AFC West: Justin Blackmon

W2W4: Jaguars at Broncos

October, 11, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For days the Broncos have been surrounded in their home city, surrounded by swirl of discussion over point spreads and remember-when mismatches. The Broncos, after all, are 5-0 having scored a historical 230 points in those five games.

The Jaguars, on the other hand, have scored just five touchdowns this season and don’t have a player with more than one.

It means Sunday's game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High will be a test of the Broncos’ concentration, their preparation and attention to detail. It will be a true gauge of how they handle prosperity. So with that in mind, here are some things to consider:

    [+] EnlargeDominique Rodgers-Cromartie
    AP Photo/John MinchilloDenver CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be facing a Jaguars team whose QBs have thrown nine interceptions this season.
  • Welcome back: Unless something unexpected happens Saturday, the Broncos will have the secondary on the field Sunday they had hoped would be there when they opened the season. Champ Bailey is set to play his first game of the season -- “That’s the plan,’’ Bailey said -- and Chris Harris, who suffered a concussion against the Cowboys last Sunday, practiced Friday and is poised to play. That means the Broncos will have Bailey, Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback against a passing offense that has thrown for fewer than 200 yards per game (193.4) this season. It would allow the Broncos to play more man-to-man coverage and push more resources toward the line of scrimmage to stop Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Opponents have returned three interceptions for touchdowns already this season against the Jaguars.
  • They’re efforting: While the Jaguars haven’t been able to settle into a more traditional approach on offense because they have trailed so early, so often in games, if the game is still in question, the Jaguars will try to pound the ball on offense. And that's something opponents have been able to do at times against the Broncos defense, until Peyton Manning and the Denver offense has shredded those plans with a touchdown or three. Unlike most teams, the Jaguars have a fullback in the offense -- Will Ta’ufo’ou -- and have opened three of their five games in a two-back look. One way for the Broncos to find themselves in at least some trouble would be to let the Jaguars move the ball out of their two-back or two-tight end formations and eat some clock. Offensively, Jones-Drew is still the Jaguars' most reliable player, even as he continues to work his way back from last season’s foot injury. He’s averaged just 2.3 yards per carry amid the Jaguars’ offensive woes. With left tackle Luke Joeckel out for the season, the Jaguars also figure to stay in some heavier formations to try and protect quarterback Chad Henne. The Broncos will have to perform out of their base 4-3 formation and will likely have to do it without Wesley Woodyard at middle linebacker. Paris Lenon will need a productive day in Woodyard’s spot if Woodyard is held out as expected because when the Jaguars do run, they are most often coming right over center Brad Meester. Even with their limited carries this season, only four teams have run more over the center this season than the Jaguars have.
  • Blackmon and Shorts: The Jaguars do have two wide receivers who can win some battles against man coverage in Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon. Blackmon, who missed the first four games of the season because of a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, had five catches for 136 yards and a touchdown in his first game back last week against the Rams. Blackmon is more of a downfield option and the Broncos should look for him to work the deep middle in particular. Shorts has plenty of short area explosiveness and will work plenty in the short and intermediate areas. The Jaguars, given their protection issues up front -- they traded tackle Earl Monroe to the Ravens earlier this season to go with Joeckel’s injury -- figure to try to pick up the pace at times and use plenty of the quick-hit routes in the passing game.
  • Find the rookies: Like any rebuilding team, the Jaguars have some young players in the lineup in key places with the idea they will simply learn on the job. For the Jaguars that is no more evident than at safety where they start two rookies. Johnathan Cyprien is an upper-tier prospect who was Jacksonville’s second-round pick this past April and Josh Evans, a sixth-round pick, has replaced the injured Dwight Lowery (concussion) at free safety. The two have played well given their inexperience, but the Jaguars have also had to avoid asking them to do too much. As a result the Jaguars don’t do a lot of pre-snap movements to keep things simple for the pair and that’s often a difficult recipe against Manning, something even Jaguars coach Gus Bradley has alluded to this week. If Manning knows what you’re in, and he almost certainly does if you don't try too hard to disguise it, he will quickly find the hole, early and often. And that could make for a long day for a youthful Jaguars secondary.
  • No biggies: No team, given their three touchdowns on special teams already, knows more than the Broncos what kind of momentum-changers those plays can be. And the Broncos will have to keep Ace Sanders or Jordan Todman from popping a return or two in the game and change field position. Sanders, a rookie wide receiver, had an 88-yard punt return for a score negated by a penalty last week against the Rams. Todman had a 37-yard kickoff return against the Rams.
  • Turn it over: Beyond having what most personnel executives in the league would consider the thinnest roster in the NFL, the Jaguars have consistently turned the ball over too often this season.The Broncos will have some opportunities to make those kinds of plays. Jacksonville's quarterbacks have thrown nine interceptions -- tied for the second most in the league -- and lost two fumbles. The Jaguars have often uncorked those turnovers early in games.
Justin Blackmon and Knowshon MorenoUSA TODAY SportsJustin Blackmon and the 0-5 Jaguars face Knowshon Moreno and the 5-0 Broncos.
Already, it has been the subject of the biggest point spread in decades as well as an exchange of tweets from each team's official Twitter handle that included a "stay classy Denver" missive from the Jaguars. But the league's highest-scoring team and the league's lowest-scoring team will meet Sunday when the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars get together at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

The Broncos are 5-0 and the Jaguars come in at 0-5 in Gus Bradley's first season as head coach. Jaguars team reporter Michael DiRocco and Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold break down this week's game.

Legwold: Michael, it's been a tough go thus far in the first season of the new regime. How have Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell handled it all? And have they grown weary of people saying they should sign Tim Tebow?

DiRocco: Bradley has been amazingly positive with the media and with the players. It's probably the best approach to take because he's got a young team and everyone knew this was going to be a rough season, anyway. It's the only way to keep the players committed to the plan he and Caldwell have in place to turn the franchise around. If he were to all of a sudden go negative, he'd risk losing the team. That doesn't mean he is not acknowledging problems and poor play, but he is trying to be upbeat in doing so. Caldwell has not been as visible, but when he spoke last week, he talked about remaining committed to the long-term rebuilding plan and not trying to find a quick fix. As for the Tebow question, it's a dead issue among Bradley and Caldwell. They're not going to sign him and they're able to ignore the Tebow fervor, which has died down a bit over the past two weeks.

In terms of the Broncos, they are averaging 46 points a game and just scored 51 in a victory over the Dallas Cowboys. They look unstoppable. But what, in your opinion, is their Achilles' heel on offense, and is there a defense out there that can exploit that?

Legwold: They lost All Pro left tackle Ryan Clady earlier this season, and his replacement, Chris Clark, had never started a game at left tackle in his career. Center Manny Ramirez never started an NFL game at the position until the regular-season opener after the Broncos moved him in as the starter in offseason workouts. Overall, the offensive line has played well so far -- Manning's been sacked just five times -- and there might be no player more adept at reading a defense's intentions in the rush and getting rid of the ball accordingly before trouble arrives than Manning. The trouble has come in the run game. The Broncos have had 53 carries this season for 2 or fewer yards because they haven't consistently won the line of scrimmage, even in mop-up situations late in games. So, for all the Broncos have done on offense this season -- and it has been remarkable -- it's still an unanswered question if they could win a slug-it-out affair on a bad-weather day or if Manning was just having a bad outing. But the other question is whether or not anybody could even get them into one of those games.

In terms of quarterback, what do you think the Jaguars' long-term plans are at the position, and if they get a top-three pick in next May's draft, would they pick one?

DiRocco: This season's top priority was finding out if Blaine Gabbert could be the player around which Caldwell and Bradley build the franchise. Instead of relying on preconceived notions, they gave him a clean slate when they arrived. So far, though, Gabbert has missed two games with a hand injury and isn't likely to play Sunday because of a hamstring strain. He hasn't been very good when he has been on the field, either: 44.8 percent completion rate, seven interceptions (three returned for TDs). By the end of the season, management will likely come to the conclusion that Gabbert isn't the answer and they'll have to draft a quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater seems to be the best quarterback available, but a lot can change between now and May. He'd be whom I would take, and the Jaguars might very well agree, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Jaguars traded down to get more picks because this team needs so much help elsewhere.

Speaking of long-term quarterback plans, what are the Broncos thinking there? Manning is approaching 40 and has the neck issue, so he's got only one or two more good seasons in him, right?

Legwold: When he signed with the Broncos in March of 2012, Manning wanted to construct a deal the Broncos could feel good about in terms of their ability to evaluate his physical status after his first season in Denver. At the time, Manning said he didn't want his deal to prevent the team from doing other things if it didn't work out. So, the two sides had it written into his contract that Manning would take a physical exam following his first season in Denver and if his surgically-repaired neck was cleared, it would then engage the next two years of the contract -- 2013 and 2014. Both of those seasons are now guaranteed, so those three years have always been the window people have operated in when discussing his time with the Broncos. However, that was before his assault on the record book this season. He looks stronger than ever. Manning does have two additional years on the deal -- 2015 and 2016 -- but those years are not guaranteed. Manning has always said he won't be a "hang-around" guy, and when he feels he can't compete at the level he wants to -- or no longer wants to go through the arduous preparation at the pace he currently keeps -- that would influence him as well. But on the field, many in the league are saying he's playing better than ever, and he says he still enjoys the day-to-day work it takes to reach that level.

Overall this season, can you tell folks about one or two Jaguars who offer some glimmers of hope for the future and who are performing well amid the team's struggles?

DiRocco: Offensively, it's receivers Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts. Blackmon has played only one game (he was suspended for the first four), but his impact on the offense was immediate -- three catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter against the St. Louis Rams. He's the team's best playmaker and had a fantastic rookie season in 2012 (64 catches, 865 yards, 5 TDs). Shorts (31 catches for 411 yards this season) is in his third season and is on pace for 100 catches. There are two rookies in the secondary who will be the backbone of the defense: safeties Josh Evans (sixth round) and Johnathan Cyprien (second). Cyprien has the size/toughness/coverage mix that's needed in the defensive scheme that Bradley brought over from Seattle. Evans was forced into the starting lineup by an injury to Dwight Lowery in the third game and hasn't missed a snap since. Both are learning on the go, but it's easy to see they're talented.

Jack Del Rio is facing his former team this week. Do you sense that this game means a lot to him because of the way his tenure ended, or is this just another game for him?

Legwold: Del Rio will deflect, and has previously, most any discussion about how his time with the Jaguars ended. So, people shouldn't expect too many public fireworks from him in that regard, but, privately, I'm sure he'd like to see the Broncos dominate. His players like him and they respect him, so they will also want to give him a quality effort in this one. Especially since they just surrendered 506 passing yards and five touchdowns to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo this past Sunday. They've got an awful lot to deal with, so I'm not sure Del Rio will publicly stroll down memory lane too much, but he's in a good spot with the Broncos as far as working day to day for a playoff contender. As far as being a head coach again, he's already been linked to the USC job -- he's publicly said "there's nothing to talk about there" -- and should the Broncos finish strong and play with a little more defensive edge when both Von Miller and Champ Bailey return, he could find himself in the NFL mix as well.


Broncos-Jaguars matchup of the day

October, 10, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Generating offense has been a constant struggle for the Jacksonville Jaguars so far this season. They have scored a league-low five touchdowns and they don't have a player with two touchdowns to his credit.

But when good things do happen in what has been a low-impact passing game so far, wide receivers Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts have usually been a part of it. Shorts, who had three 1,400-yard seasons in his career at Mount Union, is on pace for 100 catches with 31 after five games. Shorts has already put up 148 yards against the Seahawks' secondary earlier this season and has been targeted at least 10 times in all five of the Jaguars games.

Because Blackmon, who missed time in training camp with a groin injury, was suspended for the season's first four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, Shorts has been the go-to guy. However, in his first game back in the lineup Sunday against the Rams, Blackmon finished with 136 yards on his five catches to go with a touchdown.

Blackmon is slightly bigger, at just more than 6-foot and 210 pounds. Shorts is slightly faster in the open field having posted 4.4s in his 40-yard dash leading up to the 2012 draft. Shorts ran in the 4.5s at the scouting combine before the 2010 draft. Overall defensive coaches say Shorts is a bit more elusive in the short area and a versatile enough player to have played quarterback a bit at Mount Union.

The Denver Broncos are on track to have their starting cornerbacks -- Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey -- lined up together for the first time this season. Bailey practiced fully Wednesday, the first time he has done that since injuring his left foot Aug. 17 in a preseason loss in Seattle.

Bailey's teammates said he had an interception in his first full practice, so they think he is ready to be back in the lineup. The Broncos figure to take an aggressive approach against Jaguars backup quarterback Chad Henne, so the Broncos defensive backs will have plenty opportunity to work in man coverage. The Jaguars have lined up with two wide receivers in the formation the majority of the time over their first five games so that would put the Broncos in their base 4-3 against that for the most part.
Monday, we wondered if San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy would be interested in a reunion with Tim Tebow.

It turns out our instincts were right. Neither the Chargers nor any other team in the NFL put a waiver claim on Tebow, who was cut by the New York Jets. I am not surprised AFC West teams passed on the former Denver quarterback.

Of course, that could change. Tebow is now a free agent. Could the Chargers and McCoy, who was Tebow’s offensive coordinator in Denver, or another AFC West team make a play for Tebow? I wouldn’t count on it.

In other AFC West notes:

Meet No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher -- Everyman.

The Broncos signed Brigham Young defensive tackle Romney Fuga. Denver previously added 15 undrafted free agents.

The Raiders signed kicker Eddy Carmona. He was with the team last summer. Teams have a backup kicker in the preseason.

Jacksonville receiver Justin Blackmon has been suspended for the first four games of the season. The Jaguars play against the Chiefs and Raiders in the first two weeks of the season.

Draft first take: Chiefs

January, 12, 2011
This is the third in a series looking at the potential draft direction of the teams in the AFC West:

Drafting: 21

Needs: Receiver, offensive line, linebacker, defensive line.

Possible first-round picks

Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State: The Chiefs could really use a No. 2 receiver to complement and take pressure off of No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe. Blackmon has a lot of upside. The Chiefs probably would jump at Alabama receiver Julio Jones if he fell to No. 21.

Anthony Castonzo, RT, Boston College: If the Chiefs want to replace Barry Richardson, Castonzo could be a real option. He is considered to be NFL ready and he would be a nice addition to a solid, but aging offensive line.

J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: Watt is a versatile player who could help a young defensive front. He is a good pass-rusher, which Kansas City needs.

Wild card: The Chiefs have picked in the top five in the past three seasons, so they are not used to be picking this low. GM Scott Pioli has proved to be very patient in the draft, so I’d be surprised if he moved up into the top of the draft. But because the Chiefs are still young and have needs, Kansas City could perhaps make a modest move up the draft board if it wants to make a run at a player like Jones or Purdue pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan.