While the team faced a tough New York Giants squad in the opener last Friday, tonight's match up may prove to be even more of a challenge as the Saints offense is perhaps the most potent in the entire league. Tonight's game will also be the first time the fans in New Orleans will get a chance to see their team play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, so there will no doubt be a raucous atmosphere for the Jaguars to deal with.
The starters for both sides will likely play a half, possibly more for the Saints since this is pre-season game #3 for them, and the storylines on both sides should provide for some interesting aspects for fans to keep an eye on. Here are three things to watch this evening, for both the Jags and the Saints.
For The Jaguars:
1. Battlefield Turf
This will mark the first road game experience for the team under the Mike Mularkey regime, and it'll be interesting to see if there are any changes, big or small, to how the team conducts itself on the road from how things were done under Jack Del Rio. The Jaguars under the prior staff were somewhat of a bi-polar entity when it came to their road performances, and to be successful in this league, consistency away from home is vital. Even though it's pre-season, a road victory would be an even bigger step in the right direction for this team, than the team's win last week at home. Tonight should also be a good starting point to gauge how some of the younger players new to the team react in their first time away from the friendly confines of EverBank Field, as the Superdome can be quite loud, especially if the Saints get out to an early lead.
2. Batten Down the Hatches
We touched on this in last week's "Three", and unfortunately it appears it may be a consistent theme going forward, that being the game of musical chairs taking place among the starting offensive line. For the most part, the starting five did a pretty decent job of keeping Blaine Gabbert afloat against a very good Giants pass rush. However, he still took more hits than you'd like to see your starting quarterback take in the pre-season opener, including a hit to the face on the first offensive play from Justin Tuck, and two big shots from the defensive tackles up the middle, one of which resulted in a Gabbert turnover. It appeared it would be a better week for the starting front, with news that guard Will Rackley should be back in the fold next week, until injuries again began to assault the line with Eben Britton being hit with back spasms and Eugene Monroe suffering a blow to the head early in practice on Wednesday. While Britton returned to practice on Wednesday seemingly unaffected, it's likely Monroe will be held out of the game tonight as a precaution. Monroe sitting out means Cam Bradfield will likely move to left tackle, from his spot at the opposite tackle position, and second year player Daniel Baldridge will take over for Bradfield at right tackle. Baldridge has never started a game in his short NFL career, and the Saints defensive front isn't exactly the most opportune opponent you'd like to have him go up against, especially with the team still trying to establish a consistent passing presence with Gabbert and the revamped receiver group. Though Will Smith, Turk McBride and Cam Jordan aren't Tuck, Umeniyora, or Pierre-Paul, they still are good at getting to the quarterback, so the young tackles will have to once again be on point if they are to keep Gabbert upright. Also, keep an eye out for defensive tackle-turned offensive guard Drew Nowak, who has been wowing the coaching staff with his seamless transition to the other side of the line so far in camp.
3. Turning "Rushmen" Into "Sackmen"
While the starting defensive line did some good things in getting pressure on Eli Manning last week, outside of a blitz from corner Aaron Ross there was very little in the way of knocking down the quaterback, which led to way more time to operate for Manning than Mel Tucker would undoubtedly like to see from his defense. The Jaguars showed some different looks with the starters last week, including moving Jeremy Mincey inside and bringing in Aaron Morgan on third downs to try and generate a rush with rookie Andre Branch, but for the most part the results were minimal. That has to change if the Jaguars defense is to ascend to the level most think they can. Branch will face a tough test tonight, going up against Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod. It's a difficult task to bring down Brees, but a good night from the rookie, along with another strong showing from Mincey (who was dominant vs. the Giants), and contributions from the likes of Morgan and the defensive tackles, would be a very big positive to take into next week, regardless of the score. I'll also be watching the performances of George Selvie and Ryan Davis, who each flashed a few times vs. the Giants last week.
For the Saints:
1. Running A Muck
To put it simply, the Saints are loaded at the running back position. Besides the commonly known entities Darren Sproles and former Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram, New Orleans also showcases two backs who could likely start for a handful of other teams in the league right now, in Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. It remains to be seen how the team will use each back tonight, though each has played a good amount over the Saints' last two pre-season games. The cadre of backs should be a great test for each wave of linemen and linebackers the Jags bring in throughout the game. Jacksonville allowed the Giants to run on them a little bit, particularly with the backups in, so you can bet the team will be looking forward to try and make a statement against a running attack as good as New Orleans. Rookie Travaris Cadet is also one to watch, as he's been making a bit of a name for himself in camp and the pre-season.
2. Men in the Middle
If the Jaguars had a shining point on the offensive line last week, it was the play of the interior guys. They'll get a bigger challenge this week, with Sedrick Ellis, Broderick Bunkley, and camp sensation Akiem Hicks. There has been a particular buzz this pre-season about Hicks, the Saints third round pick in April's draft. Though he hasn't shown up a lot on the stat sheet, he has been a disruptive presence so far up the middle, particularly last week against New England. Also shining in camp for New Orleans, has been new middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, recently of the Atlanta Falcons. Lofton has stepped in for currently suspended Jonathan Vilma and has done nothing but lead most to believe that Vilma may not have a job should he be reinstated to the team this season. The Jaguars interior three will have their hands full in this one.
3. Kicking and Screaming
The Saints are among the few teams this pre-season that find themselves dealing with a strong competition at the kicker spot. Garrett Hartley and John Kasay, yes that John Kasay, have been going at it throughout camp the team's first two pre-season games. The team has rotated kickers for every place kicking opportunity in it's first two games thus far, and that plan is likely to continue in tonight's match up. Kasay has somewhat struggled in his four opportunities, going 2/4 with one of his kicks blocked. Hartley has converted on the one attempt he's been out for. Both will be trying to separate from the other tonight, and try to lock up the competition before the Saints head into their fourth pre-season game, with the first set of cuts on the horizon.