The Jacksonville Jaguars are suddenly resurgent, having won four of their last five games. Their winning run has been inspired by a creative offense and an opportunistic defense.
Both were on display in recent victories over the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans. Against the Browns, Jags offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch used a gadget play to turn momentum Jacksonville's way.
It was set up by another theft by a ball-hawking defense. The Browns were leading 14-7 deep in the second quarter and driving to increase their advantage.
But then rookie safety Johnathan Cyprien pounced to intercept a deep seam pass to prolific tight end Jordan Cameron. The Jaguars offense then seized their opportunity.
Facing 3rd-and-1 at the Cleveland eight-yard line, Fisch used a bunch formation on the right side. He had wide receiver Cecil Shorts III at the tip, flanked by tight end Marcedes Lewis and rookie wideout Ace Sanders.
At the snap, quarterback Chad Henne pitched the ball to running back Maurice Jones-Drew. As he did, Shorts and Sanders began blocking on the edge.
With the Browns playing run in a short-yardage situation, Lewis faked a block, before sneaking behind the defense. Jones-Drew then flipped the ball to the big tight end for a surprise scoring pass.
On the Browns first play after the score, rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz stole another Weeden pass. That turnover let the Jags kick a field goal and lead a stunned Browns team 17-14 at halftime.
The combination of opportunism and creativity had worked perfectly to overturn a deficit on the road. It gave the Jaguars the platform to upset the Browns 32-28.
They continued to rely on this dynamic against the Texans on Thursday night. With a 17-10 lead in the third quarter, the Jags had moved to the Houston 21.
Fisch deployed two tight ends and two wide receivers. He placed Lewis, Sanders and Shorts on the left side of his offense. That drew both Texans cornerbacks and the free safety to that side.
Henne threw a screen to Sanders. As he caught the ball, running back Jordan Todman escaped on a deep swing pattern on the other side of the field.
With no coverage on that side, Todman got free in the end zone and Sanders connected with him on a 21-yard score.
That unorthodox play design stunned a game Texans defense and gave the Jaguars a big lead. But they still needed more opportunism from their defense to hold off a spirited Houston rally.
The Jaguars held a narrow 24-20 lead with just 2:16 left and the Texans were driving to take the lead. But on 2nd-and-10 veteran linebacker Geno Hayes snatched a pass from quarterback Matt Schaub.
Hayes was in zone coverage and had simply dropped to a spot and stayed on the slant route to star wide receiver Andre Johnson. That pick allowed Jacksonville to kick a field goal and win the game by seven points.
The Jaguars offensive creativity and defensive opportunism is borne out of players finally adapting to the schemes of a new regime.
On offense, those schemes are complex. Fisch is designing trick plays and using versatile playmakers like Sanders and fellow rookie Denard Robinson in a variety of positions. Running Back Maurice Jones-Drew has bounced back from a below par start and demonstrated his return to form with a 100 plus yard game against the Texans.
Defensively, things are a lot simpler. Head coach Gus Bradley is employing heavy, but basic zone coverage. It calls for defenders to simply drop to a spot and watch a quarterback's eyes, rather than reading patterns.
In front of this coverage, the Jaguars are relying on different combinations along their front four to generate pressure.
With the new coaching staff's ideas taking hold and rookies like Cyprien and Sanders showing real potential, the team that will visit Wembley the next three years could finally be on the right track.
image: © pdaphoto