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Friday, December 17, 2004

Game Preview: Jaguars (7-6) @ Packers (8-5)

by Thomas Pyc
PackerChatters Staff

It has been 10 years since the Jacksonville Jaguars’ franchise became a part of the National Football League. In those ten years they have never visited Lambeau Field. Packer fans could not think of a better time for a Florida-based team to visit the friendly confines of Lambeau than mid-December. With Brett Favre’s 38-1 record during games when the temperature at kickoff is below 34 (20 degrees with snow is the current forecast) and Mike Sherman’s 18-3 (.857) record after December 1st (best in the league since 2000) statisticians would not suggest that the Jaguars even make the trek. Fortunately for football fans, that will not happen and those who pay attention to the NFL know this game will be anything but an easy victory for the Packers.

Packers’ kicker, Ryan Longwell, is coming off his third game-winning kick in the past five weeks but close games have been the Jaguars specialty this season. Eight of the Jaguars' thirteen games have been decided by seven points or less, six of those matchups were victories. The Jaguars have lost three of their last four games but remain a very talented opponent for the Packers.

The Jaguars’ Offense vs. The Packers’ Defense

Two names that seem to be annual members of the Jaguars’ roster are those of running back Fred Taylor and wide receiver Jimmy Smith and for good reason. Both are solid football players and have eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in rushing (Taylor – 1,059) and receiving (Smith – 1, 0 46) this season. Jags’ quarterback Byron Leftwich has been turning heads in his second season and for good reason. Leftwich’s development has the Jags’ organization very excited and he is showing all the signs of being a good quarterback for years to come. From time to time, Leftwich will make a bad read and throw an interception but growing pains are common for young QBs throughout the league, well, that is unless you follow the Steelers. The men on the Jags’ front line are mediocre as a whole. Both tackle positions haven proven to be susceptible to speed rushers this year. The center and guard positions are the strength of the unit. The Jags’ offense as a whole is not a scoring juggernaut, which is shown in their 28th ranking in scoring (16.9 point per game) and their 31st ranking in red-zone efficiency.

Last week the Packers’ defense got some help from the winter elements at Lambeau field. The 20 to 30 mph wind gusts made the Lions’ game plan one dimensional due to a weak-armed passing attack which allowed the Packers to focus on the run. This week Al Harris and company will not have such a luxury, Byron Leftwich’s arm is far from weak. Harris will most likely be matched up against Pro Bowler Jimmy Smith. Fortunately for Packer fans, Al has been successfully containing Pro Bowl receivers all year. The bigger problem for the Packers could be Leftwich’s mobility and Taylor’s ability. The Packers front seven is not as strong without weakside linebacker Na’il Diggs. Diggs had not practiced as of Wednesday due to a bruised kidney but is listed as probable on the injury report. With a short week after the Jaguar game and a matchup with the Vikings that will decide the division it would not be too far fetched to see Diggs on the sidelines this Sunday. Either way, Nick Barnett must play another emotional game in order to help keep Taylor in check.

The Jaguars’ Defense vs. The Packers’ Offense

The defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars is extremely tough all the way up the middle. It starts with the enormous defensive tackles Marcus Stroud (6-5, 312) and John Henderson (6-7, 328). Both are young, strong, fast for their position and love to wreak havoc. Benefiting the most from their presence is middle linebacker Mike Peterson who is flowing to the ball and delivering solid hits. Rounding out the center and strength of this defensive unit is the safeties. Strong safety Donovan Darius and free safety Deon Grant are both phenomenal athletes and help make the Cover 2 scheme click. These five players make up the heart and soul and are most responsible for its success (7th in points, 9th in yards). Unfortunately for Jags’ fans, that is where the Pro Bowl caliber players stop. Arguably the outside linebackers might be playing above average but both defensive end positions and cornerback spots are suspect. At end the Jaguars are playing a 7th round draft pick (Bobby McCray) and have converted linebacker Greg Favors on the other side. The cornerback spots also have a young to old theme on either side as well, second year man Rashean Mathis and longtime Steeler Dewayne Washington fit well into the Cover 2 scheme because both play zone better than man.

Brett Favre’s problem with good Cover 2 schemes in the past has been noted. The biggest difference for him nowadays is the rise in the talent level surrounding him. In order to dissect a good Cover 2 scheme you need one of two things 1) a tightened that can stretch the middle of the field and allow for other receivers to get open or 2) patience to take what the scheme gives you and work down the field. But Bubba Franks has not shown a consistent ability to stretch the field and being a gunslinger on the football field does not necessarily come with patience. One good sign for the Packers is the lack of a running back’s name on the injury report. Nick Luchey, Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport all appear to be ready to go for the stretch run. The power running formation (a.k.a. U-71) that the Packers like to utilize might not be seen as often now that their third tackle, Kevin Barry, is injured but there is still plenty of beef in the backfield. The receiving corps are also producing enough to keep the defenses from overplaying the run even when the wind picks up at Lambeau.

Key Matchups

Packers’ secondary vs. Jags’ receivers – Every offensive playcaller that the Packers face from here on out is going to try to go after the Packer secondary and understandably so. The safety positions in particular need to play well all game long in order for the Packers to win.

Favre vs. the Cover 2 – Brett has to take what the defense is giving him. If the safeties start to come up to stop the run then he can work on getting the big play otherwise the offense is going to have to win with nickel and dime gains.

Rookie center Scott Wells vs. the Jags’ mammoth tackles – Scott Wells will probably never be more appreciative of the leverage lessons that he learned grappling all the way to the Tennessee state championship. He’s going to need leverage and some good support from the rest of the Packer offensive line.

Bottom Line

All indicators are pointing towards a close game and we should not expect anything less from these two clubs. The outcome of this game should rely on Favre’s patience and Jacksonville adjustment to the elements. If the Packers can successfully expose the Jags’ weaknesses on the edges (defensive ends and cornerbacks) then they should be able to lock up a playoff berth by 7pm Sunday.

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