Up-and-down start: Jaguars take huge step back after opener

Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Derrick Morgan, right, knocks down a pass thrown by Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Jacksonville’s first two performances couldn’t have been much different.

The Jaguars followed a near-perfect season debut at Houston with a lackluster and mistake-filled home opener against Tennessee, a 37-16 rout Sunday that was downright embarrassing in the second half.

The one positive: Jacksonville (1-1) is in a three-way tie for the AFC South lead instead of being in the franchise’s usual early season hole.

”That’s the game of football – ups and downs,” receiver Allen Hurns said. ”That’s been part of it since I’ve been here. … We’ve got to get off the up and down, up and down, up and down and stay consistent.”

The Jaguars, who play a ”home” game against Baltimore (2-0) in London on Sunday, have had way more downs in recent years. The loss to the Titans was the team’s 64th in its last 82 games, the worst record of any NFL team over the last six seasons.

Coach Doug Marrone’s team looked like it was turning a corner with a 29-7 victory at Houston a little more than a week ago. Rookie Leonard Fournette ran with authority behind a surprisingly stout offensive line. Blake Bortles took better care of the football than usual. And the defense was even better than advertised, allowing about 203 yards while recording a franchise-record 10 sacks and forcing four turnovers.

The outcome had players, coaches and fans almost giddy for a week.

They got a reality check against Tennessee.

Fournette found less room against a stacked line of scrimmage. Bortles committed three turnovers, although one interception came on a pass tipped at the line and he fumbled after rookie left tackle Cam Robinson got badly beaten off the edge. And the defense was gouged for 179 yards on the ground, including 121 in the second half.

Throw in several dropped passes and 10 penalties – six of which came during a 29-snap span in the decisive second half – and the Jaguars had little chance for victory.

”Obviously penalties are going to kill you,” center Brandon Linder said. ”You can’t start out 15, 20 yards from getting a first down. We’re still trying to figure out the identity of this offense.”

Players and coaches openly acknowledge having little margin for error, mostly because the team’s offensive identity is centered around running the ball and using play-action passes for big gains. The approach becomes difficult to execute when trailing and nearly impossible to pull off when down 30-3 like Jacksonville was Sunday.

The blunders were reminiscent of Jacksonville’s recent run of ineptitude.

”We don’t have a margin for error,” receiver Marqise Lee said. ”Penalties and things, we have to get rid of them. As you see with the penalties, we are going back to the same thing last year and two years ago. … Even when we found ways to move the ball forward, we still found ways to bring ourselves back. You can’t win the game doing things like that.”

Playing without former Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson proved difficult. Robinson has been Jacksonville’s go-to receiver for the last three years, and his big-play ability was clearly missed against the Titans. Robinson tore a knee ligament in the opener and had season-ending surgery.

Lee and Hurns were on the receiving end of 13 of Bortles’ 20 completions. But seven of those came after the game was well out of reach.

”We still have to get open and make plays,” Lee said. ”We have to take advantage of our opportunities.”

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