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TNF Takeaways: Titans Rise As Jaguars Hit New Rock Bottom

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Thursday night’s game in Tennessee, a brutal beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars by the home Titans, was a classic example of two teams headed in very different directions. And it was a vastly different result than many would have predicted when the season began.

This was supposed to be the year the worm turned in Jacksonville. A Jaguars roster brimming with talent was supposed to take a step forward toward competitiveness, perhaps even making a run at a playoff berth. Instead, after another embarrassing defeat at the hands of the rival Titans, the Jags are again mired at the bottom of an AFC South division that is wide open. And to make matters worse, Jacksonville appears to pretty clearly have been passed by a Tennessee team that entered the season in disarray.

Despite a messy start, Tennessee has at least been competitive this year, and the surprising Titans now sit just a half-game out of a first-place tie in the division. The same can not be said for the Jaguars. And there is only one person whose shoulders that blame can fall on, Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley.

With Thursday’s loss, the Jags fell to 2-5 on the season and 14-41 overall in 55 games under Bradley over nearly three-and-a-half seasons with the former Seahawks assistant at the helm. Worse still, the Jags have been beaten down thoroughly in three of those losses. It’s tough to say which was worse, the Week 2 drubbing by the San Diego Chargers or last night’s debacle in Tennessee, which saw the Titans build a 27-0 halftime lead. Some may point to the Jags outscoring Tennessee 22-9 in the second half as evidence that the team didn’t quit on Bradley. But there was plenty of evidence as pressure mounted early in the game that Jacksonville had done just that, and it wasn’t until the Titans took their foot off the gas late in the game that the Jags started putting points on the board in garbage time.

All this points to what should be the end for Bradley. In fact, there was an expectation during the game that the end of his tenure in Jacksonville would be coming on Friday. But afterward, team owner Shad Khan refuted any such notion while offering a cryptic response to the Florida Times-Union:

At this point, it’s unclear what Khan is waiting for. Thanks to the Thursday night tilt, the timing is about as perfect as it gets the rest of the season to make a move and the Jags have an at least somewhat experienced coach on their staff in Doug Marrone, who could take over on an interim basis for an -on-the-job interview of sorts. But the Jacksonville owner has been steadfast about not making an in-season change and if he’s not going to make it after Thursday’s nationally televised debacle, it’s not clear how much worse things would have to get for the move to come.

The Jaguars looked as dreadful as they have in years on Thursday night, their defense offering up no resistance for the Tennessee offense in the first half while the Jax offense sputtered out of the gate. At halftime, the Titans had 354 yards of total offense while the Jaguars had just 60. Most of that came in the second quarter, where Tennessee put together three straight touchdown drives in under five minutes of game time to take a commanding lead. From there, it was a walk in the park.

Jacksonville was able to put some points on the board late to make the score look respectable, but the garbage-time fantasy stats compiled by Blake Bortles and company shouldn’t detract or distract from what was a mostly abysmal performance. Bortles, who was supposed to take a step forward this season after a 35 touchdown campaign in 2015, has looked lost for most of the season and regressed in many areas. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, thought to be one of the league’s best wideouts entering the year, has been a ghost, nearly outperformed by teammate Marqise Lee, as well as Allen Hurns. The Jags also still can’t get a running game going, ranking second-to-last in the league in rushing yards per game. Their offensive line is a big part of that failure and remains extremely suspect despite myriad investments.

On defense, the Jags built what was supposed to be a stout secondary, but even that has been suspect. Rookie Jalen Ramsey looks good, but free agent cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Tashuan Gipson have been inconsistent. Making matters more difficult for that group is the fact that Jacksonville can’t get pressure on the quarterback, ranking bottom third in the league in sacks. In his return from an injury that cost him his entire rookie season, Dante Fowler hasn’t been the players the Jags hoped he’d be and a lack of pass rush talent around him is hindering the group. Furthermore, Jax cannot stop the run, allowing an average of nearly 125 yards per game on the ground, something free agent signing Malik Jackson was supposed to help but hasn’t. Tennessee piled up over 200 rush yards on Jacksonville Thursday night and their ability to do that was the key to the game.

The results have been poor, but there is still a lot of talent on this Jaguars team that Khan has spent hundreds of millions cultivating. And although their chances of competing this season are essentially over, there is plenty to learn about the decisions to be made this offseason among those players in the final nine games. But it’s not something that can be learned with Bradley at the helm. Thursday’s first half was evidence that not only is he a bad coach, but it appears he’s lost his team’s confidence, too. So it’s time for the Jags to make a change to see what they’ve got, if this group is salvageable, or if they’ll need to hit the reset button on this roster one more time to try to get it right again.

TITANS SUCCESS SEEMS SUSTAINABLE

On the flip side of Thursday night’s game, while it’s hard to get too excited about any performance against the once again woeful Jaguars, there were a ton of bright spots in the Tennessee Titans.

First and foremost among them continues to be their success moving the ball and controlling the game on the ground. Tennessee uses a unique rushing attack that seems perfectly suited for the talents of both their lead back DeMarco Murray and his understudy Derrick Henry. On Thursday, the dynamic duo ran the ball down Jacksonville’s throat with little resistance. As a team, they finished with 214 rushing yards on 43 carries, compared to just 23 pass plays. It’s an unbalanced attack but one that seems to work well. After all, that still works out to nearly five yards per carry despite the high-volume of runs.

“When you run the ball the way we did, I think defenses, they can feel it,” tight end Delanie Walker told the Tennessean after the game. “We’re pounding the ball, just straight up the gut. I think any team, defense can feel that, when we’re getting 6 yards a pop. I think at some point they’re going to start hanging their head, like, ‘When are they going to stop running the ball?’”

The answer shouldn’t be anytime soon. It’s working too well to stop. Murray appears to be rejuvenated and back to being the stud that led the league in rushing for the Dallas Cowboys two years ago. On Thursday, he carried the ball 21 times for 123 yards, an average of nearly six yards per carry and continued to run hard and strong for big gains until he was pulled from the game. A lost season in Philadelphia last year had many wondering if Dallas had taken all the tread off Murray’s tires, but he’s proven over eight games in Tennessee that there is still plenty left in the tank and last year’s letdown was simply a case of a bad fit in the wrong place. Murray is up to a league-leading 756 rushing yards for the season in seven games, more than he had all of last season.

“I think you go through things in life, whether they’re good, bad or ugly, and you learn from it,” Murray said. “Obviously, it’s not what I drew up last year. But it made me a better person and a better player. It makes me even more hungry and makes me love the game that much more.”

Then there’s the rookie Henry. The consensus No. 2 running back in the 2016 draft hasn’t had the opportunities that the draft’s top running back Ezekiel Elliott has in Murray’s former home with Dallas, but the rookie has bided his time and had his best performance of the year on Thursday night, with 16 carries for 60 yards and a score while playing a small role in the first team offense and then getting plenty of looks in mop-up duty with the game out of reach. In today’s NFL, having a player like Henry in place behind the lead back is crucial. Murray suffered a toe injury in Thursday’s game and though he is expected to be ok to go next Sunday, should he miss some time, the Titans would be confident with Henry stepping right in.

A big reason for that is the performance of the Titans offensive line thus far. The group, which includes two of the team’s last three first round picks serving as the bookends at tackle and one of their biggest free agent signings of the offseason at center, has proven to be one of the league’s best earliest, setting Tennessee up to sit third in the league in rushing through seven games and they’ve also kept quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was sacked 38 times last year, mostly clean. He’s been sacked just 12 times in 2016, which ranks near the bottom of the NFL.

Mariota’s progression as a pro quarterback, perhaps aided by better protection, has been a sight to behold as well. On Thursday, the quarterback was poised and outstanding throughout the evening. He completed all but four pass attempts (18-of-22) for 270 yards and two touchdowns without a pick. It was his third game without a pick this year and second straight, an important note as he had thrown six through five games after throwing just 10 all of last year. But that’s the only stat Mariota is trending in the wrong direction in from his rookie year. Across the board, otherwise, his numbers are up and he appears to be finding a groove as an NFL passer.

The success of the Tennessee offense has also kept their solid but not great defense off the field for long stretches this season, a recipe for long-term gain in the NFL.

At 4-4 at the halfway point of their season, the Titans still have plenty to prove, and the road ahead, which includes the Broncos and Packers among others, won’t be easy. But Tennessee couldn’t have asked for much more than this coming into the season. They’re right in the thick of things in the AFC South, something their rivals in Jacksonville only wish they could say.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys