Patience has been at a premium for head coach Gus Bradley with Jaguars owner Shad Khan, and the former Seahawks defensive coordinator should count himself a lucky man, considering a 12-36 record in his first three seasons. But that pressure for better results figures to be ramped up this season with a bumper crop of talent on both sides of the ball for the University of Illinois-schooled owner who made his fortune supplying auto manufacturers with...yes, bumpers.
Last year, Jacksonville was hanging in there at 4-6 before dropping five of its last six contests. They proceeded to drop their first three this season before beating the Colts, which the Bears just lost to, two Sundays ago in London. But despite Bradley's expertise, it was the offense that showed significant growth a year ago, jumping from 31st overall in 2014 to 18th under the direction of former Bears quarterbacks coach (2003) Greg Olson.
After a carousel of nine starting quarterbacks in ten years, 2014 third overall pick Blake Bortles settled in in his sophomore season to throw for over 4,400 yards, and 35 touchdowns opposite 18 interceptions. That sparked the scoring offense to spike by eight points per game, and the aerial attack to leap from 31st to 10th. Through the first four games this season, though, Bortles has plateaued. While his completion percentage has risen slightly to 61.4, his quarterback rating has slipped by nine points, with seven TDs and six picks. While the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder out of Central Florida had a league-leading 72 completions of 20-plus yards a year ago, there have been just seven games in his career he hasn't turned the ball over (most recently against the Colts).
A huge reason for his success? The "Allen Brothers" (duh...not related) - Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Both are 6-foot-3. Both arrived, like Bortles, in 2014; Robinson a second-round pick out of Penn State, Hurns an undrafted free agent out of Miami (Fla). Last season, the two combined for 144 receptions for 2,431 yards and 24 touchdowns. Wow. Of Robinson's 80 catches, 31 went for 20 or more yards. So far, a quarter of the way through this season, each is at roughly the same pace as a year ago (Robinson: 21-238, 3 TDs; Hurns: 15-226, 1 TD), meaning the Bears' cornerbacks had better be ready Sunday on the lakefront. Overshadowed is the other wideout the Jags invested a 2014 second-round pick in, injury-probe Marquise Lee. Former Broncos tight end Julius Thomas got a rich deal two offseasons ago, but settled for 46 receptions last year, with 11 this so far this year, but he's never played a full season. He thinks he'll be ready for the Bears after sitting out the game in London with an elbow injury. The first-round pick from ten years ago, Marcedes Lewis, starts as well in two-tight end sets.
2015 second-rounder T.J. Yeldon had groin and foot injuries his rookie year (740 yards rushing, 36 receptions) and is averaging only 3.2 yards a carry in a rushing offense averaging just 55 yards a game until he gained 97 yards on 18 carries against Indianapolis. Amidst all the Jags' defensive free agent investments, they also signed Pro Bowler and last year's sixth-leading rusher, Chris Ivory, away from a Jets team that had its eyes on Matt Forte. But Ivory was hospitalized suddenly the morning of the season opener, and the reason has been kept under wraps. That sidelined him the first two games, and as he's tried to get back to full strength, he's carried just 20 times for only 43 yards.
That's behind a rather ordinary offensive line that invested 2014 and 2015 third-round picks on the interior (center Brandon Lindner and guard A.J. Cann). But 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel had been a disappointment, being moved from tackle to guard. And after not being offered a fifth-year tender, sustained a season-ending left knee injury in London involving two ligaments and a meniscus. Former Bear Patrick Omameh could slide into that position. The tackles are offseason free agent signees the last two years: Kelvin Beachum (Steelers) and Jeremy Parnell (Cowboys). As a unit, the line has allowed 61 and 51 sacks the last two years, respectively, with a dozen so far this season.
So far on third down, the Jaguars rank last in the league (28.3 percent).