On Sunday, the 1-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 1-3 Jacksonville Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the sixth meeting between the Bucs and the Jaguars, and just the second time Jacksonville has visited Raymond James Stadium in the regular season. The Bucs are hoping to grab their first inter-conference win of the season and gain some momentum heading into their bye week.
To accomplish those goals, the Buccaneers will have to crack a run defense that has been very stingy, especially on first down, and try to limit the number of big plays that wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns create. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when Blake Bortles and the Jaguars come to town.
Gus Bradley will be returning to the starting point of his NFL coaching career on Sunday. Now in his third year at the Jaguars' helm, Bradley first made the jump from the college ranks to the pros in 2006 when he joined the Buccaneers' staff as the new linebackers coach. After three years in that role, he became the defensive coordinator in Seattle, and his success with the Seahawks over four seasons led to his first head coaching opportunity in 2013.
Jacksonville players describe Bradley as positive but passionate, the kind of coach who wants to see his team have fun but isn't afraid to push them. He's also been described as "energetic" and a great motivator. Bradley inherited a team coming off 5-11 and 2-14 campaigns, and while the Jaguars have not yet turned their record around, he is credited with creating a new culture at team headquarters and keeping his team's spirits high. So far, Bradley's teams have an 8-28 record since his arrival, including a 3-15 mark on the road.
Last year, the Jaguars fielded the youngest roster in the NFL on their way to a 3-13 record. Jacksonville rookies combined to make 82 starts, the most in the NFL, and that included QB Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft. Even while that youth moment is given time to take hold, Bradley has the Jaguars' defense playing in the mold of his crews in Seattle. Jacksonville ranked sixth in the NFL in sacks last season, third in forced fumbles and eighth in red zone touchdown percentage allowed. This year, Jacksonville has the NFL's fourth-best rush defense through the first quarter of the season.
Jacksonville's offense is making strides in its second year with Bortles at the helm.
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Bortles himself has improved through the first quarter of the season, with a 78.9 passer rating after he finished his rookie year at 69.5 in 13 starts. Most of that improvement stems from a better TD-INT ratio, which was 11-17 last year but is 6-3 so far through four games in 2015. Bortles' completion percentage is actually down a bit to 54.5 but he's averaging nearly 50 more passing yards per game. And, after absorbing a league-high 55 sacks last year, he's on pace for 32 in 2015.
Throwing primarily to wide receivers Hurns and Robinson, Bortles has been able to push the ball downfield more this season, as evidenced by Robinson's 22.0-yard average on 15 catches. Jacksonville already has 14 passing plays of 20 or more yards this year, which ranks 12th in the NFL. The 6-3, 215-pound Robinson has made the type of athletic, leaping catches that give his quarterback confidence to throw it up in a crowd. The Jags' passing attack might need a bit more variety, however; Hurns and Robinson have accounted for 644 of the team's 996 passing yards so far, and no other player on the team has more than 74. Of course, the Jaguars have been without prized tight end acquisition Julius Thomas in the first month due to a preseason hand injury, and they recently lost rookie wide receiver Rashad Greene to the injured reserve/designated for return list. Thomas could conceivably make his Jacksonville regular-season debut against the Buccaneers on Sunday; he was limited on the practice field to start the week.
Bradley says that Bortles has "great toughness" and plays with an "absence of fear." The second-year passer handled the pressure well in Week Two when he directed a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive against Miami for the Jaguars' lone victory this season. Bortles is also a sneaky asset in the running game, as his 91 rushing yards ranks sixth among all NFL quarterbacks.
Overall, Jacksonville's ground game ranks near the middle of the pack with 104.5 yards per game and 4.1 yards per rush. The Jaguars used their second-round pick this past spring to bring in Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon and the rookie has been the team's workhorse, with 70 of the 89 carries not recorded by Bortles. Yeldon has 259 yards on the ground and a 3.7-yard average, but the Jaguars have yet to score a rushing touchdown in 2015. Only two running backs in the NFL have logged more carries than Yeldon so far: Chicago's Matt Forte and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.
Yeldon runs behind a Jacksonville offensive line that includes a former second-overall pick at left tackle in Luke Joeckel and a coveted 2015 free agency target in right tackle Jeremy Parnell. The Jaguars also signed Stefen Wisniewski as a free agent in April and installed him as the new center and used a third-round pick on South Carolina's A.J. Cann, who is now starting at right guard after a season-ending shoulder injury to Brandon Linder. That's a significant overhaul up front, but an understandable one after the number of sacks that Bortles took a year ago. Among the starting five, which also includes Zane Beadles at left guard, it is Wisniewski that is faring in the best among Pro Football Focus rankings, as he has been credited with allowing zero sacks so far this year.
Bortles and the Jaguars are about middle of the pack in the NFL with a 37.5% third-down conversion rate, but the numbers have a strange pattern when broken down into short, medium and long attempts. While Jacksonville is fourth in the NFL with a 61.5% conversation rate on medium tries (4-6 yards), they're 23rd on long ones and 30th on short ones. Red zone scoring has been an issue for the Jags, who rank 28th in the NFL with a 36.4% rate of scoring touchdowns on drives that get inside the opponents' 20.
So far in 2015, Jacksonville's defense has proved very stout against the run, and not too shabby at getting after the passer, either.
Jacksonville ranks fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (83.0) and first in yards allowed per rush (3.1) and it would be no surprise to see the Jaguars emphasize the containment of Doug Martin at the beginning of Sunday's game. Meanwhile, Jacksonville has recorded nine sacks through four games, ranking 17th in the league in sacks per pass play.
That would seem to be strong argument for the performance of the defensive line, which hasn't even had the services of Sen'Derrick Marks yet due to a knee injury. Marks had 8.5 sacks a year ago to lead the team but this year it's reserve linebacker Ryan Davis leading the way with 2.5. That underscores the impressive depth that Jacksonville can deploy at the front seven positions in a scheme that is hard to classify strictly as a 4-3 or 3-4. Given his roots in Tampa under Monte Kiffin, Bradley is from the 4-3 tree, but his version in Jacksonville includes a "LEO" position, that plays on the weakside edge as a pass-rusher, and an "OTTO" position that is generally a linebacker who can hold the edge against the run and then rush the passer on third down. The former is a concept that Bradley brought in from Seattle, the latter something the Jaguar coaches have created.
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The job of clogging the middle in this formation falls to defensive tackles like former Buccaneer Roy Miller and former first-round pick Tyson Alualu. Those two are currently starting in the middle up front but Marks is close to returning and is expected to practice more this week. As for the Leo position, that is currently being filled by Chris Clemons, who is also familiar with the specifics of that job from his time in Seattle. Clemons had eight sacks last year in that role. While Clemons is a lighter, faster pass-rusher, the Jaguars brought in 305-pound Jared Odrick, the former Dolphin, to play defensive end and help hold the gaps. Davis has gotten his sacks playing the LEO position. Dan Skuta, another important, in his case from San Francisco, has taken over the OTTO position and been productive against both the run and the pass, with 14 tackles, one sack, one pass defensed, two tackles for loss and one forced fumble.
Photos of the Bucs Cheerleaders from Week 4 at Raymond James Stadium.
The more traditional 4-3 linebackers in Jacksonville's defense are ninth-year veteran Paul Posluszny, an absolute tackling machine, and second-year player Telvin Smith, a fifth-round draft pick out of Florida State in 2014. Those two are far and away the Jags' tackle leaders, with 39 for Posluszny and 38 for Smith, and Posluszny also has Jacksonville's only interception so far. Posluszny is one of only three players in the NFL with 12 sacks and 12 interceptions since 2007, but he suffered a high ankle sprain last Sunday and could be a question mark this week.
The Jaguars have another strong tackler in the secondary in safety Johnathan Cyprien, who has 122 stops since Week Four of last season, tied for the most in the NFL by a defensive back in that span. His running mate, free safety Sergio Brown, is yet another 2015 important (from Indianapolis) and he's quietly had a strong first quarter of the season. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the league's ninth-best safety so far and grades him particularly high against the run.
Continuing the theme, the Jaguars have a newcomer starting at cornerback, too – that would be Davon House, who was a part-time starter the previous three seasons in Green Bay. He partners with Aaron Colvin, a fourth-round draft pick in 2014, on a defense that ranks 26th with 278.5 passing yards allowed per game. Colvin reportedly aggravated a shoulder injury last Sunday, so the Jags may need to dip into a cornerback corps that includes Dwayne Gratz, a 13-game starter last year, and Demetrius McCray, who started 12 games in 2014. House leads the bunch with four passes defensed in 2015.
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday.
Given their strong run defense, which one would expect to lead to a greater number of long third downs, it's a bit surprising that Jacksonville has fielded the NFL's worst third-down defense so far this year. The Jaguars have allowed conversions on just over 50% of their foes' third downs, including a remarkable 42.9% on third downs of 10 or more yards. On the other hand, Jacksonville has mostly avoided giving up big plays, tying for third in rushing plays of 10 or more yards allowed and tying for fifth in passing plays of 20 or more yards allowed. That great run D has definitely shown up in the first down numbers, as Jacksonville leads the league in lowest percentage of first-down runs that gain four or more yards (27.6% as compared to the league average of 42.9%).
The Jaguars made the relatively unusual choice to spend a third-round draft pick on a punter in 2012, selecting Cal's Bryan Anger, and Anger has been a very busy man ever since. In the seasons since, Anger has led the NFL in both punts (304) and punting yards (14,205), which is obviously more of a statement about the Jaguars' offense than his own talents. However, Anger has also ranked seventh in the NFL in gross punting in that span (46.7), and he's easily the Jaguars' all-time leader in that category. This year, he's 22nd in that category, and also 22nd with a net average of 38.2. He has successfully dropped nine punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line through four games, however, against just one touchback.
Like the Buccaneers, the Jaguars started the season with an NFL newcomer at placekicker, though Jason Myers did play for two teams in the Arena League between finishing his collegiate career at Marist and signing with the Jaguars this past March. In the summer, Myers beat out incumbent veteran Josh Scobee for the job, and Scobee was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Photos of the Bucs Cheerleaders from Week 4 at Raymond James Stadium.
Myers is off to an adequate start in a small sample size, making seven of 10 field goals and five of six extra points. He has already blasted a successful 58-yard field goal, and two of his three misses are from 48 yards out or farther. He has been fairly strong on kickoffs, getting 11 touchbacks on 16 kicks, and he ranks third among all kickers so far with an average of 66.9 yards per kickoff.
The Jaguars have given their kickoff return job to undrafted rookie running back Corey Grant, who has had just five shots at runbacks so far but is averaging 25.4 yards per attempt. Rookie wide receiver Greene, one of Jameis Winston's favorite targets at Florida State last year, has handled the bulk of the punt return duties so far but, as mentioned, is now on short-term IR.