Healthy Manuwai keys running game for Jaguars
Go ahead and stack the line of scrimmage. Put eight or nine defenders in the box. Blitz the run.
It probably won't matter, because nothing has been able to slow down the Jacksonville Jaguars lately.
Behind Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings, the Jaguars (8-5) have gained more than 200 yards on the ground the last three weeks. They have at least 145 yards rushing the last six games - better numbers than anyone in the league and the main reason they're sitting atop the AFC South heading into next week's critical game at Indianapolis.
The secret to the success hasn't been Jones-Drew, Jennings or fullback Greg Jones?
Try guard Vince Manuwai, a 333-pound Hawaiian who has been mauling opponents since regaining his starting spot in mid-October.
''He's the guy that's making it happen,'' Jones-Drew said.
Jones-Drew ran for 101 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's 38-31 victory against the Oakland Raiders, his sixth consecutive 100-yard game. Jennings added a career-high 109 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown scamper that was the team's longest run of the season.
Jones-Drew's 30-yard TD run with 1:34 remaining turned out to be the decisive blow in a game filled with big plays.
Jacksonville finished with 234 yards rushing. The Jaguars ran for 258 yards against Tennessee last week and 207 against the New York Giants the week before. It's the first time in franchise history that Jacksonville managed 200 yards rushing in three consecutive games.
Not coincidentally, Manuwai has been in the lineup for all of them.
''I don't think you could be a good back without the line creating holes for you, and Vinny's done a nice job of staying positive through a tough situation, continued to work,'' coach Jack Del Rio said. ''He's played very well and has been strong, very strong in the run game in particular. ... It's kind of coming together for us.''
A third-round draft pick in 2003, Manuwai was Jacksonville's best offensive lineman when he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee in the 2008 season opener. It was the first injury of Manuwai's football career and came after he helped the Jaguars rush for a franchise-record 2,541 yards in 2006 and nearly as many (2,391) the following year.
Manuwai missed the rest of the 2008 season, and even though he returned last season, he spent the entire year trying to overcome the injury. Throw in that he was paired with rookie left tackle Eugene Monroe, and the season was filled with obstacles.
''Last year, I was trying to understand how you play on an ACL (injury) and how much it takes,'' Manuwai said. ''It was the first time I've ever been hurt in 16 years of playing football. First injury, first surgery, first rehab. Coming back, even though it felt fine, my body was shocked. You had up and down days.''
The Jaguars responded by trading for veteran guard Justin Smiley in the offseason. Smiley ended up beating out Manuwai in the preseason, but mostly because Manuwai had a bulging disk in his back. The extra rest - Manuwai essentially got five days off every week as a backup - turned out to be beneficial for Jacksonville.
When Smiley injured a foot against Buffalo in October, that opened the door for Manuwai's return. And now the Jaguars are running the ball like it's 2006 or 2007.
''Scouts says I'm even better now,'' Manuwai said. ''A lot of it is maturity and really understanding the game more mentally than physically. When you're young, you're just blocking. Now, I understand the blocking schemes and everything comes a little easier.''
Jones-Drew and Jennings are making it look easy, too.
''Whenever you can have a two-headed monster like that, it definitely benefits you as a quarterback and as an offense,'' quarterback David Garrard said. ''You can just hand it off and they can make plays for you, they can keep the chains moving, they can run 60, 70 yards and score a touchdown and make the game so easy for you.''