The Jags have made a big play of being “London’s Team”, and that’s something that, from eye-test anyway, appears to be taking hold; Sunday’s game against the Colts saw more Jaguars jerseys among the Wembley crowd than I can remember, even more so than the Jags’ game against the Bills, a team that doesn’t have the same size following as Indy.
If the Jags as an organisation have embraced being “London’s Team”, however, it may not just be from a business and marketing perspective. It may be just as beneficial to the team’s on-field performance, if past seasons are any indication.
Being “London’s Team”
It’s not just a glance at the crowd that confirms that the Jags have London’s support – it’s something the players feel too. “We felt like [the crowd were rooting for us],” Jags rookie Jalen Ramsey told RealSport after the game, “it was a packed crowd, we really fed off it”.
That was a sentiment echoed across the team. Defensive captain Paul Posluszny said that it’s “so much fun playing in this atmosphere… people are so excited, it’s unbelievable to play here”; Allen Hurns said that “we feel [the support] on the field and off the field… each year, you can see more fans getting involved, more people knowing you are…. It’s a great thing for the organisation, we know we’re committed to being here, we want to make this home away from home.”
No-one perhaps appreciates that more than Roy Miller, who has played more games at Wembley than any other NFL player. “I’ve been here with the Bucs, but with the Jags it just feels different”, Roy told us on Sunday, “it feels like the fans here really believe in us and they want to see us win. That’s just a special feeling. When they sing the national anthem and everyone in the stands are singing, that really makes you feel how powerful the game is, and how strong of a connection fans here have to not only football, but to sports and to their country. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Closing out close games
The crowd’s support for the Jags may be a beautiful thing, but the game that kicked off the 2016 leg of the International Series was far from beautiful. The game started slowly, with the teams combining for under 100 yards in the first quarter, and was marred by penalties from both sides throughout. That’s something Gus Bradley acknowledged at his post-game press conference, admitting that “I know it wasn’t the cleanest game of football, especially on our side, but we talked about being aggressive”.
That aggression was much-needed, especially on defense, a unit that shoulders a fair share of the responsibility for losses in Weeks 1 and 3. Roy Miller told us on Friday before the game that the defense had let Gus Bradley down by failing to close out those games against the Packers and the Ravens. That the defense was able to hold firm in this game, their first divisional contest of the 2016 campaign, was not lost on Miller, who told us in the locker room afterwards that “to end a game, finally, that felt great.” It was a sentiment shared by Posluszny: “[closing out the game] was enormous for us. In games past, we had come up short in those types of situations, so we needed to prove to ourselves that we can make those plays at the end of the game to win.”
It wasn’t just the defense who made plays to close out the game, of course. A late fourth-quarter drive, culminating in a 42-yard touchdown by Allen Hurns, helped keep the game out of the Colts’ reach. The importance of that drive to the psyche of the offense was clear: “I think it was very important [to have a sustained scoring drive], especially as an offense,” Hurns told RealSport after the game, “you want to have the ball as much as possible, [win] time of possession, keep the defense off the field…. The first couple of weeks, we’ve been so close here and there. That was getting old. We had to find a way to close games out, so coming up short wasn’t an option anymore.”
Kelvin Beachum shared similar thoughts with us: “I think we grew up as an offense, and I think it was very important for us as an offense to see some adversity, and for us to come back and respond very quickly.” One of the marked improvements for that ‘grown up’ offense on Sunday was greater success in the run game, something that Gus Bradley specifically said in the offseason was key for this team. Last Friday, Beachum told us that it was important to the get the run game rolling. When we asked Beachum about Sunday’s success on the ground, he said that “I really attribute it to our coaching staff, our offensive coaching staff and Gus simplifying the offense and allowing us to go north-to-south.” Gus Bradley confirmed the same in his post-game press conference: “without getting too much into it, I think we just tried to simplify [the run game]. We allowed our guys to be more aggressive, tried to take as much thinking out of it as we could and just let them play.”
Eyes on the division crown
The timing of these two key factors that let the team down in the first three weeks – the defense to holding on to a slim lead, and the offense finding a way to sustain a drive and to run the ball – is absolutely crucial. The AFC South is looking, top to bottom, like arguably the weakest in the league. The Texans suffered a huge blow in losing JJ Watt for the season, the Titans have flashed talent but have shown significant inconsistency, and the Colts just seem like a bit of a mess, especially on Sunday against the Jags. If the Jags can build on the confidence boost they’ve gotten from this win, they are as much in the running for this division as any of the other teams.
The players know that, too. Hurns said in the locker room after the game that the AFC South “is definitely very much open. As far as for us, we started out strong today getting a win. Tennessee and the Texans, I think that’s up in the air, especially with JJ Watt out for the year, that’s pretty good for us.” Allen Robinson said that while “each and every win is a big win… even more [so this one] because it’s an AFC South opponent. I think that’s the biggest thing. We always hear Gus preach on owning the AFC South, and I think that started today.” Roy Miller concurred: “no doubt I think [the AFC South] is wide open. We lost some games but I think our goal is definitely to win the division. It’s gonna be a challenge but I think we damn sure have a shot to go and play for it.”
The London boost
The other reason why this win was so important to come when it did, is that the team is heading into its bye week – unlike the Colts, who will become the first team to ever play a game in London and not have their bye the following week. That bye week gives the Jags the chance to build on their first win of the season. “I think it gives us time to reflect, see where we are, see where we’ve been, see where we can be,” Miller told us, “I think it’s a great opportunity for us now to go in [to the bye] with a little bit of confidence, especially defensively, and to find out a way to be more consistent.” Rookie Jalen Ramsey agreed, saying that getting a win heading into the bye “was super important. We can now go and correct those mistakes we made and we can continue to grow.”
Yes, the bye week offers an opportunity to watch film and re-evaluate schemes and improve the team, but that’s true of every team entering a bye week. There’s something particular about the Jaguars, and their bye weeks after London. Paul Posluszny, perhaps unconsciously, told us after the game that “to come to London and get a win against a divisional opponent [can be] a bright spark for us to turn things around” – and turning things around is what the Jags do after London.
2013 – Gus Bradley’s first season as head coach of the Jaguars. His head coaching career began inauspiciously, starting his rookie campaign 0-8, culminating in 42-10 beatdown by the San Francisco 49ers in their first game as “London’s Team”. However, something changed after that post-London bye week. Gus Bradley not only picked up his first win as head coach in their first post-bye game, but that win – 29-27 over the Tennessee Titans – began a run that saw the Jags win four of their next five games. Those would be the only games the Jags would win that season.
2014 – The Jags went backwards, winning just three games that season. There’s less of a correlation here, but two of those three wins did come in the five games following the post-London bye week, with two of the losses being by one-score games.
2015 – “London’s Team” finally win a game in London, starting a run that saw the team win four games in a seven-game stretch. That stretch, along with 2013, are the two best seven-game stretches of Bradley’s time as head coach of the team.
Obviously, correlation does not equal causation. But the messages from the players are clear – this win can be a turning point, this win gave them confidence in those areas of the game that let them down through the first three weeks, this win means that they’ve got as much claim to the AFC South as anyone at this point of the season. That’s what you’d expect players coming off their first win of the season, adrenaline still pumping, to be saying immediately after a game.
But if past seasons’ post-London performance is anything to go by, “London’s Team” could find themselves on a winning run when next play back on home soil.
Other notes from the Jags
- Allen Hurns was asked about not getting as many balls this season compared to last. He responded: “you get frustrated at times but ultimately you can only control what you can, so for me, I just try to win on every route, catch the balls thrown to me, and when I do get the ball, just try to make the most of it… We have a lot of playmakers on this team, that’s a good problem to have. I feel like everybody’s going to get their opportunity, when they come you’ve got to make the most of them.”
- Luke Joeckel left the game with a knee injury, and was subsequently placed on IR. He was replaced in the game by journeyman offensive lineman Patrick Omameh. Kelvin Beachum said that “[losing Joeckel] was hard, but Patrick right here came in and did a tangible job. I’m very excited for Pat, [we have a] ‘next man up’ type of mentality and he came in and did the job. He did more than admirably, he did awesome, I’m happy for him and happy that we got the win.”
- Hurns downplayed his own part on that 42-yard touchdown that helped cinch the win, crediting his teammates: “I had a simple out route, and we executed well. I broke one tackle and my teammates did a tremendous job of getting downfield and blocking. I saw the O-linemen coming through, that’s what made me cut back, and obviously Robinson had a key block on that one to free me… that’s something people don’t see, [Robinson]’s a very unselfish guy, even when he’s not getting the ball. It’s the same thing all around as a positional group, we pride ourselves on being there for each other.
- One issue that cropped up again for the Jags’ defense was blown coverages. Posluszny said that “I think part of it is just the difficulty of playing against a great no-huddle quarterback like Luck. He’s able to find openings in the defense where other quarterbacks can’t.” Ramsey said that the breakdowns in coverage are “something we’ve got to watch film on and correct.”
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