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Breaking Down the Jaguars Offense


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air."

English poet Thomas Gray wrote those words in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," published in 1751, although more people probably know it in the last quarter century as the quote Annie Savoy used to encapsulate Crash Davis' career in the 1988 film "Bull Durham." They were apt for Davis, the flawed hero who could never translate his record-breaking power beyond AAA baseball, and they apply to Maurice Jones-Drew, whose moves are as agile and deft as ever, but who has been forced to use them in a desperate attempt to just make it back to the line of scrimmage far too often this year.

In NFL circles, Jones-Drew remains renowned for his ability to use his stout, 210-pound frame to pick up blitzes, and to capitalize on his 5-foot-7 stature by confounding defenders through hiding behind his blockers and waiting for the tiniest of crevices to open so he can accelerate upfield, hit the second level and take off.

But his prominence as a star running back faded as the Jaguars struggled, which helped depress his fantasy-football value, which for years was his claim to fame beyond North Florida. The Jaguars' offense became ineffective; Jones-Drew missed 10 games last year to injuries, and other running backs have seized the spotlight.

Jones-Drew remains effective when he has the chance, but has rarely had the opportunity recently. This has been especially true the last three weeks, when he was hit at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield on 28 of his 49 carries.

As a result, 107 of his 136 rushing yards the last three games have come after contact, and his 2.8-yards-per-carry average for the season to date is more a reflection of an offensive line that has struggled to react to interior pressure throughout the season, and now faces an even steeper challenge with one starting tackle traded to Baltimore (Eugene Monroe) and another lost to a fractured ankle (first-round pick Luke Joeckel).

Nevertheless, Jones-Drew confuses even the smartest of front-seven defenders, something Terrance Knighton experienced in practice repeatedly while with the Jaguars from 2009-12.

"We just have to be gap-sound, because if you're not in your gap and you try to peek and find him, he'll find that hole and expose you," Knighton said. "We just have to continue to do up front what we've been doing the last five weeks and not allow teams to run the ball on us and make them one dimensional."

Even though the Broncos' top-ranked run defense presents a difficult task, there is hope for the Jaguars and Jones-Drew, and it rests in the men wearing jersey numbers 7 and 14: quarterback Chad Henne and wide receiver Justin Blackmon.

It appears true that the Jaguars' 2013 quarterback currently appears to be a bridge between eras, to whoever is their first-round pick next year. But Chad Henne is a competent, experienced NFL quarterback who is more patient than maligned season-opening starter Blaine Gabbert, who will miss this week's game with a hamstring injury.

Henne isn't as accurate as the ideal -- his season-long and career completion percentages are 55.8 and 58.9, below the 60-percent benchmark of modern football. But he's a vast improvement over Gabbert, whose career completion percentage of 53.28 is the second-worst of any NFL quarterback with at least 100 regular-season passes since 2011. (Only Tim Tebow's percentage of 47.48 is worse, but that didn't stop some fans from paying for an airplane to tote a pro-Tebow banner in the skies near EverBank Field during a Week 4 loss to Indianapolis.)

"Blaine is a young guy -- he was thrown in the fire, I think, way too early," said Knighton. "Henne is a veteran guy, he's won in this league. He's had games where he's thrown over 400 yards, so he's capable."

What makes the Jaguars offense a bit tricky to pin down is the lack of snaps with Henne, Jones-Drew, Cecil Shorts and Blackmon together. Henne started during the Jaguars' West Coast swing at Oakland and Seattle in Weeks 2 and 3, but Gabbert started the following two games, including last week's game at St. Louis, when Blackmon made his 2013 debut after a four-game suspension.

Henne and the Jaguars were operating from 14 points behind when he took over for Gabbert last week, and he immediately found Blackmon for a 39-yard gain, exploiting a soft zone that allowed Blackmon to get open up the left sideline, five yards wide of the nearest St. Louis defender. Blackmon finished the game with 136 yards on five receptions, and he opened up more lanes for Shorts, who grabbed five passes for 74 yards last week. Each had a touchdown.

During his quarter-plus of work, Henne spread the ball around among his top three skill players: Jones-Drew and tight end Clay Harbor were targeted twice apiece, Blackmon three times and Shorts five times. Keeping the defense off-balance will be critical for the Jaguars, but the fact that Blackmon offers a vertical threat that the Jaguars didn't have in Weeks 1-4 will profoundly impact the defenses Jacksonville faces going forward.

"Their two receivers on the outside are capable of big plays, especially Blackmon, and I told guys that," said Knighton.

Jones-Drew noted that the Rams showed less eight- and nine-men-in-the-box looks than other Jaguars opponents this year, and if Blackmon lives up to his first-round status and makes the kind of deep plays that he did last week, then defenses will adapt. He shouldn't be met in the backfield as often as he has been in recent weeks, and should have room to roam.

Much hubbub was made over the Jaguars' 51-point total through five games. But they scored 20 last week, including 10 after the third-quarter quarterback change. If Henne and Blackmon carry forward their progress from last week, that kind of stat is something the Jaguars won't have to deal with again.

This isn't going to be an offense that evokes memories of the Mark Brunell-Fred Taylor-Jimmy Smith-Keenan McCardell franchise heyday, but it should be enough to keep the Jaguars competitive in a way that they were not in September -- and against a still-hobbled defense ranked No. 32 against the pass, could frustrate the Broncos at times Sunday.

"We're not going to go into this game thinking we'll show up and they'll lay down," said Knighton.