By Alex Kelly – Jacksonville Jaguars Writer
After a rough start to a season that included two losses out of the gate, starting quarterback Nick Foles hitting injured reserve in Week One, and the ongoing saga of Jalen Ramsey’s trade request and subsequent absence, the Jacksonville Jaguars have found a way to win two straight games. A Thursday Night Football dismantling of the Tennessee Titans was followed with a last-second win over the Denver Broncos. But now the Jags head to Charlotte, North Carolina, to take on a talented Panthers team that is going to be a challenge.
The Jaguars and Panthers both come into this game with a 2-2 record, with both team still very much alive in its division. The entire AFC South is currently sat at .500 along with Jacksonville, shaping up for what could be an incredible four-way race. Carolina is just a win behind NFC South leaders New Orleans, and need to put themselves in a position to capitalise if the Saints drop a couple of games in Drew Brees’ absence. While neither team will be written off for the year if they lose this week, both could put themselves in a great position going forward with a win.
With pro-bowl Cornerback Jalen Ramsey ruled out of the game on Sunday (the injury designation is that he has a back issue) as his trade request looms over the team, the biggest problem that jumps out for this matchup is the same problem the Jaguars had last week: second-year Cornerback Tre Herndon. Herndon will be starting again in Ramsey’s place, after a disastrous game last week in Denver in which Joe Flacco exploited him as Jacksonville’s weak link throughout. There is a reason to believe Herndon might have a better game in Week Five, however. Carolina Wide Receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, while talented players are less of a threat than the pair of receivers the Jags defence faced last week.
Additionally, while Cam Newton’s replacement for the Panthers, second-year Quarterback Kyle Allen, has flashed some arm talent and good decision making in his last couple of games, it remains to be seen whether he has the experience and football IQ to really expose Herndon the way Flacco did last week. Herndon is also only seeing his first real game time now, he barely played as Duval’s fourth-string corner last season, so there’s every chance the player who went undrafted out of Vanderbilt in 2018 will improve as he sees the field more.
It will be interesting to see how the Jags defence plays as a whole this week. Joe Flacco and a not-hugely-talented Denver offence went up and down the field through two quarters in Week Four, before the D stepped up and all but removed them from the game for most of the second half. Carolina has less offensive line problems than most teams, but Jacksonville has such a strong cast of defensive linemen that someone is going to make a play at some point. Rotational pass-rusher Dawuane Smoot will probably only play half the snaps of the game, but has stepped his play up this season, and could be a factor again this week as star edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Josh Allen inevitably draw more attention.
The key for this Jags defence is stopping running back and, to my mind, MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey. The third-year back has taken the lead for the Panthers this season, in Cam Newton’s struggles and then in his absence. McCaffrey accounts for a higher percentage of his team’s offensive yards than any non-quarterback in the NFL through four weeks. There has been much discussion over whether a player of his dimensions can sustain the workload he’s had without picking up a serious injury, and I think this is the key for Jacksonville. With McCaffrey, it’s not going to be about limiting his involvement, but containing him and preventing big plays.
If the back gets outside the tackles with no one but a Defensive End in his way, he’s going to get a lot of yards. The way to stop him is going to be matching up a faster player, Linebacker Myles Jack or Safety Ronnie Harrison, against him throughout the game, and almost playing an “RB Spy” system to ensure someone always has their eyes on him.
On the other side of the ball, I’m curious over the next couple of games to see if Leonard Fournette’s 225 yard career game against Denver was a fluke, or if he has found some form. The third-year back who was drafted four spots ahead of McCaffrey in 2017 had a stellar rookie season but has been largely a non-factor since facing constantly stacked boxes and playing behind a generally mediocre offensive line. If Fournette is back to form, Jacksonville’s chances of playoff football are a lot more real. He’s facing a good Carolina defence led by All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, and if he can run them into the ground the way he did Denver, he’ll have played really well. As well as rookie QB Gardner Minshew has played so far as Foles’ replacement, every young Quarterback in NFL history has had more success if they’re backed with a good running game.
Talking of Minshew, what a start to a career the charismatic signal-caller has gotten off to so far, with three of four possible Offensive Rookie of the Week awards, and September’s Offensive Rookie of the Month accolade. His numbers so far this season are not exactly revolutionary (84 of 121 passing for 905 yards, seven touchdowns and a single interception), although the 69.4 completion percentage is really impressive, they are a better three-and-a-half game stretch from any sixth-round Quarterback I can remember not named Tom Brady. But it’s how Minshew has gotten those numbers that are the impressive part. He seems to read the field like a veteran, making the right pre-snap adjustments and the best available decisions when he’s looking to throw the football.
His pocket movement evokes Brett Favre or Russell Wilson (I implore you, watch his touchdown throw to rookie Ryquell Armstead last week, it was a work of art) and he passes with a wonderful touch. After five years of Blake Bortles, it’s wonderful seeing a Quarterback you can trust wearing teal. He’ll need help from his team this week, particularly the offensive line who gave up five sacks to Denver. Fournette really got going in that game when struggling Guard AJ Cann was benched for Jacksonville’s backup Tackle, rookie Will Richardson, and I wonder if that becomes the new norm. Carolina’s defensive identity is in it’s front seven rather than the secondary, so if Minshew has time to drop back and throw, Jacksonville’s cast of receivers led by second-year standout DJ Chark could be in for big games.
THE MINSHEW MAGIC IS REAL.
— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
I think this is going to be a really close game, and could be a good one to watch. My suspicion is that the Jaguars will once again start out slowly before coming back to close Carolina down.
Prediction: Jaguars 21, Panthers 20
(Featured Photo – Credit: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)