Through the first half of the 2010 preseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars are dead last in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging just 34 yards per game.
Notice the word "preseason" in that pithy bit of statistical analysis. Note also that, if you were to run your finger down the list of players who have run the football for the Jaguars through their first two summer games, you'd be on the 10th and final man listed before you got to Maurice Jones-Drew.
Jones-Drew has taken just six live handoffs so far this month and, obviously, he has very little to prove during the preseason. Five years into his NFL career, he has established an annual average of just under 1,000 rushing yards, almost exactly 50 receptions and more than 13 touchdowns. Last year, that five-foot-seven cannonball powered a rushing attack that finished 10th in the league in yards per game and sixth in yards per carry.
So forget that preseason league rushing ranking, which will be washed away soon by the arrival of the regular season anyway. When the Jaguars arrive at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night, they will bring with them a potentially explosive rushing attack that could be the best test yet for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense intent on improving against the run this fall.
Like virtually every team in the league, the Jaguars have used their starters only sparingly during the first two weeks of the preseason. Now that the third week has arrived, the established NFL pattern calls for starters to get their one true extended warmup for the games that count. In other words, expect the Buccaneers to see a lot more of Jones-Drew than the Philadelphia Eagles or Miami Dolphins did the last two weeks.
And that's the perfect scenario for Tampa Bay. After struggling against the run for much of the 2009 season, the Buccaneers revamped their defensive scheme down the stretch under Head Coach Raheem Morris' direction, then snatched defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two draft picks in April. The results have been good so far, but one has to look closely to see exactly how.
"The first game I believe we gave up 50 yards rushing," said Morris of the Bucs' preseason opener at Miami, hitting the correct total for Ronnie Brown and company on the head. "The second game I think we gave up 100-and-some-odd yards rushing, but I believe they got 33 on our first unit when they were in the game. I'm not completely down on anyone. A couple of the runs were mis-fits and a couple of runs were by design – 'Hey, we're winning, go ahead and run the clock out for us and do us a favor.'"
In Miami, the Buccaneers had most of their defensive starters on the field for a good part of the first quarter, but only a few remained in the mix for the second quarter. On three series, they gave up 20 rushing yards. Against the Chiefs last weekend, the Buccaneers starters did indeed give up 33 first-quarter rushing yards before the substituting began in the second quarter. Some of the starters hung around for another quarter of play and the Chiefs had 55 rushing yards and 3.7 yards per carry at halftime.
In other words, the rush defense numbers look mildly promising but the substitution patterns make it hard to draw any conclusions. If Jones-Drew sticks around for a good bit of action on Saturday night, that won't be a problem. The Bucs' starting defense is expected to play the entire first half and potentially the first series of the third quarter, so the evaluation will be pretty straightforward.
Of course, the results won't be judged simply on the number of rushing yards the Jaguars end up with at halftime. In the first quarter against the Chiefs last weekend, Kansas City's offense faced four second or third downs in which they needed to gain four yards or less. That made it easier for the Chiefs to avoid any disastrous plays; Morris knows his team needs to be more stout against the run on first and second down in order to force the opposition into tricky third-and-long situations, where an intensified pass rush can lead to turnovers and big plays. That, more than any league rankings, is why the Bucs are so focused on stopping the run more efficiently in 2010.
"You [could] lead the league in some of those stats [people] covet but I'd like to lead the league in wins if I could," said Morris. "I told my defense the first day that I'm not really interested in being the number one defense in the National Football League. I want to score and get the ball back. The teams that score and get the ball back on defense are usually the teams that end up playing at Cowboy Stadium this year. We have an opportunity to score and get the ball back like we did in 2002. We led the league that year and we won a Super Bowl."
If you insist on putting stock in the Jaguars' rush rankings so far, then note also that Jacksonville is second in the NFL in passing yards per game this summer and first in yards gained per pass play. With Mike Sims-Walker and Troy Williamson providing the big plays in the passing attack, the Jags are picking up a robust 6.2 yards per snap. They should challenge the Bucs' defense in a variety of ways, which pleases Morris immensely.
"I get anxious to watch different units go out there and practice together," he said. "We've got all these packages, whether it's our 3-4 looks or whether it's our Redskin looks or whether it's our nickel blitz. Just third down and 10 – go line up and split a double team and make a play. I really get excited to watch these guys go through all of the phases of the game together. Now we get an opportunity to go out there for a half and see some more of those situations that might happen."
Stroughter to Start
If the Buccaneers' receivers are about to stage a race to the finish line – that finish line being the starting Z position opposite X starter Mike Williams – Sammie Stroughter is starting in the pole position.
Stroughter will get the start this Saturday at Z, the only one of the 22 first-team spots on the depth chart still up for grabs. Maurice Stovall started the first game at that position but left early with an ankle sprain, which will keep him out again this weekend. Veteran Reggie Brown got the call in Stovall's place last week against the Chiefs, and now it's Stroughter's turn.
Last week Reggie got his opportunity," said Morris. "Sammie has earned the right to go out there and fight and so we'll have Sammie Stroughter out there this weekend playing a little Z. But the competition is still very live and all those guys have their ability to go out there and make their mark."
In the Bucs' terminology, X stands for the receiver commonly referred to as the split end, Z is the flanker and "Zebra" is the slot receiver when the team goes to a three-wideout set. Stroughter earned his NFL stripes last year as the Bucs' primary Zebra, ranking third on the team with 31 receptions as a rookie. He has proven exceptionally good in that role and on critical third downs, and the Bucs will continue to make use of his skills in that manner in 2010. But he could find himself in an expanded role if he's the top option at Z. In that case, he would then slide inside to Zebra and the Bucs would bring in a different Z when they wanted to put three receivers on the field at once.
"I don't think we're ever going to take Sammie out of that Zebra receiver. He's special in there and I really love when he goes in there. He's got toughness, he's got a great feel, he's got a feel for running routes in there, he's got a great feel for finding the first-down sticks and really moving the markers. Inside that slot takes a little bit of a different man, takes a different guy. It takes a guy with a big heart to go in there. A guy that's not afraid to take that face-peeling-off [hit]. He goes in there and he's able to do that. His initial quickness, his suddenness off the line, his suddenness in and out of breaks and then again just the toughness factor."
Getting the start against the Jaguars doesn't mean Stroughter has won the job, but it certainly gives him the first chance to state his case. If he does end up as a starter and the slot receiver, Morris would likely look for ways to give him plays off from time to time so that he could still be an option as a return man. That means that the other receivers fighting for the starting Z position over the next two weeks have more than just that prize within their reach.
"If Sammie wins, then you find ways to keep him fresh, to keep him ready to do special teams work if you need him," said Morris. "You kind of have to stop playing Sammie a little bit in some of those roles so you can keep all those fine attributes that he does have. So that's why [the other receivers] have got to stay in that fight and stay in the hunt no matter who wins this job, just like all our jobs."
Brooks, Lawrence Waived
The first round of NFL roster cuts will take place next week, after most teams have played their third preseason games. The deadline for reducing rosters from 80 to 75 players is Tuesday, August 31.
The Buccaneers got a bit of a head start on that process on Thursday, waiving a pair of rookies: wide receiver Chris Brooks and kicker Hunter Lawrence. Both players originally joined the Buccaneers as undrafted free agents this spring, Lawrence on April 26 immediately after the draft and Brooks on May 3 after he had participated in the team's rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract.
Lawrence played his college football at Texas, where he finished as the most accurate kicker in school history. After handling kickoffs exclusively for most of his first two seasons with the Longhorns, he took over the placekicking duties in 2008 and 2009 and nailed a combined 32 of 37 attempts (86.5%). He also hit on 120 of 121 extra points during his career, at one point hitting 76 in a row, the second-longest streak in UT history. A third-team AP All-America choice last year, Lawrence scored 126 points (most by a kicker in school annals) by making 22 of 25 field goals and 60 of 61 extra points.
Brooks didn't have overwhelming statistics at Nebraska, but the 6-2, 215-pound wideout caught the Bucs' eye with his combination of size and agility. Brooks finished his Cornhuskers career with 17 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Fourteen of those receptions coming last year in his senior campaign despite the fact that he was hampered by a ribs injury for a good portion of the season. Brooks was also a strong player in the kicking game for the Huskers, earning special teams captains honors on several occasions during the 2008 season.
Tampa Bay's roster now stands at 78 players. After the cut to 75 next Tuesday and the preseason finale in Houston on Thursday, the Buccaneers will be required to reduce their roster to 53 players on or before Saturday, September 4.