AFC South: Rashard Jennings
Thoughts on the Texans’ 43-37 win over the Jaguars at Reliant Stadium:
What it means: The Texans posted a remarkable rally from a late two-touchdown deficit and pulled to 9-1 with an improbable overtime victory. It took everything they had to beat the 1-9 Jaguars, who played what ranked as their best game of the season, setting the tone early and fighting like crazy but ultimately coming up short against a team with an awful lot of firepower.
Back in form: Questions about the age and leg condition of Andre Johnson should be about gone by now. He’s been playing better and better and finished this one with 14 catches for a career-high 273 yards. His 35-yard catch on the last possession was crucial for setting up Shayne Graham’s field goal attempt at the end of regulation, but Graham missed it badly. So Johnson took a bubble screen 48 yards for the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
What I liked, Texans: Matt Schaub hit on 43 of 55 passes for 527 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He had a stretch of 17 consecutive completions end on the second play from scrimmage in overtime. The yardage was the second most in NFL history.
What I liked, Jaguars: Chad Henne stepped in for Blaine Gabbert early after the starting quarterback hurt his throwing elbow when his arm was hit by Danieal Manning on a blitz that forced a fumble. Henne was an excellent reliever, finishing 16-of-33 for 354 yards and four touchdowns. No other quarterback since Sage Rosenfels for Houston in 2007 has come off the bench to throw four touchdowns.
What I didn’t like, Texans: There were all sorts of problems defensively. But as the Jaguars connected on a bunch of big pass plays, Houston’s safeties had plays made on them, had receivers bounce off them and generally had a bad day. Manning had a big game last week in Chicago against his old team and Glover Quin has also been steady this season. But whether they just had a bad day or Jacksonville had a sense they were guys who could be attacked, they hurt Houston today.
Overtime: The Texans marched to a field goal on the opening possession of OT. The Jaguars converted a fourth-and-10 with a 15-yard Henne-to-Justin Blackmon pass and managed to get a field goal of their own to extend the game and set up a next-score-wins scenario. That next score was Johnson.
Breakout games: Blackmon was fantastic with seven catches for 236 yards and a touchdown. The rookie receiver showed the combination of physical presence and speed that prompted the Jaguars to trade up for him back in April. On the other side, Keshawn Martin was very productive in the return game, an area where Houston has struggled this season. He had a 71-yard kickoff return and a 54-yard punt return. He also had a 9-yard touchdown catch.
Silly stat: It was just the second game in NFL history with two 200-yard receivers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The only other game in NFL history in which multiple receivers had 200 or more yards was Sept. 23, 2007, when Detroit's Roy Williams (204) and Philadelphia's Kevin Curtis (221) pulled it off in an Eagles win over the Lions.
Defensive standouts: Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny got that blood running from the bridge of his nose dripping down his face from delivering some big hits, and defensive tackle C.J. Mosley was frequently disruptive.
Mixed results: In his first game after roughly a year missed with injuries, Texans inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton had mixed results. He broke through the line for a great tackle for a loss on running back Rashad Jennings but also bit on a run fake and left Marcedes Lewis open for a touchdown pass from Henne.
What’s next: The Texans have a quick turnaround, heading to Detroit for a game on Thanksgiving Day. The Jaguars host Tennessee at EverBank Field.
Maurice Jones-Drew is holding out now in Jacksonville, though he has two seasons left on his existing deal.
Surely MJD’s representation is using Johnson’s contract -- an extension that added four new years and $53 million, with $30 million guaranteed -- to help make his case.
Two years ago, Jones-Drew got an extension that added four new years and $31 million, with a $9 million signing bonus and $17 million guaranteed.
Johnson, unsurprisingly, endorses MJD’s search for more.
“I feel like he’s worth a new deal,” Johnson said after the Titans' first practice of training camp. “If you look at Jacksonville, he’s basically their whole offense. So I feel like it wouldn’t be smart for their organization not to pay him. If they don’t, they’ll be doing us a favor.”
What do you think of Rashad Jennings, I asked, following up with a question about the guy currently working at the front of Jacksonville’s running-back line.
“Who’s that?” Johnson asked. “That’s his backup? I really don’t have any comment on that. I don’t know him.”
He didn’t mean it as a shot, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound like one.
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|The Jaguars know they want to give the ball to Maurice Jones-Drew and run the ball often. Beyond that, however, Jacksonville is still searching for an identity. |
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars always intend to be physical.
Beyond that, coach Jack Del Rio isn't looking to shoehorn his team into a predetermined personality.
"What it was when we got here with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson was the Twin Towers," he said. "And that got talked up quite a bit, and now that's changing. Marcus is not here. That's kind of not been what we are. What we are gets described by other people. What I want us to be is a team that works at it, shows tremendous commitment, focus, unselfishness and then we see how people want to label it.
"I'm not concerned with putting a label on it now and then living up to it."
Still, the Jaguars must answer the most basic NFL questions, the ones that provide the fallback plan when things are difficult: Who are we? And what do we do?
They will be a run-centered team, keyed around trying to build big drives with good line play from a group that's healthy and has reinforcements and looks to spring feature back Maurice Jones-Drew. They will be a linebacker-centered team, looking for three athletes to start showing up as big playmakers.
Beyond that, a 5-11 team from 2008 that has a new general manager in Gene Smith and 32 new players on the roster is still feeling things out, and could be for a while.
That search isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's ultimately fruitful.
"The team identity right now, I really can't answer that question," said Greg Jones, the fullback who's expected to get carries behind Jones-Drew. "I think if you ask me a month from now, a week into the season, I probably can. I think we are still trying to find ourselves, we are still trying to get this train going. We still are working towards it, working hard. We're rejuvenated, and excited about a fresh start. New logo, new uniforms, new GM -- we're just trying to have a fresh start and a great year."
Del Rio's positive disposition comes from the roster turnover. Gone are the team's primary character issues and high-paid players who didn't live up to their contracts. Smith's worked with his coach to retool with high-character guys who have good football smarts, who will buy in and fight through tough times.
In a division where the other three teams won at a .688 clip in 2007, the Jaguars aren't expecting Tennessee, Indianapolis or Houston to come back to them. Ultimately, they will have to track those teams down.
"This team has been flipped upside-down," defensive tackle Derek Landri said. "Everybody is searching themselves for who they are, who they want to be and what they want to accomplish in this league. As a whole, our identity is yet to be made, yet to be found.
"Which is, I think, a scary thing but in a good way. Because nobody really knows what we're capable of. I think we've got something special here that is up and coming, and for a lot of people that's bad news. It's good news for us."
|Steve Mitchell/US Presswire|
|Can David Garrard prove this season he is the team's franchise quarterback?|
1. Is David Garrard the guy?
Two years into his tenure as the starter, the question is unresolved. In 2007, he was 9-3 as a starter with a 102.2 passer rating. Last year, behind a broken line and with shaky weapons, he was 5-11 with an 81.7 rating.
The Jaguars don't want him to try to carry the team, just to orchestrate things. He talks of getting the ball into his playmakers' hands. But at crucial moments, can he make the right decisions and throw the ball to the right spots?
If he can't, the franchise will be looking for a quarterback in 2010 and Tim Tebow's name will ring out in Jacksonville from just 115 miles away in Gainesville.
2. Where's the pass rush coming from?
The Jaguars traded up for Derrick Harvey at No. 8 in 2007 and drafted Quentin Groves in the second round. They are trying to spark Henderson back to form while sifting through the options for the rest of the defense tackles. Collectively, they must generate a consistent pass rush that alleviates pressure on the secondary and allows linebackers the team keeps praising to start making plays regularly.
Maybe there is a surprise contributor or two. Undrafted rookie Julius Williams out of UConn drew early raves.
3. How will J
ones-Drew do as the No. 1 guy?
In letting Fred Taylor go, Jacksonville was opening more possibilities for MJD. The Jaguars will work hard to get the most out of Jones-Drew, but they also must be conscious of monitoring his workload to maximize the chances of getting the same November and December production as they get in September and October.
That means Jones or rookie Rashard Jennings or another back must prove a viable second option who can take a share of the running back touches on a weekly basis.
The company line is that third-year free safety Reggie Nelson is entrenched as a starter and set to be a key cog in the defensive scheme. But there was a big drop from his first season to his second.
There is a growing buzz among some close to the team and scouts that Nelson isn't the player the team hoped he would be and could even slip out of the starting 11 if he underperforms once the season is under way. Gerald Alexander arrived recently in a trade from Detroit and could make a push for the job if Nelson doesn't recover and find better footing. Still, it's hard to imagine he doesn't get a third season to prove himself.
Newcomer to watch
The Jaguars gave the Patriots a 2010 second-rounder to take cornerback Derek Cox out of William & Mary in the third round. With no clear starter opposite Rashean Mathis on the outside in the secondary, Cox has an early opportunity to stake a claim.
He was carrying himself with confidence early in camp and already working to break a habit he brought from college: a tendency to refocus on the quarterback too soon, giving a receiver a chance to break away.
Kicker Josh Scobee was hitting the ball great in the first week of camp, a good sign for a team likely to win close when it wins. ... Of the three rookie receivers, seventh-rounder Tiquan Underwood has been the most impressive. Meanwhile, fifth-rounder Jarret Dillard has struggled with drops. ... Tackle Tony Pashos reacted just the way a team that drafted two tackles and brought in a free agent (Tra Thomas) would want him to. He lost weight, re-committed and looks quite good. ... Defensive tackle Rob Meier will give great effort, but the team realizes it overextended him last season and will limit him to 20-25 plays a game. ... Left guard Vince Manuwai didn't have a full load early in camp but will be ready to go in the opener. The loss of the line's best run-blocker to a torn ACL in last year's opener began the team's downfall. ... Justin Durant has moved to middle linebacker and it's time for him. Between him, and the outside backers, Clint Ingram and Daryl Smith, a defensive leader must emerge and set a tone. ... While they know they can shift him to safety if they need to, the Jaguars are working Brian Williams at cornerback and nickel and expecting him to be in one of those spots or provide depth there. ... Receiver Mike Walker worked in the weight room on his legs and is confident he can keep them healthy. Now the question is whether he gave up any of his shiftiness by bulking up below the waist. ... Marcedes Lewis is best on routes where he can track the ball the whole way instead of having to find it. If he can catch more consistently, he can do some things after the reception. And yards after the catch may be key for this team considering deep balls aren't Garrard's specialty.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There is no denying Jack Del Rio has a fondness for Greg Jones. The fullback is one of the coach's guys.
Some people see it and understand. Others are puzzled.
|Fernando Medina/US Presswire|
|Despite just two carries last season, Greg Jones may be in line for more touches in 2009.|
But part of the decision to let Fred Taylor go and move Maurice Jones-Drew to the lead running back position also included some confidence that the team had alternatives for additional carries starting with Jones, who's averaged just less than 4 yards a touch in his four seasons. (He missed 2006 with a knee injury.)
"When we brought Greg in, we knew we got a terrific college runner with size and we thought the makeup to be a Pro Bowl-type fullback and be a little bit like [former Buccaneer Mike] Alstott in that we think late in games he could really wear on people," Del Rio told me in June. "He's physical and can close things out, can become more of a presence. With Maurice and Fred both, there really weren't the carries for him.
"He's a great athlete, he's very unselfish and I believe in him. I just believe he's a good football player and he's the right kind of guy. But he's got to fight to be the best guy, we're not going to hand anything to anybody."
Rookie Rashad Jennings could earn some carries. He's done a lot to win over coaches, teammates and the press since coming in as a seventh-rounder out of Liberty.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
I'm soliciting your feedback on Reading the Coverage.
Two broad topics before we break into teams:
Pete Prisco looks at a key battle for each team in the AFC South.
- It's not a big deal if Dunta Robinson isn't at camp from the start, opines Jerome Robinson.
- Alan Burge has a link to a Chester Pitts interview on Sports Radio 610.
- The same six teams will look to get back to the playoffs in the AFC, says Mike Chappell.
- Will the Colts' secondary be one of the league's best? John Oehser examines.
- A look at corner T.J. Rushing, from Oehser.
- The Jaguars signed seventh-round pick Rashard Jennings, a running back who could push Greg Jones for carries.
- Bigcatcountry.com looks at 10 things that need to go right for the Jaguars to be good.
- BlackandTeal.com talked briefly to Maurice Jones-Drew, mostly about Gatorade.