The first two quarterbacks chosen in this year’s NFL draft were taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cleveland Browns. So before the regular season began, it made sense to look at the Jaguars-Browns game as little more than a potential matchup between Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel.
While Bortles has replaced Chad Henne and done an admirable job for a team still seeking its first victory, Manziel has turned into something of an afterthought as Brian Hoyer has helped the Browns get off to a surprising 3-2 start.
Hoyer, a native of Cleveland whose 2013 season was cut short because of a knee injury, has a passer rating of 99.5, the eighth-highest figure this season among all quarterbacks. Of his 149 passes, just one has been picked off. That statistic is especially noteworthy because the Jaguars have now gone 22 quarters since cornerback Alan Ball intercepted a throw by Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Although Bortles has been guilty of seven interceptions, the one he threw last week in the third quarter of the Jaguars’ 16-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans was due in part to a slip by wide receiver Allen Hurns. So this could be a game where both Hoyer and Bortles will find open receivers more often than not.
A safer prediction would be that Manziel will have an unobstructed view from the sidelines.
"He’s a great dude and I wish him the best of luck," Bortles said. "He’ll get his opportunity."
Including the Jaguars, the Browns’ next three opponents have a combined record of 1-16. Luck appears to be on their side for the immediate future.
Hoyer needed to throw the ball only 17 times as the Browns rolled to a 31-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had defeated the Jaguars in Jacksonville a week earlier. Ben Tate and Isaiah Crowell combined to rush for 155 yards and three touchdowns against a team which limited the Jaguars to 56 yards on the ground.
But the win came at a high price. Alex Mack, the center who stayed with the Browns after the Jaguars signed him to an offer sheet worth $42 million, went down with a broken leg. John Greco was moved from right guard to take Mack’s place, although that has now created uncertainty about who will start in Greco’s former spot.
After an abysmal first three weeks, the Jaguars have held two of their last three opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Of the 14 first downs the Titans had against them, only three came via the run.
Coach Gus Bradley has gone out of his way to praise the efforts put forth by tackles Sen’Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, and Ziggy Hood has played well as of late. If the Jaguars can create enough push from their defensive interior, the Browns — who lack a deep threat in their passing game because of the suspension of Josh Gordon — may be forced to go to the air more than they would prefer.
Jaguars: Of all 32 teams, only the Baltimore Ravens are better than the Jaguars at not giving up touchdowns in the red zone. Their defense allowed only two touchdowns in 11 such scoring chances in the last three games to San Diego, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Opponents have gotten into the end zone only 40 percent of the time (10 of 25).
Browns: Although both of their losses have come in the closing seconds of games, the Browns have outscored their opponents 77-37 in the second half this season. That stands in marked contrast to the Jaguars, who have been outscored 97-30 in the third and fourth quarters.
Jaguars: The return of wide receivers Cecil Shorts III and Marqise Lee last week from hamstring injuries turned Ace Sanders into a non-factor. Sanders, their second-leading receiver as a rookie in 2013, played in even fewer offensive snaps against the Titans (5) than in his first game back from a four-game suspension (9). He has also yet to return a punt for longer than 8 yards.
Browns: Only the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders are giving up more rushing yards per game than the Browns, and only the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys have a higher yards-per-carry average allowed. The good news for them is they’re facing a team where Denard Robinson, Storm Johnson and Jordan Todman have combined for a total of 163 yards on the ground in six games.
Jaguars: RB Toby Gerhart (foot) is out. CB Alan Ball (ankle), DE Andre Branch (groin) and TE Clay Harbor (knee) are probable.
Browns: WR Rodney Smith (knee), DL Phil Taylor (knee), DL Billy Winn (knee) and CB K’Waun Williams (concussion) are out. S Tashaun Gipson (thigh) and DL Ahytba Rubin (ankle) are questionable. LB Paul Kruger (back), LB Barkevious Mingo (shoulder) and RB Ben Tate (finger) are probable.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Jaguars are 10-5 lifetime against the Browns, including a 32-28 victory last December in Cleveland. That’s their best record against any opponent they’ve played more than five times.
"I can understand if fans are critical or fans are challenging us. That’s OK. I understand that. We just need to keep our efforts on improving." — Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, on the increasing restlessness of a fan base which has seen the team go 4-18 on his watch and 6-32 since the start of the 2012 season.
"I feel really comfortable with all of our guys. I think they are doing a really good job. It’s the first time in a while that everybody has been healthy and I know they’re excited to get out there and it’s been fun. They’ve really worked hard and competed throughout the week, going through things and finding ways to get open." — Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, whose 32 completions at Tennessee included 22 to wide receivers. Cecil Shorts III had 10 catches for 103 yards, while rookie Allen Robinson had eight for 68 yards.
"I want to let the coaches see I can be a complete tight end, not just a guy who wants to run around and catch passes. I want them to know I can be effective in the run game and the pass protection game." — Jaguars tight end Clay Harbor, who played in 73 out of their 77 offensive plays and was frequently kept in on passes for blocking purposes.
"Obviously I have no way to judge that because I haven’t been around a rookie quarterback before. But I will say that he has impressed me. It’s kind of incredible. His poise is very good, whether he was a rookie or a vet." — Jaguars right tackle Austin Pasztor, who missed the first start Bortles made but has been part of the offensive line the past two games since recovering from a fractured right hand.
The Jaguars are home to Miami on Oct. 26. It will be only the sixth regular-season meeting ever between Florida’s two AFC teams, with the most recent being a 24-3 win by the Dolphins in 2012.