Jaguars’ young DBs prepare to face Peyton Manning

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The thought of Peyton Manning going up against a secondary starting two rookies at the safety positions can boggle the mind.

“He’s been playing since those guys have been in, what, middle school?” Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Alan Ball said, referring to teammates Johnathan Cyprien and Josh Evans.

Manning’s 20 touchdown passes and 1,884 yards through the air, both tops in the NFL, during the Denver Broncos’ 5-0 start suggest he isn’t done trying to create history. Facing a young and struggling team this Sunday would appear to give Manning an unneeded advantage.

But Cyprien, a second-round pick out of Florida International who has been a starter at strong safety since the regular season began, plans to use such talk about the Jaguars’ inexperience as a motivational tool.

“It gives you that extra push, even though I’m pushed every week,” he said. “When someone goes into a game thinking that, I just think I’m going to have more opportunities.”

Of the six main team statistical categories, defense against the pass is the only one where the Jaguars don’t rank near the bottom of the league. But they have already given up 12 touchdown passes, the most of anyone except the Dallas Cowboys (14), while registering only two interceptions. And Manning has been picked off just once in 198 attempts this season.

The game will mark Evans’ third start since the sixth-round selection from Florida took over for veteran Dwight Lowery at free safety. Lowery sustained a concussion last month in a loss at Seattle and is currently on injured reserve, with the Jaguars planning to waive him once he is healthy enough to return.

Evans needs no introduction to Manning.

“Anybody that’s watched football knows who he is,” he said. “Now it’s just going out there and not looking at it as Peyton Manning. You’ve got to look at it as your next opponent and play to the best of your ability.”

Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich admits that the younger a defense is, the tougher it is to slow down Manning. Although Manning would routinely face the Jaguars twice a year while he was with the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville’s roster has been almost entirely made over since then. Even veteran middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said his only encounter with Manning came in a late-season game when the Colts took him out after one quarter for precautionary measures.

But Babich maintains high hopes for Cyprien and Evans.

“They are rookies,” he said. “But we’ve been very pleased with their development. They’re young guys that are extremely athletic, and they’re playing extremely hard. And they’re making mistakes; don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, they’re making plays. So the more they play, the better they’re going to get.”

“I stopped looking at those guys as rookies as soon as they stepped on the field,” Ball said. “I look at them as veterans. And that’s the approach they take.”

Cyprien’s approach is not centered solely on Manning. Wide receiver Wes Welker, who left the New England Patriots to join the Broncos, already has seven touchdowns on receptions. That’s two more than the Jaguars have overall.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is his receivers have a lot of yards after the catch,” he said. “They’re very athletic, and they’re very physical.”

“If we don’t tackle well, that’s when they catch a 5-yard drive route and make it into a 20-yard gain,” Posluszny said. “It’s got to be immediate, catch-and-tackle.”

Except for Mike Harris, who should see more playing time than usual at the nickel position against the Broncos, the secondary has undergone a total makeover since Gus Bradley became coach. Ball was signed as a free agent, while Will Blackmon was claimed off waivers during the final week of the preseason. Blackmon has started at one corner ever since rookie Dwayne Gratz injured an ankle in the first half of the regular-season opener. Although Gratz is no longer wearing a walking boot, Bradley described his status as “questionable, leaning toward not being ready.”

The Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles had little to no success in having a week to get ready for Manning and his knack for changing plays and assignments at the line of scrimmage.

“There’s a lot of quarterbacks who read and check on third down because that’s the most important down out of the four,” Cyprien said. “But he does the same thing from first, second, third and fourth downs. On every play, he doesn’t take off. It’s all a mind game with him. And he uses his ability to his advantage.”

So while the two rookies insist they won’t be in awe of the quarterback on the other side of the line, odds are that Manning could turn in another awe-inspiring performance.

 “It’s always great to go up against a future Hall of Famer,” Evans said. “He’s probably one of the best quarterbacks to play this game. So to even get a chance to play against him is going to be great experience.”

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