Packers, Jaguars must play guessing game
GREEN BAY – When they drew each other as opening opponents, it was inevitable the Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars had some catching up to do.
The two teams are strangers. They have played five times since the Jaguars became an NFL team in 1995, only twice since Aaron Rodgers became the Packers' starting quarterback. Their last meeting was midway through the 2012 season.
It’s unnecessary to travel back that far to see the challenges Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Jaguars coach Gus Bradley must overcome in preparing their teams to play. Both enter Sunday’s noon kickoff facing major unknowns – even more than the expected “30 percent unscouted” plays accompanying Week 1.
The Jaguars used their offseason to overhaul a defense that finished 31st in scoring (28 points per game) in 2015. Each of their first five draft picks were spent on defensive players, including Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey (fifth overall pick) and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack (36th overall pick, second round).
They also signed former Denver Broncos defensive tackle Malik Jackson and former Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson in free agency. Both became instant starters.
McCarthy can’t rely on film from last season to study how the Jaguars defense will operate as a unit. It limits him to preseason tape, though the Jaguars didn’t reveal their most intricate schemes in exhibitions.
“You obviously look at all the snaps those guys played in the preseason,” McCarthy said. “It’s on every cut-up. We spent some time the week of the Kansas City (preseason finale) going ahead and watching their preseason games with our veteran players just to get them acclimated to the personnel, so that we could focus on what we want to do this week.”
The Packers can’t be certain where Jack will line up. After his unexpected tumble to the draft’s second round this spring, Jack mostly took reps at middle linebacker in the Jaguars’ base 4-3 defense. He played 30 snaps at weak-side linebacker in last week’s preseason finale at the Atlanta Falcons.
Though he’s not expected to start, Jack led the Jaguars with 13 tackles this preseason and will play. Ramsey is expected to be one starting cornerback. Defensive end Dante Flower Jr., the third overall pick in 2015, also will make his career debut.
Fowler Jr. missed his entire rookie season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the first day of last year’s rookie orientation.
“They have a lot of top picks playing on that defense,” Rodgers said. “They’ve done a good job of continuing to add to the mix. Very stout front.”
Bradley, a defensive-minded coach, at least has some working knowledge of the Packers' offense. He can study film from last season to prepare for two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It’s better than being limited to preseason tape.
The Packers' offense should look significantly different than last year with receiver Jordy Nelson returning Sunday. It’s the first time Nelson will play a meaningful snap since the 2014 NFC championship game. That’s as far as certainties extend.
What kind of player Nelson will be – how many snaps he’ll play, how the Packers will use him in their offense – Bradley can only guess.
McCarthy said earlier this week Nelson would be “full go” in Jacksonville. Nelson wouldn’t offer any guess at what his snap count might be. Because he hasn’t played a snap since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the Packers' second preseason exhibition in Pittsburgh last year, and with the Florida heat expected to soar past 90 degrees Sunday, it could be hard for Nelson to play a full allotment of snaps.
Bradley can’t risk expecting anything less than a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver.
“We’re anticipating him starting and playing a lot,” Bradley said. “I know how much of a competitor he is. It is a tough injury to come back, but everything that we’re hearing is he’s ready to go. He’s 100 percent, and that’s kind of how we’ve approached it.”
Bradley said he watched Packers film from 2014 to prepare his secondary for Nelson. It was diligent scouting, but perhaps not all that effective. The Nelson from 2014 was a second-team All-Pro, catching 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Nelson running routes against Jaguars defensive backs Sunday will be testing out his surgically repaired right knee for the first time in a game.
But Bradley had time to dig up plenty of film this offseason. He said his goal was to study how the Packers used Nelson within their offense.
“Just the philosophy and what they’re trying to do,” Bradley said. “We’re not in their division, so you don’t see them very often. So it requires even more film watching. Yeah, you look back at over the years, and you try to find the line of thinking and different situations what their line of thought is. You go back and see how they utilize him, and what his strengths are.”
The Packers don’t know which cornerback will cover Nelson. One option is Davon House, a player they know very well.
House spent his first four seasons in Green Bay after being a fourth-round pick in 2011. He is long (31 7/8-inch arms) and tall (6-foot-1) with an intimate knowledge of covering Nelson through years of practice.
In film study, receivers coach Luke Getsy said he noticed House mostly match up against receivers last year. He would switch either side of the field depending where his receiver lined up, always guarding the same player.
“He understands Jordy,” Bradley said. “I’m sure they’ve had one-on-ones and matchups. But times have changed. Davon has developed, and Jordy has developed, and there’s some new things that you’re seeing even in the last year.”
Even more uncertainty. The Packers' offense and Jaguars' defense has plenty of unknowns entering Sunday. Whoever wins this guessing game has a good chance starting their season with a victory.
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