The Jaguars play ther third pre-season game of 2012 tonight on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, as they visit the Baltimore Ravens.
While the storyline will be how the starters look as a whole in what will be their longest, and likely final, game before the team takes on the Minnesota Vikings on September 9th, particularly the offense who has been nothing short of spectacular this pre-season, there are plenty of individual interests to keep an eye on as the game progresses tonight.
So with that said, here are three things to watch for during tonight's Jaguars-Ravens match up.
For the Jaguars:
1. Rushing to Conclusions
After a tremendous training camp and two consecutive solid performances against the Giants and Saints respectively, one of the big questions facing the Jaguars coaching staff this week, is how long to play running back Rashad Jennings? The team has seen it's leverage in the Maurice Jones-Drew stand off skyrocket so far, both from an on-field view and in fan/media circles, mostly in part to Jennings fantastic start to the 2012 season. All that high ground can be lost in just the twist of a knee, roll of an ankle, or unnecessary shot to the body. So the team needs to be careful just how long they leave him vulnerable to a tenacious Ravens defense. Veteran Montell Owens has been surprisingly effective running with the first and second teams so far, and the team would no doubt still like to see what they have with guys like Jalen Parmalee (who has been a pre-season disappointment after a great camp), Richard Murphy, and DuJuan Harris, both of whom have flashed at times. If it were up to me, I'd sit him completely, but I don't see the team doing that, so it'll be interesting to see how much of the work load they put on Jennings legs.
2. Henne, Are You OK?...Are You OK? Are You OK, Henne?
When the Jaguars brought in quarterback Chad Henne this off-season, it was speculated by some to be a challenge for Blaine Gabbert, and understood by most to be to provide a serviceable back up should something happen, injury or performance wise, to allow the team to remain competitive. So far though, Henne has been neither a challenge to Gabbert, nor has shown that he can be a serviceable backup that can hold things together should something happen with Blaine. While Henne has looked horrid, third teamer Jordan Palmer has orchestrated two "come from behind" drives that resulted in winning touchdown throws, while looking far more consistent albeit against guys who likely won't be on an active NFL roster this season. Mike Mularkey stated this week that Henne will remain the back up, despite Palmer's play and Henne's lack there of. Nothing is ever set in stone in the pre-season, as Jags fans are well aware of, so this battle for the #2 spot will likely continue on tonight and into next week's pre-season finale'.
3. Branching Out
The emergence of second round pick Andre Branch at the left defensive end spot, has been the most encouraging story coming out of this pre-season, outside of Gabbert's improvement. Branch was both physical and athletic in last week's game agains the Saints and was credited with half a sack as well as a few tackles, including one that should've been ruled as a forced fumble on a 3rd down play early in the game. The Ravens offer serviceable tackles on their offensive line, in vets Bryant "Mount" McKinnie and Michael Oher, he of the horrible football movie fame. Branch will likely spend most of his night lined up against McKinnie who, while not the player he once was, should be another good test for the rookie, who more than held his own last week against Jermon Bushrod.
For the Ravens:
1. The Defense Rests
Notorious for their vicious defense, particularly against the pass, the Ravens come into tonight's game with questions arising over their defense of the air attack, especially when it comes to getting the opposing quarterback. All-Pro linebacker Terrell Suggs is on the mend for awhile, still recovering from an achilles tendon injury suffered late in the off-season, and his loss has been visible the last two pre-season games. Through two games, the Ravens have a total of two sacks and are ranked, (for the preseason so take it with a grain of salt), dead last in the league in total defense. The defense is fighting through a combination of injuries, young players learning new roles, and veterans playing sparingly, along with having to have faced Ryan/Julio Jones and Stafford/Megatron in their first two weeks. It will be interesting to see if things turn around for them tonight, with the starters playing a large portion of the game, and an actual game plan being installed for this week. The Jaguars offense, while much improved, isn't yet the Lions or even Falcons caliber, so I'm sure they're excited to face a less "high octane" offense for the final dress rehearsal.
2. The Lonely Island
Speaking of defense, Baltimore's Lardarius Webb has elevated himself among the elite cover corners in the NFL. In the first two preseason games for the Ravens, teams literally stayed away from his side of the field. Webb hasn't necessarily lined up against the team's top receiver, as offenses have been trying to align their top guys on the less experienced/talented Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams. Since there will actually be game planning by both teams tonight, look for the Jaguars to try their best to keep Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon away from Webb's side of the field, likely using a lot of the motion plays we've seen so far from the Jaguars offense.
3. Wild Turkey
Baltimore is more than set at the quarterback, with Joe Flacco. However, his back up and former Virginia Tech star, Tyrod Taylor has given the Ravens their own weapon to use as a "Wild Cat" option in their offense. In his last two games, Taylor has thrown for limited positive results, but ran for 51 yds on 5 carries vs. Atlanta and 60 yards on 7 attempts last week against Detroit. How likely the Ravens are to use Taylor with the first team on option-type plays, remains to be seen, but he is going to have to be accounted for by the Jaguars at all times, both passing and running, whenever he does enter the game.