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Magnificent Seven XIV

Posted Nov 3, 2011

On the offensive line, mid-season MVPs and an improved pass rush

Each week in the Magnificent Seven, jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser offers seven thoughts on all things Jaguars . . .

7. Better than you think. We’re at the bye, and because the Jaguars are 2-6 and worse at the midway than anyone imagined or expected, the bye has been a time for criticism and finger-pointing from the outside. Understandable, expected and unavoidable given the circumstances. Much of the blame must go the passing offense, and a little – or a lot – to the special teams early. When you’re 2-6 and losing close, winnable games, there’s plenty of blame to go around. One area that has been overly criticized at times – too much so – this season: the offensive line. The line struggled at times early, and that’s going to happen when you’re starting a rookie (Will Rackley) at guard and dealing with an injury to what was expected to be your starting right tackle (Eben Britton). The Jaguars also dealt with an injury that kept starting left tackle Eugene Monroe out of the lineup two games in October. But overall, the unit has played well considering the uncertainty. They have pass-blocked better than the statistics indicate, and have been a strong run-blocking unit the entire season. Individually, Monroe has played the best football of his career when healthy and Rackley has played significantly better the last two games. Center Brad Meester has been solid, and guard Uche Nwaneri has played perhaps as well as he ever has in his career. Guy Whimper started well and struggled the last two games, but overall, the offensive line has been a solid unit and there’s little thought within the organization that it’s not a group that for the most part is set going forward.

6. Josh Scobee. It’s a mid-season bye Magnificent Seven, so we’ll get a little lazy and fill three categories with some discussion of the special teams, defensive and offensive Most Valuable Players. They’re pretty easy for the most part – a bit less so on defense than the others – but we’ll start off with special teams. No mystery here. It’s no surprise that Josh Scobee has been one of the better kickers in the NFL this season; he has been one of the league’s best for more than a half decade. And in a season in which the Jaguars’ special teams struggled early in the season – read: Matt Turk – Scobee for the first time this past week against Houston did not have the opportunity to kick a field goal and as a result, for the first time this season he did not have a field goal. So far, this season, he has converted all 14 of his field goal attempts, including five from more than 50 yards and nine from more than 40. He converted 4-of-4 attempts in a 12-7 victory over Baltimore, and tied an NFL record by making three field goals from more than 50 yards in one game. But this isn’t about regurgitating statistics. Scobee in a season in which the offense has struggled has been a reliable option for points.

5. Posluszny. Remember, not so long ago, when the Jaguars’ defense was perceived – and correctly so – as a team weakness? Can it be that that was only July? While it’s fair to criticize a lot about the Jaguars or any 2-6 team, it’s not fair to let the positives go unrecognized. And while just about anyone can recognize that the Jaguars’ defense has been a positive, it’s equally obvious that Posluszny has been a major reason for the turnaround. The Jaguars signed defensive end Matt Roth, linebacker Clint Session, safety Dawan Landry and Posluszny in free agency, and they also acquired safety Dwight Lowery in a trade. Every one of those players has had a large hand in improving the defense from No. 28 in total yards allowed last season to No. 7 this season. But Posluszny not only leads Jacksonville in tackles, he has emerged as exactly what the Jaguars needed at the position: a veteran player capable of making defensive calls on the field and communicating sideline communication to teammates. Free agency often is a disaster in the NFL, and recent history is littered with big-money signings who have been horrible fits. The Jaguars found fit after defensive fit in free agency in July, and none a better fit than Posluszny.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew. This one couldn’t be more obvious. The passing game is struggling. Blaine Gabbert is a rookie, and the receivers . . . well, something ain’t right. There have been flashes, and there have been highlights, but not enough. The running game? Well, the running game is a different story, and much of the credit obviously goes to Jones-Drew. He has made the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons, but missed the last two games of last season with a knee injury, and after undergoing off-season surgery, there were questions around him entering the season. Consider those questions answered. What Jones-Drew has done this season has been nothing short of remarkable. He is leading the AFC in rushing after eight games, and he has done so with teams at times giving the passing offense almost no respect. That means often Jones-Drew has run against defenses stacking the box against the run with eight or nine players, and still he has produced. The offensive line is one reason. While that group has been criticized by some for its pass blocking it has run-blocked well despite playing multiple lineups. But a huge reason is Jones-Drew. He has broken tackles and played with an intensity and effort few can match and done so in increasingly difficult circumstances.

3. Feeling the rush. This isn’t a midseason award, but for all of the criticisms levied at the Jaguars through eight weeks, one area that deserves praise is the defensive line. This is a unit that is playing with its best player, Aaron Kampman, still returning from a knee injury that kept him out of eight games last season. Second-year defensive tackle Tyson Alualu also has played through a bothersome knee that has limited his effectiveness at times. Yet, through eight games the defense has 16 sacks and while that’s not all about the defensive line, the front has played well much of the season. Terrance Knighton has played well much of the season and along with Alualu has given the Jaguars above-average play on the interior most games. Ends Jeremy Mincey, Matt Roth and John Chick also have been consistent on the outside. Combine that with well-timed blitzes and it has been rare this season for opponents to have games in which their quarterback felt comfortable the entire game. It may have been lost in the disappointment of six losses in seven games, but this was an area that was a glaring weakness two seasons ago and the improvement has been steady and striking.

2. A topical thing. In honor or the midseason bye week, topics I’m worn out on: Footwork, pocket presence, Tim Tebow, Brandon Lloyd, T.O., small-school drafting, simple defensive schemes, separation, coaching-change speculation, Andrew Luck, the Colts’ record, playoff scenarios. Did I say footwork and pocket presence? Did I say Tebow? But the topic I may be most worn out on is Monroe. A week rarely passes when the O-Zone inbox isn’t polluted with an email criticizing Monroe and it’s time for it to stop. With the exception of two games missed because of a shoulder injury, he has played well. The Jaguars don’t need a left tackle now and they’re not planning to draft one in the future. Move on.

1. And finally, a word on the quarterback. This isn’t a week where it’s overly popular to praise Gabbert. He’s taking the heat expected of a player who has thrown for less than 100 yards in back-to-back games, and the quick-trigger analysis has him way, way below the NFL’s other rookie quarterbacks. The problem, as Jones-Drew said this week, is you can’t compare rookie quarterbacks – or any quarterbacks – in different situations. Gabbert is working with a group of receivers who for whatever reason – coaching, talent, experience – haven’t been open as often as necessary and the group also hasn’t made plays as a whole consistently enough for Gabbert. I keep going back to the Carolina and Cincinnati games when the Jaguars played those two teams. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton made errant, awful throws in those games, just as Gabbert has made some errant, awful – “rookie” – passes in just about every start. Rookies do such things. The difference is, the Panthers’ and Bengals’ receivers made some plays above the Xs and Os for their quarterbacks, as well as simply getting two or three steps open. Flash back to the Texans game. How many incomplete passes did Gabbert have when he made an accurate pass only to have a defender blanketing the receiver knock the pass down? The windows into which Gabbert is passing are very small. Is he Brady, Brees or Rodgers? No. He’s a rookie who has some throws that look bad, but there’s a difference between awful and OK, and so far, Gabbert’s not getting the help he needs to bridge the gap.

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