Friday, November 17, 2017

Jaguars show the way

The Jacksonville Jaguars know all too well what the Browns are going through this season. They know what losing on a consistent basis feels like.

A quick look at how the Jaguars have fared over the last six seasons reveals a record of 22-74 entering this season. That includes double-digit losses all six seasons.

So yes, the Jags definitely know the rugged terrain the Browns have been traipsing through for those six seasons. In fact, believe it or not, the Browns are two games better during that stretch at 24-72, due mainly to a 7-9 record in 2014.

But while the Browns continue to flail futilely in the perilous waters of the National Football League schedule for the second straight season under coach Hue Jackson, the Jaguars are in cruise control on top of the AFC South at 6-3.

When the Jaguars invade Cleveland Sunday, they will face a winless Cleveland team on the verge of setting an NFL record for the worst record over a 47-game span.

Ironically, the Browns tied that record with the 38-24 loss in Detroit last Sunday, tying the Lions at 4-42. A loss to the Jaguars eclipses that, but the Lions still hold the record for the worst record after 52 games, 5-47, achieved over a span stretching from 2007 to 2010.

So why do the Browns still struggle to play anything resembling representative football while the Jaguars are challenging the Los Angeles Rams as the surprise team of the NFL this season? The Jags now are whom the Browns would like to be.

It’s all about defense in Jacksonville and a steady, but not necessarily dangerous offense. It’s an offense that features the ground game and makes few mistakes. The defense, meanwhile, sets the tone.

The Jags own one of the league’s most intimidating pass rushes. Led by veteran defensive end Calais Campbell, they have racked up 35 sacks – they had 33 all last season – with seven games left.

Campbell, who signed a free-agent contract after nine productive seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, owns 11 of those sacks in nine games. The 6-8, 280-pounder has 67½ career sacks and has clearly rejuvenated the Jacksonville defense, which has taken on the sobriquet Sacksonville.

Picking up veteran tackle Marcell Dareus from Buffalo earlier this season just adds to the misery of opponents and gives arguably the league’s best defensive line more quality depth, as if they needed it.

But the Jags defense is a lot more than the defensive line, which accounts for 27½ of the sacks. They own arguably the best tandem of cornerbacks in the NFL in Jalen Ramsey and A. J. Bouye, who have picked off five of the club’s 11 interceptions.

And then there are safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church, who have swiped four passes. Gipson, the frank ex-Brown who envisions a victory Sunday, is tied with Bouye for the team lead with three.

Add an extremely active set of linebackers in Telvin Smith, Paul Posluszny and Myles Jack and you understand why coordinator Todd Wash’s crew allows only 16 first downs and 286 yards a game (189 through the air), has scored four defensive touchdowns and allowed just 12 touchdowns.

No one in the NFL has allowed fewer points – 134 overall in nine games, 14 of which can be charged to the offense (pick 6) and special teams (kickoff return for a score). It clearly will be a challenge for the Browns to get close enough to the Jacksonville goal line to put points on the board.

Another challenge presents itself in the form of an extremely well balanced Jacksonville attack that runs the football 48% of the time and averages 371 yards a game, including a robust 163 yards on the ground.

The stout Cleveland run defense, which slipped a little in Detroit, might catch a break with news out of Jacksonville that rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who got off to a hot start this season before an ankle injury slowed him down, is listed as questionable, He did not practice Friday.

The Cleveland secondary catches another break with wide receiver Allen Hurns, the club’s second-leading receiver with 36 receptions, 446 yards and a pair of touchdowns, listed as doubtful with ankle miseries.

That’s two valuable pieces missing from quarterback Blake Bortles’ arsenal. The rangy and very inconsistent quarterback, who needs all the help he can get, has thrown just 11 scoring passes and been picked off seven times this season.

Veteran Marquise Lee, who leads the club with 38 catches, 493 yards and a pair of scores, and rookie Keelan Cole figure to Bortles’ primary targets. And then there’s tight end Marcedes Lewis, a prime target in the red zone. Lewis has only 12 receptions this season, but four have been caught in the end zone.

If any one area presents at least a sliver of hope for the Browns to score, it’s definitely when the Jaguars own the football. That’s because the prodigious nature of the Jaguars’ defense is such that DeShone Kizer most likely will be running for his life most of the afternoon.

The rookie Cleveland quarterback does get injury-prone Corey Coleman back from injured reserve. The fragile wide receiver caught six passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in the first two games this season before breaking a bone in the same hand that sidelined him six games last season.

That still does not move the bar very much, considering the former No. 1 draft choice caught only 33 passes for 413 yards last season in 10 games. Not exactly numbers that indicate better days lie directly ahead.

The key to this one is whether the Cleveland offensive line can slow down the Jags’ pass rush. Injuries along that line could be a factor.

Down the peerless Joe Thomas already with center JC Tretter and right tackle Shon Coleman listed as questionable, the upfront plug uglies are severely challenged even when completely healthy for what the Jaguars bring on every play. One can only imagine what it will be like if Tretter and/or Coleman can’t go.

Shane Drango, who replaced Thomas at left offensive tackle a couple of games ago, draws the lucky assignment of trying to stop Campbell, who was blanked for the first time this season last week against the Los Angeles Chargers.

It might take them a little while to adjust to the expected cold weather and possibility of snow, but the Jaguars should have no trouble against a Cleveland offense that has managed to score only 48 points in four games at home (not including the game in London against Minnesota).

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, is coming off consecutive spankings against Minnesota and Detroit that produced 71 points, an indication it is slowly running out of steam because it is on the field too much due to offensive ineptitude.

Factoring all that into the equation, this one is easy. The Jaguars have way too much on both sides of the football.

They intercept Kizer a couple of times, one a pick 6, drop him and whoever replaces him in the second half a half dozen times, while the offense piles up almost 400 yards, mostly on the ground, as they improve their series record against the Browns to 12-5.

The Factory of Sadness weeps for its team for the 10th time this season, 11th time in a row dating back to last season, 25th time in 26 games under Jackson and 43rd time in the last 47 games. It will be over by halftime and the sparse crowd will look like a gathering at the end of the game. Make it:

Jaguars 31, Browns 6

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