JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — During a season full of disappointment, the Jacksonville Jaguars' patchwork offensive line has actually been mostly steady.
That unit is about to collide with its biggest challenge of the season when the Denver Broncos come to town.
Again relying on a ferocious pass rush to boost one of the league's top defenses, the Broncos will be looking to keep a frustrating season going for the Jaguars as they try to keep pace in a heated AFC playoff race on Sunday at EverBank Field.
“They are obviously one of the best, if not the best, and rightfully so,” Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles said of Denver's defense. “At every position, they are extremely talented and they do a good job.”
The Super Bowl champion Broncos (7-4) will have to fight to return to the postseason while playing in a resurgent AFC West. Denver is currently two games behind the division-leading Oakland Raiders and a game back of the Kansas City Chiefs with five games to play.
The Jaguars (2-9), losers of six straight games, have already clinched their ninth consecutive season without a winning record and won't be headed to the playoffs without some sort of miracle.
Instead, they will mostly spend the last chunk of the season building for the future.
“We just want to finish and win games here,” defensive end Tyson Alualu said. “You've heard it all year about how we have the talent and the guys to be contenders in this league. For us to have the season that we're having, at 2-9, it is frustrating. You have to go out there and continue to do your job the best you know how.”
That's the message preached by Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, particularly to the offensive line this week.
Denver is first in the league in passing defense and fourth in total defense, largely because of a pass rush that hounds opposing quarterbacks.
It starts with outside linebacker Von Miller, who has a league-leading 12.5 sacks, and extends throughout a unit that has gotten to opposing quarterbacks 35 times — more than any other team this season.
Jacksonville has done a solid job protecting Bortles. He has been sacked just 23 times while being among the league leaders in pass attempts despite losing left guard Luke Joeckel for the season in October and having to shuffle players at several spots along the offensive line at different points.
But they haven't faced a group as talented as that of the Broncos, who boast Miller and linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray as part of a fearsome unit.
“He's special,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said of Miller. “He's obviously a great player, and he's become a leader on the football team. Von has played very consistent level for us this year, playing at a Pro Bowl level.”
Miller said, “We are just sitting here trying to get wins. Whatever it takes to get those, we are going to do it.”
The Broncos could be counting on their championship-level defense a bit more against the Jaguars depending on the availability of quarterback Trevor Siemian, who missed practice Wednesday with a sprained foot.
Kubiak said Siemian will be “day to day” as he recovers, with r00kie Paxton Lynch in line to start if Siemian is unavailable.
The injury comes at a bad time for Siemian. He put together one of his best games of the season Sunday night against Kansas City, throwing for 368 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in a losing effort.
His play has caught the eye of Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash.
While the Broncos are busy planning to get after Bortles, Wash is doing the same to harass whoever plays quarterback on the opposite side.
For the Jaguars, that starts with rookie defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who leads the team with six sacks, and former Broncos standout Malik Jackson, who has 4.5.
“He can get out of pressure; he can run; he is athletic, and if he has time, he is very accurate,” Wash said of Siemian. “Especially on those intermediate routes. They run the ball, run the ball and then take a shot over the top of you.
“He has the ability to get the ball deep to those wide receivers. He is a solid quarterback and is only going to get better as his career develops.”
The Jaguars are also dealing with several injuries, notably running back Chris Ivory, who left during the first quarter of a loss to the Buffalo Bills last week with a hamstring injury. Jacksonville was also without defensive end Jared Odrick (shoulder), tight end Julius Thomas (back) and nose tackle Abry Jones (ankle) against the Bills.
Their statuses will continue to be monitored during the week.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars will search for any way to limit a talented Broncos pass rush — and get their first win of the season in Jacksonville.
“We are excited to get a chance to come back after two away games to come play at home,” Bortles said. “We feel as though, offensively, there are some good things going on, so we would like to continue that and bring it here and hopefully win at home in front of our crowd.”