JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Casual fans might be inclined to wait until Blake Bortles gets to work with the first-team offense sometime during the second quarter before tuning in to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ preseason game Friday night against the Detroit Lions.
But there’s nothing casual about the approach the Jaguars are taking to the third of their four tune-ups for the regular season. As far as Dekoda Watson is concerned, that goes double for him.
While free-agent signings Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood have quickly impacted the defensive line, Watson was just brought off the physically unable to perform list Saturday after undergoing sports hernia surgery two months ago. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer had been projected as a starting outside linebacker but now faces an uphill battle to unseat second-year pro LaRoy Reynolds at the newly-created OTTO spot.
Coach Gus Bradley plans to use Watson against the Lions for close to the same number of plays as wide receiver Cecil Shorts III, who missed the Jaguars’ games against Tampa Bay and Chicago with a strained right hamstring. If Watson makes it through those 15 or so plays without any setbacks, he could get a similar workload next week when the Atlanta Falcons come to town.
But he makes no attempt to hide that he’s setting his sights on the season opener Sept. 7 at Philadelphia.
”I’m just trying to take it slow and feel myself out, and we’ll go from there,” Watson said. ”We’re not going to try to get too hyped on this whole Detroit game or the Atlanta game. We’re just worried about Game 1. We’ll take everything in stride and be smart about it.”
”We’re at this point in camp, and he hasn’t gotten a ton of reps,” said middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who missed the loss to the Bears with a biceps contusion but is expected to start Friday night. ”Everything that he’s done is mental. He’s done a great job with that — he’s absolutely maximized his opportunity — but now it’s time to catch up on the field.”
The OTTO linebacker will often be positioned along the line of scrimmage as a run-stopper rather than five yards off the line in a traditional 4-3 formation. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Watson made only six starts during his time with the Bucs but used his athleticism to full advantage on their special teams, much as Reynolds did for the Jaguars as a rookie.
It wasn’t Watson’s intent to spend at least as much time with the Jaguars’ athletic training staff as with new linebackers coach Robert Saleh. But he’s grateful for the help he got in the rehabilitation process.
”We don’t want to go in and rush things and then come out with the same sort of injury,” he said. ”As much as I’ve wanted to do things my way, I didn’t. And I’m glad I listened to them.”
Even without Watson, the Jaguars already appear to be improved at stopping the run. They have given up a total of 78 yards on the ground and only three rushing first downs in the first halves of their two games.
But the Lions could utilize 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Bush, 4,000-yard passer Matthew Stafford and All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson for a considerable chunk of the first two quarters.
”It’s always great to play against competition like this — a big-time quarterback, athletic running back, receivers and tight ends,” Posluszny said. ”So it’ll be a great challenge for our defense and great preparation for us.”
The Jaguars plan to have Bortles replace Chad Henne sometime during the second quarter, presumably while the Lions still have Ndamukong Suh and Ezekiel Ansah lined up as part of their defensive front. Bortles hasn’t faced much in the way of blitzes or heavy pressure from second-team defenses, although his passing statistics through two games — 18 completions in 28 attempts for 277 yards with no interceptions — are far superior to that of another rookie taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
”This whole preseason has been a good challenge,” Henne said. ”Tampa had a great front, Chicago and now Detroit. We’ll see if we can establish the run early and protect in the pass game.”
Those two goals could be a handful in light of the unsettled situations at right tackle and center. Cameron Bradfield will make his first start in place of Austin Pasztor, who will miss at least the next month after fracturing his right hand at Chicago. And Bradley is leaning toward moving right guard Jacques McClendon, who didn’t play at all at center against the Bears, into what has been Mike Brewster’s starting spot.
McClendon, Brewster and rookie Luke Bowanko, whose ankle injury last week wasn’t as serious as first feared, should all get a look against the Lions.
”I trust all three of them,” Henne said. ”All three of them have done some good things. We’ll see who stands out in these next two preseason games.”
Bradfield started the final 11 games of the 2013 season at left tackle after first-round draft pick Luke Joeckel was lost due to a fractured right ankle.
”I thought he did a really nice job last year filling in,” Bradley said. ”He started off a little bit slower in training camp, and now he’s picked up steam. He’s been doing really well, especially in the last week-and-a-half.”