After Sunday’s game in Jacksonville, one of these two teams will be 4-2 and in sole possession of first place in their division. The other will fall back to just .500 after a hot start. It’s a crucial game for both teams’ playoff chances and projects as a scrappy, potentially low-scoring, game with the third lowest over/under of any game this weekend.
It’s not a must-win by any means for the Rams but it’s a great opportunity to pick up a road win in one of just four non-NFC games this season. Here’s what the Rams can expect on both sides of the ball.
The 2017 Jaguars are about as old fashioned of an offense as you’ll find in today’s NFL. They want to punch it up the gut and wear you down. Their goal is to throw the ball as little as possible and rely on breakout rookie Leonard Fournette to keep the chains moving and chew up clock. Fournette has been very impressive and has gotten even better as the season has gone on, looking like a man possessed at times during last week’s upset win over the Steelers.
Fournette is a huge, punishing runner who can accelerate much faster than most big-bodied backs can. He’s excelled behind an offensive line that has been mediocre, but better than expected. Coming into the season, many saw the offensive line as the main glaring weakness on the team, other than quarterback. They’ve been middle of the pack, rated the #18 offensive line by Pro Football Focus, which is good enough considering the expectations were so low. Their best offensive lineman, center Brandon Linder, looks likely to miss the game which would be a huge boost to Aaron Donald and the Rams interior defensive line.
The Rams have struggled against the run at times, but not since week one’s blowout victory over the Colts have they faced a quarterback they don’t have to worry at all about stopping. In games where they struggled against the run they had at least some threat of a passing attack to worry about, which really isn’t the case with Blake Bortles. They can focus entirely on stopping the run, so expect to see a ton of stacked boxes to slow down Fournette.
The Jaguars have virtually no passing game to speak of, and formulate game-plans designed to hide Bortles rather than feature him. During the unlikely victory against Pittsburgh last week, Bortles threw the ball just 14 times, and only once in the second half. If the Rams can bottle up Fournette early and force Bortles to throw the ball around 30 times, they should be in very good shape.
The only other injury on offense to keep an eye on is Fournette, who’s been banged up with minor ankle and shoulder injuries. He’s definitely going to play, but if he’s anything less than 100% it’s obviously great news for the Rams.
An under the radar intriguing storyline is the presence of quarterback Brandon Allen, who the Rams claimed off waivers from the Jaguars at final cuts. Allen spent the 2016 season and 2017 offseason in Jacksonville after being drafted in the sixth round out of Arkansas. Allen was rumored by some Jaguars beat writers to have a shot at winning the starting job this preseason after the initial struggles of Bortles and backup Chad Henne. Ultimately he was waived, but has a deep knowledge of the Jaguars offensive scheme. Allen’s knowledge should be able to provide some valuable information to Wade Phillips and the defense.
The best part of this Jaguars team has been their electric defense, led by a young and dominant secondary. This Jaguars defense had Ben Roethlisberger looking lost and erratic last week, on his way to five interceptions, including two pick-sixes.
The Jaguars made a splash in free agency this past offseason, making several big acquisitions in March. They added cornerback A.J. Bouye from the Texans, safety Barry Church from the Cowboys, and defensive end Calais Campbell from the Cardinals, all on expensive multi-year deals. The Jaguars front office, led by ex-Giants coach Tom Coughlin, is in total win-now mode and paid heavily to reinforce the defense.
The Jaguars defense now has playmakers at all three levels of the defense. Budding superstar Jalen Ramsey and Bouye in the secondary, Campbell on the defensive line, and heart and soul of the defense Paul Posluszny and Myles Jack at linebacker.
There’s an interesting dichotomy on the Jaguars defense in that they’re one of the top pass defenses in the league, while also being one of the worst run defenses in the league. They’re currently first in the NFL by a large margin in passer rating allowed to opposing quarterbacks, limiting them to just a 56.9 rating (the next lowest is 66.1). But they’re also currently last in the NFL in yards per carry allowed, giving up an eye-popping 5.4 yards per rush attempt.
Given this split, expect Sean McVay’s game-plan to feature a heavy dose of Todd Gurley and as few throws as possible for Jared Goff. When Goff does throw, expect it to be a lot of short, quick throws and nothing much down the field. Knowing this, Cooper Kupp could be in for a nice day catching balls out of the slot.
Overall it’s a stacked defense, and the second straight very tough unit the Rams will face after initially facing a very easy slate of defenses. If they can get the ground game going early and avoid asking Goff to do too much, they should be able to fare better than they did last week, when they put up just 10 points on Seattle.
The game against the Jaguars is a tough, but certainly not un-winnable, matchup. The game will likely come down to who can win in the trenches, as both teams will be looking to establish the run and win the game on the ground. Given that Donald is finally back in football shape and at 100%, and the likely absence of Linder, the Rams may have an advantage on the line on defense. It will be up to Gurley to keep things moving against a defense that will surely be selling out to stop him. If he can, and if the Rams can force Bortles to throw, they should have a very good chance at getting a fourth win.