Jaguars observations: Second-stringers don't show much in preseason finale

Ken Hornack offers up his key observations from the Jacksonville Jaguars' final preseason game.

Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Andre Branch (90) celebrates a sack in the first quarter of their game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Phil Sears / USA TODAY Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Blake Bortles made the last pass of his first preseason one to remember. But will that turn out to be the last pass of his first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars?

The Jaguars let the first-round pick out of UCF start Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons and made Chad Henne one of 10 players in uniform to get the game off. After a first quarter in which he was sacked twice and couldn't lead the offense across the 50, Bortles opened the second quarter with a 57-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Marqise Lee that was clearly the highlight of the evening.

"It was a vertical seam route. I just ran," said Lee, a second round selection out of USC. "I didn't really pay attention to who was around me. At that point, my main focus is on catching the ball."

Given ample time to throw, Bortles looked to his right before turning his sights in the other direction and finding Lee behind Falcons cornerback Josh Wilson. The Jaguars had only two other pass plays longer than that a year ago. So the Bortles-to-Lee combination could be worth watching for years to come, except that the Jaguars would prefer having Henne stay healthy for the next 16 games and letting Bortles continue to learn the nuances of the NFL game without all the bumps and bruises.

In four games, Bortles finished with 32 completions in 51 attempts for 521 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, good for a passer rating of 110.0.

Here are five non-Bortles takeaways and observations from the 24-14 loss to the Falcons which meant the Jaguars ended the preseason with a 1-3 record:

1. Except for Bortles, it wasn't much of a night for the Jaguars' second-stringers.

Lee and wide receiver Cecil Shorts III were the only Jaguars listed as offensive starters to actually start the game. Henne, running back Toby Gerhart, tight end Marcedes Lewis and tackle Luke Joeckel became spectators as coach Gus Bradley didn't want to risk them getting injured.

The offense generated only 23 total yards and three first downs, one of which was by a penalty, in the first quarter. Brandon Barden, who started in place of Lewis, couldn't hold on to a catchable pass from Bortles which would have given the Jaguars a first down.

Even with a few of its usual starters (end Red Bryant, outside linebackers Geno Hayes and LaRoy Reynolds) on the field, the defense gave up an eight-play, 70-yard drive directed by Falcons backup quarterback T.J. Yates. Not surprisingly, the Falcons didn't use Matt Ryan, letting Yates and Sean Renfree divide the snaps.

Stephen Morris completed 12 of 18 passes for 92 yards in relief of Bortles. The Jaguars are likely to go with only Henne and Bortles during the regular season and assign either Morris or Ricky Stanzi to the practice squad.

2. The toughest call in the next 48 hours will be deciding between keeping J.T. Thomas or Nate Stupar.

With Paul Posluszny also getting the night off, Thomas opened at middle linebacker instead of Stupar, who started two weeks ago at Chicago. It was a sign the Jaguars wanted to see more from a player they claimed off waivers at this time last year and whose only two starts with them came at an outside linebacker spot -- although Thomas calls himself "a middle linebacker at heart."

Thomas finished with four tackles while Stupar had three, including one for a loss of yardage.

"With the NFL, you just never know," Thomas said. "But I think I made a strong case for myself with my versatility, being able to play multiple positions, and being able to really have an impact on special teams."

If anyone distinguished himself on defense in the loss, it was Ryan Davis, who has managed to stand out on occasion among the abundance of defensive ends on the roster. Davis combined with Andre Branch for a sack on the Falcons' first series and had a sack of Yates early in the second quarter.

3. The offensive line remains a work in progress.

It was hard to take away much from a starting unit of Cameron Bradfield, Jacques McClendon, Luke Bowanko, Brandon Linder and Sam Young -- except that the Jaguars better hope for good health from Joeckel and guard Zane Beadles.

Bradfield, who started at right tackle last week at Detroit after an injury to Austin Pasztor, had a rough first quarter at Joeckel's customary spot on the left side. And center Mike Brewster had another errant shotgun snap -- this time, a faulty exchange between him and Stanzi resulted in a loss of 21 yards in the red zone. Given the confidence the Jaguars have shown in their draft picks of the past two years, they appear more likely to go with Bowanko than Brewster.

"I think we're a confident group," said Bowanko, a sixth-round pick from Virginia. "Obviously confidence is built through consistent performance, and it's hard to do that when you've only played four games."

4. It's still not clear who will return punts.

The only real excitement after halftime came when Ace Sanders, making his first appearance of the preseason, ran back a punt 31 yards before being pushed out of bounds and then roughed up by Falcons punter Matt Bosher.

"I had been on the sidelines just telling them, 'Man, let me get back there and I'll show you how to do it,' " said Sanders, the Jaguars' primary punt returner last year as a rookie. "I guess I had to try to back it up."

But Sanders isn't eligible to play again until Oct. 5 when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town. Tandon Doss, who missed the previous three games with sprained right ankle, was deep on the Falcons' first three punts but re-injured the ankle and left the locker room in a walking boot and on crutches. Will Blackmon and Mike Brown are the only other players currently on the roster to return punts during the preseason, and it's not entirely certain that Brown will be around after the Jaguars get down from 75 players to 53 by Saturday.

5. Any way you slice it, five offensive touchdowns in four games doesn't bode well.

A 3-yard run by Jordan Todman with 6:59 remaining made the final score more respectable. But for a team which ranked 31st in both total offense and rushing offense last season, there doesn't seem to be anything resembling great improvement.

Todman ran for 37 yards on 11 carries, but the Jaguars averaged only 2.4 yards per attempt against the Falcons and less than three yards a carry for the preseason.

Next up: Regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Philadelphia.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.