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International Series 2014: Becoming 'London's Team'

The Jacksonville Jaguars have arrived in the UK for the second of four home games they will be playing at Wembley Stadium - a deal which is seeing them taking on the mantle of 'London's team'

Charlie Crowhurst

It doesn't mean they're relocating. It doesn't mean they'll continue to play a home game in the UK beyond 2016. But for some reason, the Jacksonville Jaguars have a new label:

"London's team".

The Grove, one of the premier hotels in the UK located just outside north-west London, has hosted many of the teams participating in the International Series over the years; but for the first time, it wasn't just the hotel staff who greeted the Jaguars when their bus pulled in from London Gatwick airport on Monday.

Waiting just around the corner were around 50 members of the "Union Jax", the official UK fan club of the Jaguars. Monday was meant to be an 'open practice', but with the typical British late-autumn weather of rain, cold and miserable grey, the fans lined up alongside the practice field at the hotel to watch the entire roster go through some stretches. Rather than proceed with a practice, though, the team formed up a line of their own, with every player then proceeding along the length of the field to shake hands and share some words with each and every Jaguars fan present.

It's certainly a nice touch, and will have meant a lot to a lot of the Jaguars faithful who were lucky enough to be selected; after shaking the last players' hands (for those wondering, it was Blake Bortles who brought up the rear), Gus Bradley then led the fans through his "we believe in victory" chant. The fans were then led away from the field, but each got a gift bag as they departed - which included a car sticker proudly proclaiming: "Jacksonville Jaguars - Jacksonville since 1995, London since 2013".

So are the Jaguars now London's team?

"I would hope so", Cecil Shorts told me at the open practice yesterday, "we would love to represent London when we play over here. We love it every time we come out to play over here, the fans are so generous and so nice, the people are so kind over here, we definitely enjoy playing over here, so we hope the fans would treat us that way."

Rookie center Luke Bowanko said that seeing the fans assembling on a work day in the cold and rain "means a lot - It's nice to have that support," he told me at the Jaguars' community day with a school from nearby Watford today, "especially after the long trip, it's nice to see someone's out here waiting to see us."

Gus Bradley noted yesterday that having those 50 fans on the sideline during their stretches created "an unbelievable atmosphere. We have over 35,000 Union Jax fans to go along on this journey with us along with our fans back home... to start off the week like this is great."

As enthusiastically as Gus Bradley brought up that membership figure of 35,000, it's worth noting that there's a little bit of statistical massaging occurring here; NFL UK run several competitions throughout the year to fly to the States to watch Jags games at Everbank, and of course, being a member of the Union Jax is a prerequisite - even though it's a prize that would appeal to most NFL fans, regardless of whether or not they're specifically Jaguars fans. Speaking with those in attendance at the open practice, some of those fans weren't even Jaguars supporters; one fan even turned up dressed head-to-toe in Bears gear, until she was taken away by some Jags staffers, reappearing five minutes later in a Paul Posluszny jersey.

Yet Bradley pointed to other markers of the team's growing popularity in the UK: "They truly follow us, when we're talking with them they say [about the Bengals game] about how we came back, and how close it was. I don't know if I received those types of questions or encouragements last year as much, so definitely the fanbase has a greater knowledge of what's taking place".

And does Gus Bradley believe the Jaguars are becoming 'London's team'?

"It sure feels that way. I know just seeing the jerseys that people are wearing, the hats, and I know just overall, the Jags wear [sales] have gone up... I know we have conversations throughout the year with reporters and media over here, and you really get that sense that they really are working to buy in to what the we're promoting and what we're bringing over here."

Of course, Gus Bradley is actually now part of the 'media over here' - he has written (or at least put his name to) two columns this year in the 'Metro', a free newspaper given away in various parts of the country, particularly London. The team are putting on greater efforts than last year to woo the British public - where they only took a handful of players to their 'community day' last year (most of whom were backups), the Jaguars brought twenty of their players to today's community event. In a nice break from tradition at the usual Play60 events that International Series teams put on in the UK, it was the Jags' players and cheerleaders who formed a tunnel for the schoolkids to run through. Compared with last year, it seems that the organisation are making a more concerted effort to become 'London's team'.

The best way to do so, of course, is to win on Sunday.

The Cowboys present various challenges for the Jaguars, and it begins with the player most responsible for Dallas's 6-3 record - running back DeMarco Murray. "He definitely has speed, he's surprisingly strong, he'll run through a guy, around a guy, he can do everything" defensive tackle Roy Miller said of Murray, "you've got to have a tackle plan when you go against this guy."

Of course, the Jaguars' run defense showed its weaknesses against the Bengals last Sunday. Miller explained that the run defense's poor showing was a result of "guys being out of their gaps, one guy here, one guy there, definitely some missed tackles. We've got to key those things up and get them fixed this week, because this guy Murray, he'll make you miss, he'll do all the things that Cincy did and more."

Up front, Miller acknowledges that "you've definitely got to be physical against this offensive line" - something that shouldn't be an issue for a unit that currently has the third-most sacks in the NFL. Miller says the unit has been bolstered by the addition of Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, coming off championship-winning seasons with the Seahawks, particularly praising "the leadership they bring, the experience - it's priceless. Those guys bring something to the table that, when they talk, you listen."

Yet, for all that the Jaguars have been able to bring heat on the quarterback this season, their defensive backs have not been able to capitalise on the opportunities their D-line have generated. Miller is quick to defend his teammates: "they've got a bunch of guys hurt, they've got a bunch of young guys, we know that's a challenge but up front we want to take that challenge on us. We feel like if [opponents] are throwing touchdowns, then we need to get there a little quicker - we're taking it upon ourselves more than anything to step up."

While the defensive line may be performing well, the Jacksonville offensive line is struggling, giving up more sacks than any other team in the league. When I asked Bowanko about how the OL can turn things around, he replied that "we need to stick to what we do - if we just stick to the run game, that'll help slow down the pass rush. Then we just work on our fundamentals, work on what we need to work on, and not worry about other things."

Cecil Shorts says that the high numbers of sacks conceded this season - 35 so far - isn't just on the shoulders of the O-line. "When a quarterback gets sacked, we believe that's on everybody on offense - the receivers, the running backs as well as the offensive line. As a group we've got to get better, we're not going to sit here and blame one person or one thing, as a group we've got to tighten up, run better routes, make sure we get the right depth - it can be anything that leads to a sack."

With the 30th-ranked scoring offense, they will indeed need to tighten up for this game on Sunday - the British may love an underdog, but winning is the best way to cement the Jaguars' position as "London's team".