International Series Game 8: Restoring the Roar Starts With Fixing Red Zone Woes

Mike Hewitt

The Jaguars are under no illusions as to the largest obstacle to winning this season, and they've not been shy about addressing their lack of offensive production with the London media.

This is the latest post from the folks at The Pulling Linemen. This piece comes courtesy of Toby Durant. All photos courtesy of Tim Wainwright

Thursday in Surrey saw the Jaguars players and coaches face the media with one thing on their lips. Finishing off drives and scoring touchdowns.

The Jaguars have scored just 6 offensive touchdowns this year and are the lowest scoring team in the NFL and everyone who follows the NFL is acutely aware of the Jacksonville Jaguars issues scoring points. And this week so are the Jaguars; almost single-mindedly. The message all week, from Brad Meester during Tuesday’s Play60 event to Thursday’s press conference, was about scoring touchdowns, particularly once they get into the red zone.

18 times this year the Jaguars have ventured into the oppositions red zone, which admittedly sound terrible but that’s still more, per game, than 7 other teams and a better per game rate than in 2012 (per teamrankings.com). However just 5 of those trips have been converted into touchdowns by Jacksonville, giving them the worst red zone TD percentage (27.78%) in the NFL by some margin. This week we’ve seen just how much that failure is eating at the players and coaches.

Offensive Co-ordinator Jedd Fisch

"In my mind we’ve probably missed 11 touchdown opportunities [...] whether that be a missed throw against Indy, whether it be a dropped pass against Indy, a dropped pass against St. Louis, a missed opportunity against St. Louis, a couple of drops, a couple of runs we didn’t hit the right way down there." - Jedd Fisch

That list shows just how much the failure’s of his offense to finish off drives with 7 points sticks in Fisch's mind. The players take it personally too it seems:

"We’re doing a good job in between the twenties but in the red zone it’s not doing our job of finishing, and that’s on us." – Cecil Shorts

"[Last week] We had a great week of practice but we just didn’t execute on the field ... We had multiple opportunities to score against [San Diego] but we just didn’t convert and make plays when we needed to." - Maurice Jones-Drew

So the question becomes how. They’ve identified the problem but how do they fix it? It’s all well and good to talk about "finishing" and needing to execute better but what can they do to change the horrible red zone TD percentage?

Head coach Gus Bradley spoke of one thing that should make finishing drives a lot easier, a healthy offense. He commented that it was the first time they've had all the receivers active for the same practice. After the way Cecil Shorts (shoulder) and Justin Blackmon (hamstring) struggled through last Sunday’s game the chance to have them healthy and on the field at the same time as Mercedes Lewis and Mike Brown gives the passing game a lot of options, which over the course of the year should provide some easier running lanes for Maurice Jones-Drew and others.

Head Coach Gus Bradley

The problem is getting the ball to those talented receivers and creating those lanes. Sure, Chad Henne has been playing pretty good, if inconsistent, football this year for the Jaguars while coming in and out from under centre along with Blaine Gabbert, but the red zone problems stem not from iffy quarterback play or injured receivers but the offensive line.

With the trade of Eugene Monroe and the injury to Luke Joeckel they’ve been having to play Cameron Bradfield at left tackle and Austin Pasztor at right tackle. Obscure names even for committed Line-o-philes like ourselves. Jedd Fisch said they’ve been having to get creative with their protections since the Rams game (their first without Monroe and the game in which Joeckel went down) in week 5. Maurice Jones-Drew talked about the time it takes for running back and O-Line to get on the same page, especially when you have to shuffle the line around as much as the Jags have had to. But in the red zone, where space and time disappears, where defenses fill the box and get more aggressive with their blitzes this offensive line, even when it had Monroe and Joeckel book-ending it, simply hasn't been good enough keeping defenders off of ball carriers. And this is far from the game to be weak up front.

The "visiting" San Francisco 49ers no longer boast the world-beating defense they rode to a playoff run in 2011, not since free agency and injuries took a toll on their defensive line depth and definitely not since Aldon Smith had to err, attend to other matters, but they’re still a fearsome unit that features game changers on every level:

Cameron Bradfield (#78) works on his footwork

"This week is a real big challenge for our tackles and for our whole offensive line. They’re stout up front, they’re big, they’re physical so the ability to get movement on them is going to be critical. They do a good job of setting the edges. [..] I know looking at today’s practice and how they’re going about it we’re taking the right steps to get ready for a game of that style." - Gus Bradley

That’s all well and good, but when Justin Smith gears up his bull rush and starts stunting, when NaVorro Bowman starts blitzing can they handle it? Can they get up to the second level consistently enough to get the ball into the red zone, let alone the end zone. Bradley talked about the improvements Pasztor has been making recently in attacking his weaknesses and really working on them, as well as the improved communication between the new starters and the old interior, but realistically this is an overmatched group who are going to need to play a stellar game to keep the 49ers out of the offensive backfield.

There was some effusive praise in many circles for Gus Bradley’s "David" tactics against Denver (being aggressive on 4th down, calling a fake-punt) and such strategies will probably be needed against a 49ers team that has got some of its mojo back since a tricky start to the season.

Brad Meester and Chad Henne

Bradley talked about Jacksonville having to "earn the fan base" here in the UK and all that starts with putting on a good show on Sunday, which itself demands scoring points to entice a budding NFL fan to jump onto the Jaguars as they begin their 4-year International Series adventure.

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