At this time last year, the Jaguars were sitting at 7-5 and in line for a Wild Card spot. Of course, that team dropped its last four games to finish the season 7-9 and miss the playoffs. Why is this year different? Here's four reasons for you.
Reason number one: The remaining schedule. The Jaguars remaining four games are against teams with a combined 22-26 record. Last year, the Jaguars opponents were the 6-6 Dolphins, the then 12-0 Colts, the Patriots at 7-5 and a tough Browns team who got four of their five wins in the last four weeks of the 2009 season. Even with the Browns terrible record, which is not indicative in the least bit of their performance during the last month of the season, our opponents had a 26-22 record. So, despite the illusion of difficulty, our closing month's schedule will actually be easier this year than it was last year.
Of course, schedule tells us very little about the difference in the team from last year to this year. What else is different? Keep reading to find out.Reason number 2: Offensive flexibility. David Garrard rededicated himself in the offseason and, though he is still gathering scrutiny from some, he has performed statistically better this year than in years past. Marcedes Lewis has become a Kyle Brady-like outlet for Garrard, and a reliable guy in third down and goal line situations. Having Lewis and Greg Jones up front also give the Jaguars a very strong power running game. The Jaguars have been able to spell Maurice Jones-Drew as well, using Rashad Jennings more and adding Deji Karim to the mix. The Jaguars like to run the ball, but now can be a threat through the air and on the ground, as indicated by a near 50-50 split in playcalling between run and pass. Through 12 games, that's not a coincidence, that is a conscious decision by Dirk Koetter to promote balance.
Reason number 3: Big "Big" difference. Another big statistical bump comes from the Jaguars defensive line. After an embarrassingly low 14 total sacks last year, Gene Smith went out and signed Aaron Kampman to a big deal, drafted Tyson Alualu in the first round, and later drafted Austin Lane and Larry Hart. He also picked up Jeremy Mincey as an Undrafted Free Agent. The Jaguars have now 21 sacks through 12 games, and have dramatically improved their overall line play. Alualu was not a reach at 10, he is a quality, high-motor player who has really stepped into his starting role with a gusto. He and Terrance Knighton will be a roadblocking pair into the future. Knighton has grown into his role as a "hold the line" defensive tackle, which brings me to my final reason why this year is different then last year...
Reason number 4: Last years Rookies, this year's Studs. The centerpiece of the new defensive line this year has been Terrance Knighton. He has four sacks, and has been an absolute monster in run stuffing. Eugene Monroe has another year under his belt, and has blanked big time pass rushers like Dwight Freeney, Demarcus Ware, and Mario Williams this season. He has also allowed Garrard to get more time to throw the ball to... Mike Thomas, the 2nd year receiver whose lack of height has done nothing to slow down his performance. M80 has played well this season despite recently drawing double teams in Mike Sims-Walker's absence. Derek Cox, after a rocky start to the season, has gotten into fine playing form, and Rashad Jennings has performed especially admirably for a 7th round pick, catching the ball very well, and rushing for a couple of touchdowns when he has been called on. Knighton, Cox, and Monroe are all solid starters, as was Eben Britten before going on the IR, and Zach Miller, Jennings, and Tiquan Underwood have been useful role players. The 2009 Draft was a real winner for this Jaguars team.
With all of these things going our way, it's hard not to be optimistic. The Jaguars have a one game lead on the Colts, and with two more wins, the Jaguars could have the division locked up in two weeks. The team even thinks that they are still gettting better. I tell ya, from 2009 to this year, a whole lot has changed. This team could make the playoffs. We really could.