‘London calling to the faraway towns, now war is declared and battle come down’
This Sunday welcomes the 19th regular season game to be played at Wembley Stadium, North London. The designated home team, Jacksonville (1-1), are well accustomed to the transatlantic trip, having played 4 times at the home of English soccer (2-2 record). Their opponents on Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens (2-0), are new to the International Series, and the 25th franchise to travel across the pond.
My adopted home city has embraced football like none thought it could. There is yet to be a game between two teams with subsequent winning records but in spite of this, every single matchup sells out without fail. Having been working in the centre of London this week, I’ve been mightily impressed by the amount of purple I’ve seen in and around the sights (and the pubs). It seems that quite the contingent have travelled from Baltimore.
Below are some keys to the game and a confident prediction.
The loss of Yanda could be fatal
Marshal Yanda, the last bastion of all-pro quality along the Ravens’ offensive front, is out for the season. Oft considered the best lineman in Football, Yanda has reached the pro-bowl for 6 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak for a guard. Tony Bergstrom replaces Yanda, though in his own words this week, “there’s no replacing Marshal”. Bergstrom has only been a Raven for a month, so it could be back to basics for protection schemes. However well Bergstrom plays, for once it’s crystal clear that there’s a discernible drop-off in quality from starter to fill-in, and Jacksonville should feel bullish about their chances to disrupt the Ravens’ run game and unsettle Joe Flacco.
Something has to give on the ground
Rookie running back Leonard Fournette has rushed 40 times for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns through 2 weeks. The Ravens have allowed just 85 yards per game on the ground. Not quite an unstoppable force against an unmovable object, but the matchup between the LSU product and Ravens’ tackles Michael Pierce and Carl Davis (in the potential absence of Brandon Williams) is an intriguing one.
Jacksonville will lean heavily on Fournette not only because he has quickly proven himself as NFL calibre, but because the alternative is to place a dangerous amount of trust in their fraught quarterback, Blake Bortles. And this Baltimore defense, perhaps the best in the AFC, is not just seriously stout, but is taking the ball away from opponents with effortless glee. Indeed, the unit has as many takeaways through two games (10) as points allowed.
The Blake Bortles problem
The Jags do have a young, hungry, developing defense (see week 1 and 10 sacks against Houston) but it’s genuinely hard to pick them to win any game this year with Blake Bortles as signal caller. Last season Bortles confessed, somewhat unbelievably, to “not being a natural thrower of the football”. Hyperbole of course, and a throwaway comment perhaps, but even without context it’s eyebrow raising. Have you ever before heard such an admission from an NFL quarterback? Things haven’t got much better this season. Through two weeks he has completed just 56.4% of passes, ahead of only five other starters. On Monday, a day after a lacklustre offensive performance in the divisional defeat to Tennessee, the Jags signed Ryan Nassib. Nassib is well acquainted with head coach Doug Marrone having played under him at Syracuse. He’s also a favourite of Jags’ executive VP of Football operations and ex-Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. The sword of Damocles hangs over Blake Bortles and perhaps the smart money is on Nassib getting some playing time before long.
A big test for a young Jacksonville defense
With Blake Bortles at quarterback, the Jaguars will likely rely on their defense to keep the score low and keep their offense in decent field position. Last week the Ravens tight ends shredded Cleveland’s linebackers and Flacco will likely look to Benjamin Watson, Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams. Myles Jack and Tevin Smith are able to cover and run with tight ends so it will be interesting to see whether Baltimore returns to this tactic again or looks to see if they can exploit any match ups on the outside.
Finding an open receiver whether its Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace or Breshad Perriman will likely be difficult as CB duo Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye are both shut down corners who are aggressive at the line and sticky in coverage. Look for Flacco to test Aaron Colvin and exploit any match ups on Jacksonville’s slot cornerback. The Jags have invested significant capital in their defense the past three seasons and will hope it pays dividends against Baltimore on Sunday. Want to read more about Jacksonville’s defense? Read a piece from this off season – Have the Jacksonville Jaguars built a Top 5 Defense?
Any hope for Jacksonville lies in the vigour of their defense, the loss of Yanda, and the unfamiliarity of the occasion for the Ravens. But this season Baltimore look the ideal team for this challenge. Finally committing to a successful run game (4ypc, top 5 league wide in all rushing statistics), the Ravens are more workmanlike and professional than dynamic or elegant, and a focus on the fundamentals and their defensive prowess should see them through relatively comfortably. Also look for Justin Tucker to kick a lot of field goals!
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