his way to four touchdowns in his first five games. His tremendous speed and ability to find his role in the Jaguars system, gives the team another valuable weapon at their disposal.
A large amount of pressure coming into the season was on the young corps of receivers for the Jaguars: Ernest Wilford, Reggie Williams and Matt Jones. While their production won't make people forget Smith, the trio has stepped up and allowed Leftwich to spread the ball around the field, keeping opposing defenses on their toes. No member of the group is shorter than 6-4' and all have their unique abilities. Wilford is a terror in the red zone using his size to beat defenders and although he hasn't recorded a score yet this year, he led the team last year with seven receiving touchdowns. Jones, the converted quarterback, has a knack for finding holes in the defense and using his 4.3 speed to get downfield. Williams, the most physically gifted, has finally started to blossom in his third season recording 25 catches and four touchdowns this year.
They may lack star power, but the Jaguars have another good threesome at tight end. The veteran Kyle Brady is not the receiver he once was, but is still a sound blocker that is a big contributor in the success of the running game. 2006 first-round pick Mercedes Lewis, Drew's teammate at UCLA, has size (6-6, 255) and will eventually be looked at to be a solid performer through the air. And the least known of the bunch, fourth-year man George Wrighster, has already recorded 17 catches this season.
Questions surrounded the offensive line before this season, but they have responded by paving the way for the sixth best rushing team in the league and allowing quarterback Leftwich to only be sacked eight times. Left tackle Khalif Barnes has emerged as one of the best in the game in only his second season. Veteran center Brad Meester is a solid leader and is flanked by two guards, Vince Manuwai and Chris Naeole, who have stepped up their game. Other contributors on the successful line this season are tackles Maurice Williams and Stockar McDougle.
Stopping the Jaguars means finding a way to pressure Byron Leftwich. His lack of mobility makes him a viable target, but his line has been doing a good job of protecting him this season. When
**Defense has been the hallmark during Jack Del Rio's four year tenure in
Two players that could step up and lead this team are the two cornerstones of the defense: tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. In
The top pass rusher at end is the undersized third-year man Bobby McCray, who leads the team with four sacks.
The key to the game will be at linebacker to see how Daryl Smith, in only his third year in the league, will adjust to filling the shoes of the injured Peterson. Smith (6-2, 244) came into the league being billed as a player who can play all three spots, so the transition may not be as hard as it appears, but the he will have to become the leader of the unit at the same time. Smith has registered 24 tackles this season and will be surrounded by two players in their first year as starters, Nick Griesen and Clint Ingram.
Behind the cornerbacks is one of the finest safety duos in the league: free safety Deon Grant and strong safety Donovan Darius. While not spectacular, Grant is solid and gets the job done every game. He has big game experience from his time in college at
Attacking the defense of the Jaguars can get tricky. It's almost impossible to run up the middle with
Going after the inexperienced linebacking corps on play action, counters and the short passing game might be the best option.
**Like they are in all facets of the game, the Jaguars are solid in special teams thanks to the addition of Jones-Drew, the continued improvement of kicker Josh Scobee, the steady leg of Chris Hanson, and the addition of many young, athletic players to the coverage units.
Jones-Drew is a threat to score anytime he has the ball in his hands. Last season at UCLA, he led the NCAA with a 28.5 yards per punt return average. Although he is letting the young duo of wide receiver Chad Owens and running back Alvin Pearman handle the punts, he is making an impact returning kickoffs at a 25.3 yard per return average. If Owens and Pearman don't improve upon their current numbers, 7.3 and 9.8 yards per return respectively, Jones-Drew could take over there as well.
Scobee, although he is only 9 of 12 on field goals thus far has shown marked improvement. His three field goals against the defending champion Steelers in Week 2 served as the only scoring and propelled the Jaguars to victory. At only 24 years of age, Scobee should continue to build upon his success and become one of the best kickers in the NFL. Hanson has had a steady six-year career as the