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International Series Game 8: Waiting For the Hurricane - the field factor in Sunday's game

The International Series games traditionally are scrappy affairs as a result of a Wembley turf not designed to give the same purchase as football fields - and with Sunday's impending hurricane-strength winds in the South-East of England, that might be more true this weekend than ever.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There are iconic moments in television history, clips that live not only in the collective consciousness of those who watched such moments live, but so too in the minds of subsequent generations, so strongly can they be woven into the cultural fabric of a society. In the minds of the British public, there is arguably no more infamous moment than that broadcast twenty-six years ago, when veteran weather reporter Michael Fish, on national television, laughed off a tip from "a woman that rung the BBC [who] said that she heard there was a hurricane on the way." Fish smiled at the camera and assured the British public that "if you're watching, don't worry - there isn't". A few short hours later, what would retrospectively be called the Great Storm of 1987 hit the shores of Britain, killing 18 and causing over a billion pounds of damage.

For those of you who aren't up to date with current climatological events pertaining to the British Isles: a hurricane that is predicted to be the most severe storm to hit Britain since 1987 is expected to hit the South-East of England this Sunday evening. The Meteorological Office cannot yet be certain when the storm will make landfall, but based on the Met Office's data, the more severe weather should begin to show its face between 7pm and 8pm.

Or, in NFL terms: right around halfway through the third quarter of this Sunday's International Series game at Wembley.

The other day, we reported on how the Jaguars were trying as best as possible to achieve normalcy during their London trip.

The Weather Channel's forecast for Sunday's weather in Jacksonville is 24 Celsius, sunny, with a light Northerly breeze and a 0% chance of rain. Playing a game in a hurricane-besieged London is not normalcy - and it's not escaped the notice of either team's coaching staff or players. While he says it's "no different than playing in the states", Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee admits that as "it's supposed to be rainy and windy on Sunday, [that's] something that we have to adjust to."

Easier said than done: most types of weather teams can adapt to easier, but for the star of the 'home' team, there's one element that can radically change a game plan: "the only bad weather game for is wind," said Maurice Jones-Drew on Thursday, "and that's when you have to run the ball. Everything else you can throw the ball if you want to." Whether it's snowy or raining, it doesn't make a difference for MJD, "we'll still be able to do what we want to do and that's be balanced: run the ball, throw the ball, play action pass, those type of things". But when it's windy, that balance goes out the window - and on paper, that hurts one team more than other.

The Jaguars have definitely put together some stretches of good play this season; 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis even claimed Thursday that "honestly, one of the things I'm question [after watching game film] is how are they still 0-7?". There has been a definite uptick in the team's offensive fortunes recently, with San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio identifying why the Jags were averaging 140 yards more per game over their last three contests than their first four: "[Henne]'s played well, I think the last few weeks they've moved the ball much better, and they're a much improved offense right now when you compare them to earlier in the season... and part of that's coincided with the return of Blackmon, too". All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith concurs, saying that the Jags have of late been using more "short and intermediate routes [to] take it out of the OL's hands, two- and three-step drops at the most.... more screens, more trap pass, more play action pass, things like that."

If the reason for Jacksonville's increasing offensive production is a result of an improving passing game, then the squall that threatens to reach speeds of up to 90 miles an hour on Sunday could be the worst possible scenario for a Jaguars team still searching for that elusive first win in front of a fan base to whom they will want to give a reason to come back in the next three seasons to engender some sort of home-field advantage at Wembley Stadium in the years to come. The reasons why are clear in the comments made Thursday by Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who said the San Francisco defense "work as one unit and you can really see it. They could stop the run with seven guys, they don't need to bring that eighth guy down [into the box]... their linebacking core is so solid, and up front, Justin Smith and McDonald, those two guys are so good at the point [of attack] that it's been a challenge for most teams to run the ball on them." Fisch admitted that, in view of the predicted weather, "we have to certainly have an idea how we're going to move the ball if it's a rainy, windy day... You'd probably like to run the ball well if you can, knowing that we're going up against a tremendous front seven and probably one of the best rushing defenses in the league." As far as the Jags' OC is concerned, "the weather is going to be a factor".

Yet, the man who Fisch will be trying to out-gameplan on Sunday seemed to almost brush off the weather as any kind of significant factor, with the only issue being what the Jaguars might do in response to weather, rather than the weather in and of itself. "The game might take on a different personality than it would be if the field was 'normal'; they may run a different type of offense, so we've got to adjust our defense and call it a little differently. But I don't think you adjust your whole game plan," said Fangio, clearly taking a much different view of the climatic factors than Fisch's. Fangio's offensive counterpart, Greg Roman, appears to be of much the same disposition, saying bluntly "we can't worry about the setting. We're going to try to always be averse to any circumstances, good, bad or whatnot... I don't think anything is really going to affect what happens on the field."

Of course, Roman probably has an easier task ahead of him. Even if the wind makes a passing game an unreliable option, he knows that he'll be facing a Jaguars defense that has already allowed 1000 rushing yards through their first seven games - and he has one of the league's better rushing attacks at his disposal, something Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley seemed more than aware of. "With Colin Kaepernick at the quarterback spot with his ability to attack the edges it's difficult," Bradley told the media Friday as the team prepared to depart the Pennyhill Park that had served as the team's base for the first part of the week, "...they have such a strong running game [and] we have to meet that challenge." That challenge - the powerful Frank Gore and the elusive Colin Kaepernick running the read-option behind arguably the best offensive line in football - is one that every unit on the defense must by necessity be involved with, from the front four (with Babin saying Thursday that although the 49ers have "toned [the read-option] down some... they still have it in their package and it's still a dangerous weapon for them"), to the rookie safety duo that man the back end of the Jaguars defense, with second rounder Johnathan Cyprien spending part of his Friday press conference detailing his responsibilities in the read option (revealing that there is no fixed responsibility between himself and fellow rook Josh Evans, but rather assignments for the dive man and the quarterback are determined by pre-snap alignments).

Still, it's not just about the weather above the players' heads that will could have a huge impact on Sunday's game - it's the ground beneath their feet. As the week wore on, the practice fields both at Pennyhill and at The Grove, where the 49ers were staying, grew increasingly boggy, the mud audibly squelching under foot during the drills the media were allowed to watch. Willis conceded that while the practice field was better than the last time the team stayed at The Grove, when they 'hosted' the Denver Broncos at Wembley in 2010, "I'd be lying if I said I was a big fan." He summed up the field conditions as "soggy and slippery", making special mention that it was the last thing he needed coming off a groin injury. The different field feel is something the Jags have noticed too, with Scobee telling the media "from what I understand, they keep the grass on soccer pitches very slick for passing and slide tackling". Bradley couldn't rule out that the slickness of the grass might affect Scobee's range, though saying he wouldn't know for sure until his kicker had the opportunity to practice kicking on the Wembley surface on Saturday.

There's another unit that might have a problem with the surface come game day, though. While the quality of the field has improved as the International Series has gone on, the Wembley pitch has often ended up churned up under the cleats of the football players, and with the expected heavy storm, the ground might be as soft and soggy as The Grove's field that by the week's end had gotten so bad, the 49ers had to relocate their Friday practice from the Hertfordshire-based hotel to the Greater London area at short notice, using Saracens rugby club's facilities instead for their end-of-week walkthroughs instead. With the ground potentially being a slippery, muddy mess, that means even less purchase on the surface for cleats of the offensive line that will become especially crucial to victory if the weather severely hampers the aerial game. This is a bigger issue for the Jaguars, as their starting tackles for Sunday's game began the season on the bench.

As linemen (which we are, hence, you know, the name of the website), we had been particularly impressed with Luke Joeckel's development here at TPL, and we were not the only ones. Legendary Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli has been in London all week to promote the International Series, and he spoke to TPL at Saturday's Fan Rally at Trafalgar Square about the second overall pick from the 2013 draft: "It's disappointing that he broke his leg because I think he's going to be one of the better young tackles in football... The quarter and a half I saw him on the left side, he was outstanding. He looked natural, he's very athletic, he moves outstandingly and I think as unfortunate as it was that he got hurt, I don't think it's an injury that will affect him long term... I think he's a guy that, if he can stay healthy, hell' be there for a long time playing left tackle."

Unfortunately, with Joeckel's injury, and with the team trading incumbent left tackle Eugene Monroe the week before Joeckel broke his leg, the Jaguars were forced to turn to back ups Cam Bradfield and Austin Pazstor at left and right tackle respectively. Boselli isn't too worried, though, saying that as they have "been in the room for a long time... they have a good relationship, they know how to communicate with the guys in there. I think both of them have fought hard. I think Austin Pasztor is a physical guy and does a good job at right tackle. Cam is a guy who's been around, what ever he's asked to do he shows up and play hard." Boselli did concede, however, that "you're gonna have to help those guys out a little bit with backs and sliding to them", but reaffirms that "they'll both show up. That's the one thing they both do - show up and play hard."

While it's encouraging to hear that Bradfield, who we spoke to at Tuesday's Play60 event, and Pasztro would play hard, it's never an encouraging sign when of the best to have played the position for the franchise believes the current crop of Jaguar tackles (at least until Joeckel comes back) needs help from other players, or a change to the blocking scheme to over come their issues, issues which the two do certainly have. Bradley spoke about the turnover at tackle on Thursday, saying that while "in some areas we've gotten a lot better... this week is a real big challenge for our tackles, and for our whole offensive line. [The 49ers] are stout up front, they're big, they're physical so the ability to get movement on them is going to be critical".

Pasztor agreed with his head coach's assessment of the San Francisco front seven when the guard-turn-tackle spoke with TPL on Friday: "it's a very good front seven, they're physical and play tough. They will present a challenge for the offensive line." Yet the challenge is exacerbated by that one element we keep coming back to - the weather, and particularly how the Wembley turf will react to the rain that will accompany Sunday's hurricane. Pasztor told us that he's hoping that a change of cleats will do enough to give him more purchase when attempting to drive-block the likes of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, he was up front with us about the dilemma that comes from playing on such a slippery surface. "You've got to be careful if you start adjusting", when asked about changing footwork to account for the mud, "adjusting your footwork can help you keep your balance, but you don't want to adjust your footwork too much because then you're not playing 'your' game." It's that part of the game that often slips under fans' radars, but something as simple as an offensive lineman trying to find the optimal compromise between the physical balance of adjust footwork, and the mental comfort from playing with your familiar techniques, can have a huge impact on the success of any given snap.

It's just another area where the 49ers have a distinct advantage - a healthy, veteran, elite offensive line will find that optimum trade-off much sooner after taking the field than a player like Pasztor, a second year lineman who went undrafted out of Virginia, is likely to be able to, if only from a dearth of experience if nothing else. If Sunday comes down to which offensive line is better, Boselli's analysis of the 49ers' line does not bode well for Jags fans: "They're very, very physical. They've done a great job of acquiring guys, young guys through the draft, they've hit on those. They're probably the best run-blocking team in football. They get after you from the first snap to the last and are a physical team, which I think is the only way you can play offensive line."

There are of course plenty of factors that will determine who will win Sunday's game between the 49ers and the Jaguars - but that Wembley field is one that can never be underestimated. If the severe weather hits earlier than expected, then the Jaguars offense that has unquestionably taken a step up since their passing game came back to life may be replaced by a run-heavy attack - and that power-run game is not an area where the Jaguars can realistically hope to out-perform the 49ers. The Jaguar's four home games in London may begin with figurative baptism by fire, played out underneath a literal baptism by hurricane.

Toby Durant contributed to this article

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