Packers should test Jaguars' revamped secondary in opener
FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2016 file photo, Jacksonville Jaguar corner Jalen Ramsey (20) jogs between drills during a joint NFL football training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Florida Blue Field in Jacksonville, Fla. Jacksonvilles revamped secondary, which includes rookie Ramsey and two more newcomers, faces arguably the toughest test possible in the season opener Sunday, Sept. 11 against the Green Bay Packers. (Gary McCullough /The Florida Times-Union via AP, File)
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Jacksonville's revamped secondary, which includes rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey and two more newcomers, faces arguably the toughest test possible in the season opener.
Ramsey, cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Tashaun Gipson should find out where they're at, and maybe where they need to be, when the Jaguars host the Green Packers on Sunday.
With quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, the Packers have one of the league's most potent passing attacks. So the Jaguars know what's coming. Ramsey, the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, welcomes the challenge and wants Rodgers to look his way early and often.
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''I hope so. I'm not scared,'' Ramsey said. ''Throw my way if you want to.''
Be careful what you wish for, rook. Even without Nelson, Green Bay's biggest deep threat who missed all of last season with a knee injury, the Packers ranked second in the league with 39 passing plays of 25 yards or more. They have 117 of those since the start of the 2013 season, trailing only Pittsburgh (118) for the most in the NFL.
Regardless, the Jaguars believe they are better equipped to handle one of the league's more precise passing games.
Ramsey is a main reason for the optimism. The Florida State standout was the first defensive back selected in the draft and has been as advertised since returning from a torn meniscus in July. He has the physicality to help in run support as well as the speed and athleticism to play tight coverage in Jacksonville's mostly man-to-man scheme. He also can line up in the slot or on the outside.
''I'm super excited for this,'' Ramsey said. ''This counts. It's a big game against a really good team. We want to start the season off the right way in front of the home crowd.''
The Jaguars ranked 29th in the league last season in pass defense, partly because of a lack of consistent rush and partly because of holes in the secondary.
General manager Dave Caldwell signed Amukamara and Gipson in free agency to bolster the back end. A 2011 first-round pick by the New York Giants, Amukamara signed a one-year deal to help offset the loss of Aaron Colvin, who is suspended four games for violating NFL rules on performance enhancers. Gipson left Cleveland and signed a five-year, $36 million deal to be Jacksonville's single-high safety, a key piece in coach Gus Bradley's defense.
Caldwell called Amukamara the team's most improved player since the offseason began and said Gipson is a ''stabilizing force in an otherwise unstable area.''
Add in cornerback Davon House, entering his second season in Jacksonville after spending four years in Green Bay, and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien, and the Jaguars believe they could have one of the top coverage units in the league.
The Packers should provide a measuring stick.
Two major concerns for Jacksonville, though: trying to avoid jumping offside during Rodgers' hard counts and giving the Packers ''freebies,'' and keeping Rodgers in the pocket. He's one of the best, maybe the best, at throwing on the run.
''It's been a part of my game since I started playing football,'' Rodgers said. ''If something breaks down, you extend the play. … When you can run effectively and also throw from outside the pocket, that's a dangerous element to our offense and we try to utilize that here.''
Here are some other things to know about the Packers and Jaguars:
COBB'S CATCHES: The return of Nelson might mean a little less attention on Cobb. He had his own injury-plagued 2015 season. But Cobb added upper-body bulk to help withstand the pounding that comes with what he does best: catch balls in traffic and turn short passes into big gains. ''Anytime that you can have guys that complement each other, that's great,'' Cobb said. ''Jordy taking the top off things and me working underneath, I think we really do complement each other well.''
WOE LINE: Jacksonville's offensive line has given up a league-high 122 sacks the last two seasons and will need to play better if Blake Bortles is going to take the next step in his development. Bortles ranked second in the NFL with 35 touchdown passes in 2015, but also led the league in sacks (51), interceptions (18) and fumbles (14). The Jags are counting on Brandon Linder, who moves from guard to center after returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him most of last season, to solidify the line. The left side is the bigger concern, with tackle Kelvin Beachum returning from a knee injury and Luke Joeckel playing guard for the first time in his life.
SELLOUT: The Jaguars have their first sellout since playing Pittsburgh in 2014. But how many Green Bay fans will fill EverBank Field? With one of the NFL's smallest fan bases, the Jaguars typically have thousands of opposing fans on hand for home games, and it's most notable when storied franchises such as Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Chicago and New England visit.
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