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THE BLITZ: Surprising Jags could be for real

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David Moore

David Moore has been the senior football writer for FOX Sports since Aug. 2005. He appears weekly on the FSN Baseball Report and MLB on FOX. One more line lorem ipsum dolor sit amet e pluribus unum.

 
   
 
After Jacksonville beat Philadelphia, quarterback refused to get swept up in the moment. Those big October victories often look less significant in the light of December if a team doesn¿t continue to play well.

Besides, Brunell knew that many around the league would dismiss the win as a fluke, something that could only happen because they caught the on an off day.

Don¿t be so sure.

Jacksonville hasn¿t been a bad team the last two years. They¿ve been an injured team.

That run of bad luck and a salary cap purge that rivaled what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament put a low ceiling on expectations for this season.

A 3-1 start has forced a shift in that thinking. Through all of the unwanted cuts and free-agent defections, the managed to keep their offensive triumvirate of , and intact. Add a healthy offensive line, seven new starters on defense and a head coach who does some of his best work when expectations are low, and the should now be viewed as a team that can challenge for a playoff spot.

The outlook would change if Taylor — the talented running back who has missed 24 games and parts of nine others during his career — goes down with his annual injury. But with a schedule that features only two opponents with a winning record (the New York and Indianapolis) the rest of the way, Jacksonville is a team that should keep winning enough to make things interesting.

¿They¿re playing much better than they were at the end of last season,¿¿ said one coach who has lost to the . ¿They have a much stronger focus.

¿If Taylor can stay healthy, their offense is tough because they run the ball so well. They are very conservative on defense and are rarely out of position.

¿But I think Tom Coughlin always has a very sound, solid football team. He¿s a lot like Marty Schottenheimer in that respect.¿¿

The key is Taylor. He touched the ball just 32 times for 129 yards and no touchdowns before a groin injury forced him to miss the final 14 games of last season.

Taylor has rushed for 387 yards and three touchdowns already this season. He has caught 15 passes for another 190 yards and two touchdowns.

¿The confidence level is a lot higher now on offense,¿¿ left tackle said. ¿When you go in the huddle and see Fred back with Mark and Jimmy, you assume you¿re going to drive the ball and score.

¿Everyone is playing pretty well right now and is healthy.¿¿

The offensive line puts Brunell in harm¿s way too often, but he¿s displayed good mobility and completed 63.6 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and one interception. The have turned the ball over just three times — tying them with Seattle for the league¿s best mark — and have forced eight turnovers. That gives Jacksonville a plus-five in this crucial category, behind only Oakland (plus-7) and Philadelphia (plus-6).

Jacksonville has gotten big plays from its special teams — returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown against the — and hasn¿t given up many big plays on defense. and rookie are an imposing tandem at defensive tackle, and the linebackers have played so well that , who returns this week after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league¿s steroid policy, may not get his starting job back anytime soon. The coaching staff feels it may have a star of the future in outside linebacker , a third-round pick out of Purdue who has been converted from defensive end.

It might be a little early to jump on the bandwagon. But if Taylor can stay on the field for the majority of the season and the offensive line doesn¿t break down the way it has the past two years, you may not want to wait long.

Remember, as beat up as Jacksonville was last season, six of its 10 losses weren¿t determined until the final five-plus minutes of the game.

¿We were right there,¿¿ Wiegert said. ¿We just couldn¿t finish.¿¿

Now they can.

Identity crisis

Conventional wisdom holds that most teams develop an offensive or defensive personality.

Retaining that personality from one season to the next is what¿s difficult.

Only one of the five teams that led the league in offense in 2001 is still there through the first five weeks of this season. The other four have failed to crack the top 10.

The turnover rate on defense is even more severe. None of the top five from last year have returned, and only two of them have been able to crack the top 15.

Offense
Rank in 2001 Team Rank in 2002
1 St. Louis 13
2 Indianapolis 12
3 Pittsburgh 19
4 San Francisco 16
5 Kansas City 2
Defense
Rank in 2001 Team Rank in 2002
1 Pittsburgh 18
2 Baltimore 21
3 St. Louis 13
4 Dallas 16
5 Miami 10

Working overtime

Steve Spurrier cultivated his image as a head coach who would rather spend his time on the golf course than in the office breaking down game-tape. So when asked about the long hours NFL coaches put in, hours he would likely have to invest as coach of the Washington , Spurrier replied that he read somewhere that New Orleans coach Jim Haslett arrived at the office at 4:30 in the morning, and he didn¿t see where it did him much good.

The and meet Sunday.

¿Steve can work whatever time he wants,¿¿ Haslett said. ¿I really don¿t care. He can do his deal and I¿ll do my deal.

¿There is not a coach in this league that doesn¿t work hard. I don¿t know of any coach that comes in at 9:00 and leaves at 4:00. If that was the norm, I¿m sure some more people would get into it.¿¿

Haslett, however, didn¿t want to get into what he thought about Spurrier singling him out. ¿I really don¿t care,¿¿ he said.

Fourth and short

  • This should be the week Houston breaks the 20-point barrier on offense for the first time in its brief existence. There are two reasons for this optimism. One, the and their very thorough coaching staff are coming off a bye and have had two weeks to prepare for Buffalo. And two, they are playing Buffalo. The defense — and we use the term loosely here — hasn¿t held any team under 27 points this season.

  • Chicago¿s will miss the next 7-8 weeks with a broken bone in his right foot. officials must be a little anxious over the fact that it's the same foot that raised a red flag in the eyes of some scouts and medical staffs when Terrell came out of college.

  • The great cleaning agent mystery is over. It¿s been determined that the grounds crew at the Georgia Dome did use a different cleaner before Atlanta¿s game with Tampa Bay, making the surface unusually slick. The turf will be vacuumed to remove the residue and the crew will go back to using the previous cleaner.

  • The isn¿t running well regardless of the surface. Dunn has just 135 yards rushing, and his average of 2.9 yards a carry is the lowest among the league¿s starting running backs. Rookie T. J. Duckett has 45 more yards in seven less carries and is threatening to take the ball out of Dunn¿s hands. Scouts say Dunn is tentative and not making tacklers miss, which is something a 5-foot-9, 180-pound back must do to gain yards. He also seems to be hitting the hole too quick before the blocking has a chance to develop. Somehow, you have to think Atlanta owner Arthur Blank was looking for more than this when he signed Dunn to a six-year, $28.5 million free agent contract.

  • Not many teams will beat Philadelphia this season, but Jacksonville showed the best way to get this difficult job accomplished. Jump to an early lead, then defend what scouts say is an efficient — yet predictable — passing game. Charts show that roughly 80 percent of ¿s passes are to the left side.

  • If I¿m Minnesota owner Red McCombs, I make a trade for Cleveland linebacker before next week¿s trading deadline. I then sell the for $450 million or so and send Hambrick to the bank to pick up the check.

    The final word ¿

    ¿comes from receiver on Sunday¿s game at Tampa Bay. ¿We need a win very bad. I¿m almost ready to sell my soul.¿¿

    David Moore can be reached at his e-mail address, dmoore@foxsports.com.

  • Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Browns, Vikings, Saints, Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Jaguars, Texans, Donovan McNabb, Bobby Shaw, Mark Brunell, Zach Wiegert, Fred Taylor, Marcus Stroud, Jimmy Smith, John Henderson, Akin Ayodele

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