Saturday, October 18, 2014

Jags jinx? Not this time

Over the years, the Browns have had all kinds of problems with the Jacksonville Jaguars. They began even before the original Browns moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season

The Jags debuted as an expansion team in the National Football League in 1995 and were placed in the AFC Central with the Browns. They won four games that season – two against the Browns. That’s when the problems commenced and they still exist.

Even though they have received some competition from the Browns for the label of “worst team in the NFL” the last six seasons (not including this one), the Jags somehow manage to play well beyond their capabilities against Cleveland.

In their 15 meetings, Jacksonville owns a 10-5 lead over the Browns, who have averaged just 16 points a game against them. Makes no difference where they play, although the Browns have fared slightly better (3-4) in Jacksonville than at home (2-6). The Jags won the first six games of the series and eight of the first 10.

Perhaps the most famous game – for all the wrong reasons – in the series was the Dec. 16, 2001 meeting in Cleveland. That’s when replay, an officiating tool in its infancy at the time, became the cause célèbre for fan anger.

It resulted in what was immediately called “Bottlegate” by the media and brought infamy to the lakefront. But that was then. This is now.

When the two teams meet again Sunday in northern Florida, the Browns will be overwhelming favorites. By all rights, they should win this one handily. The winless Jaguars are a very bad team. The talent difference between the two teams is huge.

The Jags average slightly more than 13 points a game (worst in the NFL) and have allowed 31 points a game (2nd worst in the league). Their minus-104 point differential is comfortably the worst in the league.

A defensive surge in the last two games has enabled them to become competitive, albeit in a losing vein. That defense, which surrendered 38 points a game in the first four losses, has rebounded nicely and allowed just 33 points in the last two outings (the offense scored only 23).

The one area the Browns should be mindful of is the Jaguars’ pass rush, which has produced nearly twice as many sacks (19) as the Browns (10). But the way the Cleveland offensive line has played in front of Brian Hoyer, that should not be much of a problem.

On the other hand, the Cleveland pass rush, which has generated just 10 sacks (where is that famed Mike Pettine pass rush he promised?), will face an offensive line that has permitted 27 sacks. Time to fatten those stats.

Hoyer, who has been sacked only six times, will throw against a defense that yields 314 yards a game through the air. His quick release, as well as his ability to extend plays, should negate the Jacksonville pass rush.

Playing pitch and catch with his receivers against a secondary that has only one interception should enable Hoyer to come up with what could be his biggest statistical afternoon of the season.

Throw in the running of Ben Tate and Isaiah Crowell against a Jags run defense that gives up 117 yards a game and you have, in theory, a solid formula for what should be an easy victory.

On offense, the Jags’ biggest hope is quarterback Blake Bortles, who relieved ineffective Chad Henne midway through game three. The big rookie has completed nearly 70% of his passes for 781 yards and a pair of touchdowns (and three picks) in three games as a starter. He has been sacked 11 times.

In last week’s 16-14 loss at Tennessee, Bortles completed 32 of 46 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown. The week before, Hoyer was 21-of-37 for 291 yards and three touchdowns in the come-from-behind 29-28 victory over the Titans.

The focus of the Jacksonville offense, which has scored just nine times this season, quite clearly is the pass. The Jags run the ball only 20 times a game, a break for a Cleveland run defense that has given up 150 yards a game and has been soft at best.

Toby Gerhart, the Jags’ lead back who has carried the ball just 48 times this season, will not play due to a foot injury. Storm Johnson and Denard Robinson most likely will split carries.

To give you some idea on how bad their ground game is, Bortles is the second-leading ground gainer with 106 yards.

Cecil Shorts III’s return to the lineup from hamstring problems provided a boost for Bortles against Tennessee last week. Shorts, who caught the game-winning pass against the Browns last season, was targeted 14 times and caught 10 for 103 yards. Other favorite targets are rookie wideouts Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who has scored three touchdowns, and tight end Clay Harbor.

It will be interesting to see how Pettine schemes this one. Does he dial up some sophisticated pass rushes to confuse the rookie? Or will he play it safe and routinely drop six and sometimes seven men back in coverage?

The Browns have proven thus far they could hang and bang with the big boys. That was the easy part. The hard part is doing it again and again and again. Sunday will be their first opportunity against the so-called dregs of the NFL. And they will succeed.

All they have to do is start strong. Or prevent the Jags from starting strong. In the first half of their two road games this season, the Browns have been outscored, 55-13. In the second half of those games, it’s the polar opposite. They own a remarkable 43-3 point advantage.

This is not a trap game, as some believe. The Jaguars are really that bad. The Browns, who seem to play their own brand of football no matter the opponent, will drop the Jags to 0-7. Convincingly. Make it:

Browns 34, Jaguars 13

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