The Jacksonville Jaguars offensive line has been a punching back of sorts among pundits, fans and the media for years now. Some of the criticism last season was deserved, some absolutely not - much is the way of an offensive line in the NFL -, the bad plays are magnified, while the good plays can oftentimes be ignored.
This week’s matchup against the Indianapolis Colts will be their first opportunity to prove critics wrong, and starting quarterback Gardner Minshew II feels they have come together this offseason, ready to roll.
“They absolutely have a chip on their shoulder,” Minshew told members of the media this week when asked about the team’s offensive line. “I think those guys, maybe more than anybody on the team, when something goes wrong, it hurts them. They don’t want to mess up because they know that’s putting somebody else in danger.”
Last season, the Jaguars offensive line began the season hampered due to injuries. Starting left tackle Cam Robinson was still recovering form a torn ACL the year prior, and there was a healthy competition at right guard with Will Richardson and A.J. Cann throughout the year. The team was also entering its first season with a new offensive line coach in George Warhop, a recipe for uncertainty.
On the year, the Jaguars gave up 42 sacks, Minshew was sacked 33 times, former Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles, eight. Heavy criticism was handed to the group as a whole, however, the team ranked 15th in sacks given up per game at 2.7, nearly middle of the pack.
Now, the team’s offensive line is completely healthy, no starter was listed on this week’s injury report, and the team did not have a significant injury throughout training camp. The communication among the group likely grew because of that, something Minshew has noticed.
“One of the biggest things I’m proud of is how they’ve come together. I think as a unit they’ve really grown, and they’ve grown closer. [Their] communication is really tight; it’s really good. I think they all have a lot of belief in each other that they’re going to be able to get the job done. I know everybody else on the team has that belief as well.”
Head coach Doug Marrone isn’t sure if the offensive line has a chip on their shoulder or not, but knows they’re ready to roll, making a big step from “year one to year two” of being under the same leadership in Warhop.
“ I think of where they were last year, the amount of criticism, some deserved, some not. And then, for me and the coaches, we felt, going in, that they were going to make a big step from year one to year two. So, everything that you’re saying, we’ve put a lot into. Now, they have to go out there and perform, and I feel very confident,” Marrone told the media this week via video conference.
“Whether we want to say they have a chip on their shoulder or not, I can’t speak for them. But I know what our expectation is for them to have—to really be the driving force, whether we’re running the football or we’re throwing the football and protecting our quarterbacks and making plays with great effort. So, we have a high expectation of their play.”
Against a Colts defensive front seven, the Jaguars will have to stay vigilant. This year, Indianapolis set out to bolster its defensive line, trading for dominant defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who is coming off of a great year, making AP second-team All-Pro. The heart of the Colts’ defense, linebacker Darius Leonard, was also a second-team All-Pro last season, making the Pro Bowl after accumulating 121 tackles and five interceptions.
New Jaguars offensive coordinator Jay Gruden understands the challenges the Colts present, but is confident due to the Jaguars’ offense line.
“We’re very optimistic going into the season. We know we have a lot of challenges,” Gruden told members of the media this week via video conference. “We have some youth playing, but really, I think the biggest reason for belief I have is the offensive line. I think the offensive line is very solid right now with the tackles that we have, the interior players, and obviously the center I feel good about.”
Gruden explained the Colts do not have a very complicated front, they sprinkle blitzes that are a “nuisance,” but primarily it’s due to the movement the defensive line uses, he said.
“We have to handle the movement,” says Gruden. “They stunt the three technique, they’ll stunt the backside defensive end, the frontside end. The linebackers do a great job of scraping. They’re fast and they can run so how we handle the movement will be if we have any success in the running game or not.”
In the passing game, it’s much of the same, stunts, movement, power. Gruden, however, remains sure of his offensive line, their ability to set the team up for success - they’ll need it.
“With an offensive line, it gives you the ability to do a lot of different things I think and hopefully it’ll give us a chance to get our skill players the ball in space and between the tackles and do some good things.”