By Alex Kelly – Jacksonville Jaguars Writer
In a game of two halves that started out poorly for the Jacksonville Jaguars, running back Leonard Fournette and the defense stepped up to get them out of Denver and back to Florida with a 26-24 win on Sunday.
As the wind started to gust on Sunday morning in Colorado at the beginning of what would prove to be a strange NFL Sunday, the meeting of the 0-3 Denver Broncos and 1-2 Jacksonville Jaguars had the feel of a Week 17 win-or-go-home affair.
Denver, the early-season straggler in a strong AFC West, were on the edge of an 0-4 hole from which there might be no coming out. The visiting Jaguars were given hope with last Thursday’s win after a tumultuous start to the season that included two opening defeats, losing their newly signed starting quarterback and a nearly Antonio Brown-worthy drama train surrounding star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Jacksonville knew going into the game that the rest of the AFC South were sitting one win ahead of them, with all three other teams in the division playing in the early slate of Sunday games and winding up 2-2. A win in Empower Field at Mile High might mean they had survived the September storms and keep them in what might be the only four-team divisional race in the NFL this year.
The game got off to a slow start for Jacksonville, with Denver looking early on like they might be on the way to picking up their first win. The Broncos pass rush, or lack thereof, had been much talked about after failing to record a sack or takeaway through three games. I wrote in my preview for this game late last week that today might be that changed, and this proved true. The Denver defence bought Jaguars rookie QB Gardner Minshew down several times early on, with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb each recording their first sacks of the season. The Jags offence struggled to move the ball early, punting on five of six drive to open the game after being backed up against their own end zone by excellent Denver special teams play once or twice. The offensive line in front of Minshew struggled for much of this game, with constant pressure on the rookie QB coming from whoever lined up for Denver against right guard AJ Cann.
After making a mockery of the Tennessee Titans on Thursday Night Football in Week 3, the Jaguars defense didn’t fair much better than Minshew’s offense for most of the first half. Some weak tackling in the first quarter led to Denver’s rookie tight end Noah Fant getting his first career touchdown on a 25-yard catch and run. Later the tackling improved, but not before Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco found another weak link: the absence of star Jalen Ramsey, or more specifically, second-year Jacksonville cornerback Tre Herndon. Flacco picked on the stand-in starter throughout the game. At the end of the first quarter, Herndon gave up a huge play to an Emmanuel Sanders deep route, before being attacked again the very next play, this time allowing wide receiver Courtland Sutton to get open for a 7-yard touchdown reception. Joe Flacco looked he had Duval County’s number in this one, until he threw an awful pass with a minute to play in the second quarter that was picked up off by Jax safety Ronnie Harrison. Minshew and co. turned this into a Josh Lambo field goal to take the game into the half at 17-6 in the home team’s favour.
— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
Jacksonville Head Coach Doug Marrone apparently found the orange slices to hand out at halftime, because the Jags came out to start the second quarter and had the feel of a team that had gathered some momentum and wasn’t going to lose it again. After receiving the ball to start the half, the Jaguars offense put on a time-of-possession clinic through the third quarter. The first drive of the half was a 16-play, 75-yard, 10-plus minute monster in which the Broncos defense just could not get off the field. The drive featured Fournette with 10 rushing attempts for 49 yards, and was capped off with a touchdown pass from Minshew to rookie RB Ryquell Armstead that displayed some of the best pocket movement and footwork by the former Washington State QB that I’ve ever seen from a human not named Aaron Rodgers.
THE MINSHEW MAGIC IS REAL.
— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
While not quite reaching the #Sacksonville levels of last Thursday, the Jaguars defense also came out of the half dominant. Offensively, the Broncos throughout the third quarter tallied six plays, managing just eight yards. The Jaguars consistently put pressure on Flacco later in the game. Rotational pass rusher Dawuane Smoot has played very well this season and forced at least one third-down incompletion by hurrying Flacco.
Throughout the game, penalties were an issue for Jacksonville. Myles Jack was flagged for a bad face mask penalty in the second quarter, and both offensive tackles Jawaan Taylor and Cam Robinson had their numbers called multiple times. Wide receiver DJ Chark would have finished the game with an incredible stat line, but had several big plays wiped out by flags at the line of scrimmage.
Towards the end of the third, Fournette showed fantastic vision and physicality to break an up-the-middle run and gallop for an 81-yard gain. Shortly afterwards, a fantastic play design involving multiple Minshew pump fakes before firing a dart up the middle saw TE James O’Shaughnessy get into the end zone to make it a 23-17 game.
— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
Denver continued to struggle throughout the fourth quarter until a do-or-die drive late in the game. RB Royce Freeman and WR Courtland Sutton got the Broncos down the field against the soft zone coverage Jacksonville insist on playing late in games, before Sutton found the end zone to put the home team up by a point with around a minute left to play.
Getting the ball back, Gardner Minshew proceeded to lead the kind of drive that separates franchise quarterbacks from pretenders. Leonard Fournette, who finished the day with a career-high 225 rushing yards on 29 attempts, kept chugging. Denver were not particularly happy with a roughing the passer call on linebacker Von Miller that bailed Duval out of a tricky fourth down. But Minshew took full advantage, leading an eight-play drive that went right down the field. It included a huge grab’n’go corner route play from WR Dede Westbrook, that set Josh Lambo up for a 33 -ard field goal attempt with four seconds on the clock. Lambo, who is perfect on the season and was 3-for-3 on FG attempts in this game before this point, drilled it perfectly down the middle with zeroes on the clock.
The Broncos watched the kick sail through the uprights, and with it their hopes of getting back to playoff football this season were reduced to ash, with a tough match-up against the LA Chargers to prepare for in Week 5. Meanwhile, Jacksonville head back to Northern Florida with two straight wins and a genuine belief in a sixth-round rookie quarterback, and will be raring to go against an enigmatic Kyle Allen-led Carolina Panthers team next time out.
Final score: Jaguars 26, Broncos 24
(Feature Photo – Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)