How far can the Jaguars Ride their Defense in 2018?

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As the 2018 season approaches, teams are starting to formulate their plans for the Week 1. Now that the third week of the preseason is behind us, most if not all starters will not see the field until the regular season commences in less than two weeks. 

For the Jaguars, there are plenty of reasons for concern, as their offense has looked incredibly lackluster in the preseason. Last year, the team rode its defense all the way to the AFC Championship game against the Patriots, where the latter were simply too much for them to handle. Jacksonville fielded the league’s second best defense, only permitting an average of 286.1 total yards per game. 

The pass defense was even better than that, giving up a highly impressive 170.0 yards per game to opposing passers, which was the best mark in the entire NFL. In fact, they were 22 yards better than the second best pass defense in the league in the Vikings, who finished the year permitting an average of 192 passing yards per game. They were one of the best teams in the league in getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, accumulating 55 sacks on the season. That pressure resulted in a lot of turnovers. They were second in the league with 21 interceptions, and tied for third place in touchdowns allowed with just 17 over the course of their 16-game regular season slate.

To their credit, the Jaguars offense played relatively well in 2017, which enabled them to achieve their success. But so far this preseason, they have looked much worse. Quarterback Blake Bortles is the key to the offense’s production. His main issue is making smart decisions, keeping the chains moving, and avoiding costly mistakes. 

In Jacksonville’s third and most important preseason game versus the Falcons, all of these factors were evident once again. The defense held Matt Ryan to just 57 passing yards, only allowing him to complete five of his 12 pass attempts. The result was very impressive as the Jags held one of the most potent offenses in the NFL to just six total points the entire game. That was the only reason they were able to come out victorious with a final score of 17-6.

Meanwhile, Bortles exhibited the same inconsistency that has been his trademark so far in his career. Bortles was able to move the ball at a very impressive clip, completing 17 of his 23 attempts for 204 yards and no touchdowns. The issue for him was that he threw two interceptions in the game, which could end up costing his team when the regular season begins. He needs to play better, and to remember that he doesn’t need to force the issue. WIth such a stout defense, any points the Jags score are meaningful. But turnovers can swing a game in either direction, and they will be hard to overcome against tougher opponents and in more meaningful games.

Another important factor for Jacksonville, is the fact that they appear to have lost their top wide receiver Marqise Lee to what looks like a serious knee injury. If Lee is out for an extended period of time, the team will be left with two second-year receivers, and free agent signee Donte Moncrief, who has endured a lot of his own injuries during his time with the Colts. Still, the team’s aforementioned second-year wideouts are Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole, both of whom impressed in their rookie season.

Running back Leonard Fournette scored a touchdown in the team’s regular season dress rehearsal, on a 21-yard second-quarter run. He finished the game with 57 rushing yards and a touchdown on just ten carries. He also added three catches for 18 yards, illustrating that the Jaguars plan to feature the second-year running back early and often in their offense. That would be wise, as the running game could help to keep the strong defense fresh deep into the fourth quarter of games, allowing them to close out games with a higher level of energy. 

For the Jaguars to be considered a top contender, who can take down the AFC’s elite, including the Patriots and Steelers, Blake Bortles needs to play better. With such a strong roster, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, there is no more room for error. Either Bortles shows he deserves to lead this team, and that he can take them to the next level, or the team will likely decide to stop having him be their biggest liability and obstacle in reaching the Super Bowl. The time is now for Jacksonville, and hopefully Bortles plays his part.