JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There's plenty of blame to share for the Jacksonville Jaguars inability to hold onto a fourth-quarter lead in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, but the inefficiency of the run game was a big factor.
Coach Doug Marrone, executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell constructed the Jaguars around a power-run game. They want to be a physical, smash-mouth team that is able to run the ball even when the defense knows it's coming. Especially late in games with a lead.
That happened at times last season -- at Pittsburgh, vs. Seattle -- but not against the Patriots, and that's one of the reasons why the Jaguars made Andrew Norwell the highest-paid guard in the NFL. Adding him to an offensive line that had already helped the Jaguars lead the NFL in rushing should make the run game even more productive.
It's not an instant fix, though. The Jaguars faced eight-plus men in the box more than any other team in the NFL last season, per ESPN Stats & Information, but still managed to lead the league in rushing. They averaged 4.9 yards per carry against the New York Giants, but that number drops to 3.6 without quarterback Blake Bortles' 41-yard run.
Leonard Fournette did leave the game late in the first half, but the Jaguars had only one carry against an eight-man box against the Giants. Clearly, there's still some work to do.
"I think we're always going to have the mindset that whatever we want to do we want to be able to execute it with whatever we're given," offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "I think if that's running the ball, we want to be able to run it vs. anything. If it's throwing the ball, we want to be able to throw it vs. anything. At the same time, we want to give Blake the freedom to be able to get us in and out of good plays. But I think that when it comes down to wanting to run it, I think that's one thing that the guys all want to be able to do."
The Jaguars averaged 141.4 yards per game last season, but their production dropped off significantly over the final six games. The Jaguars averaged 51.3 yards rushing less per game in Weeks 12-17 than they did in the first 11 weeks.
Against the Patriots in the AFC title game, the Jaguars ran for 60 yards on 17 carries (3.5 per carry). In the second half they ran for 41 yards on 15 carries -- just 2.7 per carry. They had a 14-10 halftime lead and tried to salt away the win with the ground game, but Fournette gained just 11 yards on nine first-down carries in the second half.
The Jaguars began the fourth quarter last week in New York with a 13-9 lead, so that is the same scenario they faced with the Patriots: wanting to run the ball to kill clock and salt away the victory. They ran four times for 10 yards. Two of the carries went for no gain.
"It is a challenge," Bortles said. "The situation we had last week -- everybody in the stadium knows we are going to run it three times, because you have to. You have to make them burn their timeouts, and then you have to run it on third down to let the clock run ... You are going to do it against a loaded box, and it is going to be hard. You have to make sure that everybody is on the guy they are supposed to be on, on the right landmark.
"You have to just get 2 or 3 [yards] each play and hope that by third down that you somehow find a way to move the chains, because that is how you win that situation."
Not being able to do that didn't hurt the Jaguars last week. But against the Patriots it could be a real problem -- one that could cost them the game.
"That's what this coaching staff -- that's what kind of team they’re trying to build around -- a physical running game and a physical defense," right guard A.J. Cann said. "When you train to do that and you have confidence in what you're doing and a lot of respect for what's going on as a team ... that's what you want to do."