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TNF Takeaways: Game-Breaking Late Plays Lead Jags Over Titans

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It hasn’t often been pretty for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Gus Bradley era, and it still isn’t, but the Jags are starting to do enough to win ugly, and they did so again Thursday night.

With a 19-13 victory over Tennessee, Jacksonville jumped back into the thick of the division title race in the woeful AFC South. One week after winning their first road game since Week 13 in 2013, the Jags put together their first winning streak since they won three straight weeks 12-14 that same season. Despite sitting at 4-6, Jacksonville sits just half a game out of first place in the south.

“We haven’t been in this situation for a long time,” linebacker Paul Posluszny told the media after the game. “That’s great for the organization, great for this environment, great for these guys to be a part of and to now [say], ‘Hey, this is all going to count late in the year.’ It’s an awesome feeling to have.”

The Jags pulled out their latest win on the strength of a dominant late game performance by their defense. After falling behind 13-6 on a third quarter touchdown run by Marcus Mariota, the Jacksonville defense locked in and kept the Titans off the scoreboard the rest of the way.

Each stop raised the stakes for the Jaguars. The first after Mariota’s touchdown left the Titans on the fringe of field goal range and Tennessee kicker Ryan Succop missed a 53-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter that would’ve give the Titans a seven-point lead. Jacksonville moved the ball quickly down the field on their ensuing possession, but on the doorstep of the red zone quarterback Blake Bortles was intercepted, briefly sucking the air out of EverBank Field.

Still, the Jags defense kept doing its job and after the teams traded punts a quick three-and-out by the Tennessee offense forced them to punt from deep in their own territory, which produced the big play Jacksonville so desperately needed. On the return, Rashad Greene, who was just activated off injured reserve this week, got some room to run — thanks to some slick moves and great blocking — and brought the Brett Kern punt all the way to the 5-yard-line.

“That was a big lift,” wide receiver Allen Hurns said of Green’s return. “We had a huge momentum swing with that. That play couldn’t have come at any better time. We weren’t getting much movement [on offense] in the fourth quarter, but that play — it really swung momentum.”

On the very next play, quarterback Blake Bortles hit tight end Julius Thomas for a five-yard touchdown to put the Jags ahead. They’d stay there thanks to one more big play from the defense.

Tennessee assumed possession with 3:30 to go, plenty of time to drive down for a field goal to tie the game. But on the first play of the ensuing drive, Jacksonville again turned the tables. Mariota completed a pass to tight end Phillip Supernaw, who was met immediately by a defender. He made a move to get by that defender but bobbled the ball in the process, and when cornerback Davon House came in to cleanup the play, he was to finish knocking the ball loose. House then pounced on the fumble, giving the Jags possession at the Tennessee 28-yard-line.

The Jacksonville offense stalled short of a first down, so coach Gus Bradley elected to take another field goal, which Jason Myers drilled from 36 yards away, to make it a six-point game, and put it on his defense to close the game out. They did just that, bending but refusing to break, and the game came to an end when Mariota was sacked by Andre Branch at the Jacksonville 25-yard-line as time expired.

That last play of the game ending up just shy of the red zone was indicative of the entire night for the Jaguars defense as they refused to allow the Titans to reach the red zone for the entire game. Mariota’s 23-yard scoring run, when the defense lost contain on the dangerous rookie quarterback, was the lone blemish on their ledger.

They finished the game having allowed just 316 yards of total offense, their third lowest total of the season. The Jacksonville defense limited Mariota to just 22-of-35 for 231 yards through the air and despite a pair running plays of over 20 yards, including Mariota’s touchdown run, they held the Titans ground attack to just 104 total yards.

That was enough to overcome an even worse night by their own offense. The Jags had multiple shots to gain control of the game in the early stages on offense, but couldn’t finish drives. On their second possession of the night they drove all the way down to the 13-yard-line but stalled there, resulting in a 31-yard Myers field goal.

Then late in the first half, after a punt return by Greene set the Jaguars up at midfield with 1:26 to go in the second quarter, Bortles completed a big pass to Allen Robinson for 38 yards to put the Jags back in the red zone. However, the drive again stalled there, thanks in large part to uninspired play-calling. After two straight run plays and an ill-planned pass play that saw Bortles get sacked, they settled for another field goal with 35 seconds left in the half to tie the score at 6-6.

It was more of the same on the first drive of the third quarter. Big plays in the pass game got Jacksonville into the red zone quickly, but once there, their play calling left much to be desired. Three straight runs by Denard Robinson left the Jags two yards short of the goal line and they settled for a Myers chip shot to take the lead. It looked like that particular failure by the offense would haunt them when Mariota scored just a few minutes later. But defense and special teams did just enough down the stretch and one five-yard pass from Bortles to Thomas was all they needed from the offense to close it out.

It was, by all accounts, an ugly win for Jacksonville. And it came on the heels of a similarly ugly win in Baltimore just four days earlier. But there is no prize for strength of victory in the NFL and so the ledger simply shows the Jaguars have won two straight games.

”We’ve been in these one-possession games all season. To see us do enough to get the win was great,” Bradley said. ”Fortunately, we came out on the good end.”

Now the Jaguars get to wait to see how good things are looking for them. The Indianapolis Colts play in Atlanta on Sunday and the Houston Texans host the New York Jets. Losses by both teams, a distinct possibility, would create a three-way tie atop the AFC South with six games to play. Regardless, the Jaguars are right in the thick of the race, and whether they’re winning ugly or not, it’s hard to ask for much more than that from this team.

TITANS HAVE LONG WAY TO GO

Going into Thursday night’s game, even the Titans had some belief that they were right in the middle of the race in the South. Thursday’s loss to drop to 2-8 all but sealed their fate, and showed the many flaws in their system as it stands.

The biggest of those is that Marcus Mariota has little to no help around him. This was never clearer than on his 23-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter that nearly lifted Tennessee to a win. Mariota did it on his own, and the flawed plans of the Titans, along with some ill-timed injuries, have put the rookie quarterback in a position where that’s the only way he can win.

Up front, the Titans offensive line has been one of the league’s worst this year at both pass blocking and run blocking, ranking in the bottom third in both categories according to Pro Football Focus. Second year left tackle Taylor Lewan is a building block, and right tackle Byron Bell, in his first season with Tennessee has done a decent job on the other side. But the interior of the line, but the interior line has been woefully bad and, combined with the lack of skill in the Titans’ running back group, that’s limited their ground attack.

The group of Dexter McCluster, Antonio Andrews, Bishop Sankey and now David Cobb, just isn’t cutting it for the Titans. Andrews, an undrafted free agent out of Western Kentucky, has been the best of the bunch, leaving Sankey, a 2014 second round pick, in his dust. Cobb just returned from IR, so the grade on him is incomplete, and McCluster is simply a complementary change of pace piece, not a lead back. Whether or Andrews or perhaps Cobb can be that lead guy remains to be seen, but the results from the group so far this season have been poor.

Thursday’s 104 yards on the ground actually marked Tennessee’s second best rushing performance since Week 2, when they piled up 166 rushing yards on the Cleveland Browns. Since then, they’ve gone over 100 yards collectively only twice, the other being their overtime win over the Saints two weeks ago. That’s bad. And 49 of those 104 yards racked up on Thursday came on just two plays, Mariota’s 23-yard scoring run and a 26-yard scamper by Antonio Andrews on the last play of the third quarter. Without those two plays, the Titans have just 55 yards on 24 carries, a 2.3 yards per carry average. That’s very bad.

Without an effective ground game, it’s always going to be tough sledding for Mariota. Especially when his receivers leave a lot to be desired as well. In fairness to the Titans, the wide receiver situation is a result of misfortune more than poor planning. The Tennessee receiving corps has been decimated by injuries, leaving them to start rookie Dorial Green-Beckham and past-his-prime veteran Harry Douglas, who has always been a third or fourth receiver at best, as their top two targets.

The injuries to Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter put the Titans in that spot. But for them to get out of it, Green-Beckham is going to have to grow up quick. The second round pick, has shown promise, but hasn’t been able to turn that promise into results, and has just one game with more than three catches all season. With a weak receiving corps, Mariota has relied heavily on tight end Delanie Walker, the one saving grace of the Tennessee offense other than Mariota. But when teams manage to neutralize Walker for long stretches, the Titans offense quickly turns stagnant and that’s a detriment to Mariota’s development.

It’s going to take the Titans a little while to build this thing. The bright side is that Mariota looks every bit the part of second overall pick and star quarterback who could lead them for years to come. The worries about him being a NFL bust appear to be a thing of the past. He’s the real deal. Tennessee also has a very strong defense, which remains fifth best in the NFL in yards allowed per game after last night. They simply need better pieces all around Mariota on offense to take that next step.

INJURY REPORT: ROMO BACK FOR DALLAS

It’s going to take history for the Dallas Cowboys, losers of seven straight games, to reach the playoffs now. But they can officially count on the return of one guy who might help them make it.

Tony Romo participated fully in Cowboys practice on Thursday for the first time since he broke his collarbone during the team’s Week 2 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. That was Dallas’ last win, as Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel led them to a 0-7 mark in his stead. That puts the Cowboys in a hole no team in NFL history has climbed out of. But sitting just three games out in the woeful NFC East and not buried yet, Dallas believes they have a chance with Romo leading the charge.

“I think the guys understand where we’re at,” Romo told reporters this week. “I think they also understand that the season is not over. It’s far from it. I think right now we just need to understand that we’re getting started, and we’ve got to go do our job and do it to the best of our ability and start getting this thing on the roll.”

For Dallas, that starts on Sunday in Miami. They should have a full complement of pieces as they look to make that charge. Dez Bryant is expected to play despite missing practice this week with foot and knee ailments, and though running back Darren McFadden was added to the injury report Thursday with a calf strain, that move was deemed precautionary. On defense, Dallas will have linebacker Sean Lee back from concussion, but may be without cornerback Morris Claiborne, who suffered a hamstring strain in last week’s loss to the Buccaneers.

The Bucs might not get receiver Vincent Jackson back in time for this week’s matchup against the Eagles, but the veteran wideout is making progress in his return from a knee injury suffered nearly a month ago.

“It’s good to get the guys back there doing something,” Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. “You want as many options as possible. He was limited today. Yesterday, he wasn’t able to do anything. Today, he was able to get a few reps and able to run around a little bit, which is a step in the right direction.”

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers popped up on the injury report with a shoulder injury ahead of this week’s battle for the top spot in the NFC North with the Minnesota Vikings, but he participated fully in practice on Thursday and the Packers say Rodgers will be ready to go on Sunday. The Pack also might get running back Eddie Lacy back after he sat out last week’s loss with a groin injury. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said Lacy “looked good” in practice this week.

Running back injuries have plagued the league all season and both San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde (foot) and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (abdomen) missed practice Thursday for their respective teams, who meet on Sunday in Seattle. Hyde is expected to miss the game while Lynch is expected to play.

Another running back, Matt Forte, was one of several key Bears players missing from practice on Thursday, a list that includes receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Eddie Royal and defensive stalwart Pernell McPhee. On Sunday, the decimated Bears face a Denver Broncos team that will be without quarterback Peyton Manning and star defensive end DeMarcus Ware.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys