The Jaguars have lost four consecutive games, but there is more buzz around the team right now than there has been in several weeks.
The reason: quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Gabbert, the No. 10 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, had the best game of his 21-start career this past Sunday, playing behind solid pass protection and throwing for a career-high 303 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Green Bay.
Gabbert did this playing through an injured left shoulder. He also did it despite nine dropped passes, and there were a lot of good signs for Gabbert. He looked off receivers, and kept his eyes downfield when pressured, making several accurate passes on the run. He made throws into tight windows. He threw while being hit. He very much looked the part of an effective NFL starter.
Gabbert also did it without running back Maurice Jones-Drew in the lineup, and with the three-time Pro Bowler out at least another week with a sprained foot, Gabbert figures to remain the focal point of the offense. Gabbert has to be effective and show the strides he made for more than one game, and whether he can play consistently as well as he did last Sunday will be a major focus as the season continues.
This isn’t what the Lions, or their fans, expected. After qualifying for the playoffs last season for the first time since 1999, Detroit entered the season with high expectations – and rightfully so. They had one of the NFL’s best offenses, one of the best wide receivers in Calvin Johnson and a quarterback in Matt Stafford on the verge of elite status. All of those things are still true, yet the Lions are 3-4 and currently in last place in a brutally difficult NFC North behind Chicago (6-1), Green Bay (5-3) and Minnesota (5-3). After beating the Rams in the regular-season opener, the Lions lost four of five games before beating the Seattle Seahawks, 28-24, in Detroit Sunday. The victory over Seattle kept the Lions in the playoff conversation, and it could prove crucial to postseason tiebreakers in January, but Detroit comes to Jacksonville still in must-win mode when it comes to being a season-long contender.
The game at Everbank Field in Jacksonville will be broadcast regionally on FOX and locally on WAWS (Channel 30) with Ron Pitts on play-by-play, Mike Martz on analysis and Kristina Pink sideline reporting.
Early matchup to watch
Calvin Johnson versus Jaguars secondary. This could be an intriguing one-on-one matchup, but that likely will depend on the health of Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox. A fourth-year veteran from William & Mary, Cox has played at a high level in the games in which he has played this season. He missed the first two games of the season with a groin injury, then missed this past week’s loss to Green Bay with a back injury. If Cox plays, he likely will cover Johnson extensively even if he isn’t assigned to cover him one on one all over the field. If not, the Jaguars likely would use a combination of defenders and coverages on Johnson, who in the past two seasons has emerged as one of the NFL’s elite receivers. Johnson has been bothered by a knee injury this season, and has had some drops, but still has 41 receptions for 638 yards and a touchdown in seven games.
Player to watch
Jeremy Mincey. The Jaguars’ veteran defensive end signed a long-term contract extension in the offseason, and along with much of the defensive front, struggled in the early part of the season. But in the last two weeks, the Jaguars’ front has gotten significantly healthier, something that has helped not only Mincey but the entire front become far more effective. Mincey, who registered a career-high eight sacks last season, did not get a sack in the first five games this season, but in the last two games he has gotten significantly more pressure. He also has registered a sack in each game as the Jaguars’ pass rush has consistently rushed the opposing quarterback. The return to health of George Selvie, Austen Lane and John Chick not only has helped the Jaguars’ run defense significantly, it has enabled the defensive ends to be fresher in pass rush situations. It also has enabled the team to play rookie Andre Branch more sparingly, and he registered his first career sack last week. The spiritual leader of this group in a sense, though, is Mincey, and as he improves and returns to his form from last season the group should continue to be a factor in the defense’s overall improvement.
What to watch
* Look for Rashad Jennings to get a second consecutive start Sunday, and his third this season. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew has been ruled out for a second consecutive week with a sprained foot, and Jennings will start in his place. Jennings has been effective as a receiver, but the Jaguars’ running game has struggled at times over the last month as teams have continued to stack the box challenging the Jaguars to throw.
* Chris Prosinski likely will get a third consecutive start at safety in place of Dwight Lowery (ankle). The rest of the secondary is less certain, with Cox and starting cornerback Rashean Mathis (groin) having missed the Green Bay game. Their statuses are expected to be updated later in the week.
* Rookie free agent Mike Brewster has moved into the lineup at left guard. Mularkey said he played well in the role last week and is expected to remain there.
* The status of wide receiver Laurent Robinson, who has missed the last three games with a concussion, also will be updated later in the week. Cecil Shorts has started the last two games in Robinson’s place, catching eight passes for 116 yards last week in Green Bay.