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Colts v Jaguars, and Things of that Nature (Week 4  Preview)

On Sunday, the Colts will make their annual trek to the frozen tarps of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium EverBank Field to take on the Los Angeles Jaguars of Jacksonville.  On paper, it would appear to be a contest between two teams built with similar philosophies: build through the draft, have stability at head coach, have stability at quarterback, and never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.  Looks, as Colts President Bill Polian would tell you, can be deceiving.

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Jack Del Rio became only the second head coach in Jaguars franchise history when he took over for Tom Coughlin in 2003.  From the start, Del Rio set out to create an identity for his team: run the ball and stop the run.  Some would say, “It’s better to have a bad plan, than no plan at all”, the embodiment of this statement can be seen each week when the Jaguars and Oakland Raiders take the field.

You see, it’s not that Del Rio’s plan to run the ball and stop the run is bad, it’s just misguided and ill-timed.   The NFL is no longer a running league.  You do not run to win, and you do not win because you run.  If you want to be successful in today’s NFL, you have to be able to pass the ball and stop the pass.

Enter David Garrard, who in 2007, became the second full-time starting quarterback during Del Rio’s tenure, when he beat out then-starter Byron Leftwich for the job.  As with Del Rio, stability is nice, but stability for stability’s sake does not lead to wins.  Garrard, who was clearly a step up from Leftwich, has proven himself to be little more than an above-average backup that can occasionally deliver a great game.

In the front office, the Jaguars replaced long-time general manager James Harris with Gene Smith before the 2009 season.   Smith immediately changed course for a franchise that had, along with the Detroit Lions, become known for their constant mishandling of the draft.  Smith, unlike Harris, hoarded draft picks, and was content to slowly rebuild his roster from the ground up.   The centerpieces of this rebuild were two bookend offensive tackles taken in the 2009 draft: Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton.

The Jaguars’ “trend” marches in step with that of Monroe and Britton.  Both tackles had inconsistent, but promising rookie campaigns.  Similarly, the Jaguars 2009 campaign was inconsistent, but had a hint of promise for the future.  And like the two young offensive linemen, the Jaguars entered the 2010 season with high hopes.  Through three games, however, both team and tackles alike have once again put up inconsistent performances.

All of these ills can instantly be erased from the minds of Jaguars fans this Sunday, if their team is able to upset the visiting Colts.   Much like an intense college rivalry, where team’s fans judge their season based on their team’s performance against their rivals, the Jaguars measure themselves against the Colts.  Wrapping up the first quarter of the NFL season at 2-2 while beating your rival?   The Jaguars would be quick to declare victory.

The bar for the visitors, however, is set a bit higher.  The Indianapolis Colts are one of the model franchises of this decade.  They have set records for consecutive regular season wins, wins in a decade, and consecutive seasons with 12 or more wins.  A second loss to a division opponent (the first was to Houston in week one) and a 2-2 record to round out the first month would be a tough pill to swallow for an organization that enjoys Week 16 vacations almost as much as they enjoy winning games.

The secret to the Colts’ success is easy: General Manager Bill Polian knew the NFL was a passing league and acted accordingly.  He drafted the Greatest Quarterback in the History of Mankind, Peyton Manning, and set out to surround him with talent that could help the quarterback fully achieve his potential.  Polian’s work will be seen firsthand as the injury-plagued Colts travel to Jacksonville with an active roster that is still an embarrassment of riches at the skilled positions.  Still, the Colts have their own inconsistencies that they will need to overcome if they want to beat the Jaguars and move to 3-1 on the season.

The Colts defense has had an up-and-down season thus far, showing an ability to dominate one minute, and then getting gashed for obscene yardage totals the next.   The Jaguars will attack the Colts defense with a heavy dose of bowling-ball running back Maurice Jones-Drew and a sprinkle of play-action passing from quarterback David Garrard.   It’s a simple plan, but one that the Jaguars have used effectively in recent years to keep their contests with the Colts close.

One of the keys for the Colts defense will be discipline, gap discipline, that is.  Not only will the Jaguars run a lot, they will attempt to utilize cutback runs that get the Colts linebackers over pursuing in one direction and then cutting the run back against the grain.   If the Colts don’t maintain their gap discipline, Jones-Drew and the other Jacksonville backs will gain yards in bunches.

If that happens, David Garrard will be able to use the play-action passing game to make his rather pedestrian receiving corps look like an all-star cast.   From there, the Colts defense will be so off balance, trying to guess between run, pass, and play-fake, that they’ll start thinking and stop playing fast, instinctive football, and this game will become a shootout.

The other key for the Colts on defense will be the play of its defensive line.  The Colts were able to generate good pressure when their opponents chose to pass in their first two games this season, but were generally ineffective this past Sunday against the Broncos.  The Jaguars, meanwhile, field one of the worst pass blocking lines in the league, so taking advantage of them and forcing Garrard into mistakes is a must.  As we saw with Kyle Orton last week, any quarterback can look like an All Pro if you give him time in the pocket, Garrard is no different.

On the other side of the ball, the Jaguars use a very simple plan when defending against the Colts: they play a lot of man coverage with their corners and linebackers, they are very physical at the line of scrimmage, and they leave their safeties deep.  This plan would theoretically leave the Jaguars vulnerable to the Colts running game, but their defensive line has done a remarkable job of playing the run in years past.

This year should be no different, as the Jags field an impressive pair of young defensive tackles, Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton.  Alualu and Knighton have not only played the run well this year, but have also been able to get consistent pressure up the middle on passing downs, a big step in the right direction for “stopping the pass.”   The Colts, on the other hand, have proven to be vulnerable in the interior of their offensive line, so this is a match-up of some concern.

I expect the Colts game plan on offense to be similar to the one they used to beat the Broncos last week: forgoing the run and much of the short passing game in lieu of deep passes.  The Jaguars secondary has been one of the worst in the league, thus far, giving up yards in bunches, and I expect the Colts to attack it relentlessly.  And unlike the Broncos, the Jaguars secondary does not feature a Champ Bailey, to shadow Reggie Wayne or a Brian Dawkins, to help with Dallas Clark.

Because of this, I expect both players to have a big game after being relatively quiet last week.   I also expect Joseph Addai to be used as a receiver, and not a runner, to attack the Jaguars linebackers.  We may also see a healthy dose of Brody Eldridge single blocking the relatively ineffective defensive ends of the Jaguars, which would allow the Colts offensive line the ability to double-team the Jaguars’ tackles.

In the end, I think the Colts have put the Houston game behind them.   In retrospect, that game may have done more good than harm, serving as an early wake-up call to a team still half asleep from its loss in the Super Bowl.  The linebackers, that were all but invisible in the Houston game, have been great the past two weeks, and should only get better with the insertion of injured weak-side linebacker Clint Session back into the starting lineup.

I also expect the Colts to move the ball well against the Jaguars.   More importantly, however, I expect the Colts to finish those drives with points.   In the past, the Colts have moved the ball well but stalled in the red zone, allowing the Jaguars patient plans to look effective.  Scoring touchdowns, not field goals (or, worse, turnovers), will test the Jaguars plan of running the ball at all costs.

Unfortunately for Del Rio and his Jaguars, they will be able to run the ball and they’ll even be able to stop the Colts from running to ball.   And they’ll still lose.   It’s a passing league, after all.

Colts 35, Jaguars 10.