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Will the Jaguars get back to running the football in the second half of the season?

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After essentially missing the first half of the season with a hamstring injury, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette returned to the practice field on Monday.

With their prized steed back in the stable, it’s now time for Nathaniel Hackett and the Jaguars to go back to their preseason mission statement of rushing the football.

The Jaguars abandoned the running game in the second half of a close battle against the Eagles in Week 8, and after the game, Marrone disclosed that he didn’t have confidence in the offensive line to run the football.

Why?

Aside from a season-ending injury to left tackle Cam Robinson, the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive line is the starting unit this front office projected for the 2018 season. Taking out his bad game against Dee Ford and the Chiefs, Jermey Parnell has quietly had a solid season, and Andrew Norwell and Brandon Linder are among the top two-paid players at their position. A.J. Cann is in a contract year and is probably playing his best football in four years as he looks to get paid in the offseason. Josh Walker has done the best he can replacing Robinson, but as a guard playing out of position, he should at least be able to run block fine.

One can argue that injuries to the tight end position are a contributor, but my rebuttal is if the run game hinged that much on a tight end who can run block, why did they release an affordable Marcedes Lewis in preseason?

The NextGen Stats suggest that the offensive line is actually run blocking fine.

As of October 22nd, the offensive line was in the top ten in rushing yards before contact and number eight in rush yards before first contact per rush, meaning that they were getting acceptable push off the line of scrimmage. The eyeball test matches those numbers, as T.J. Yeldon has averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per carry on only 81 attempts, which is better than Fournette’s 3.9 average in 2017. The analytics suggest they’re actually running the football better than they were last year. The only difference now is they’re choosing not to.

The Eagles boast the second-best run defense in the NFL, allowing an impressive 83.8 yards per game. While this is pretty dominant, they are actually middle of the pack in rushing yards allowed per carry (4.5). What this really tells you is that the Eagles’ reputation of having Fletcher Cox and Haloti Ngata in the interior is affecting game plans because teams are simply refusing to attempt to run the football on them.

This was obviously the case with the Jaguars, who elected to call 31 consecutive pass plays despite being in a close game with the Eagles.

Sometimes when I scout players, I think a picture tells a better story than an actual video clip of an entire rep. When reviewing the Eagles game, there is evidence that the offensive line was getting enough push off the snap on running plays that it should not have been egregiously abandoned. Look at these snapshots of the offensive line progression at the moment of the hand off:

Sure, it was Carlos Hyde’s first game and he may not have been totally comfortable with the offense. T.J. Yeldon, however, is. To not sprinkle in at least one run in a string of 31 consecutive pass plays is egregious tactical malpractice, and to rationalize this by blaming the offensive line is borderline lunacy. In the pictures above, the offensive line may not exactly be parting the red sea, but in no way have they been a liability to the point of missing assignments and not giving running plays a chance.

The lack of balance in the play calling makes this already inept offense one-dimensional and even easier to defend than it already is as it’s bereft of playmakers in the receiving corps. For a team to lean solely on their recently benched quarterback and receiving unit that is top three in the NFL in drop rate in a crucial moment during a close game is bizarre.

What’s next for the offense?

The Colts currently rank 15th in rushing yards per game (109.9) and are tied for 21st in yards per rush allowed with 4.1 so this is a good week for this offense to get back to it’s purported identity.

Fournette’s return may not be a magical elixir to fix the offense, but it should factor in to the play calling and at least make the offense more balanced for the remainder of the season. A re-commitment to the foundation this team was built on should keep the defense fresher and open up some play action looks and put Bortles under center, where he is statistically much sharper.

If they don’t break 100 rushing yards out of their running back this week, it will officially be time to start questioning Nathaniel Hackett’s viability as Jaguars offensive coordinator moving forward.