Jaguars trying to rediscover dynamic rushing attack as Steelers lay in wait
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- The Jacksonville Jaguars will go down in history as the NFL's top rushing team in 2017.
They haven't looked like it lately.
The Jaguars failed run the ball with much consistency during the second half of the season, including a wild-card victory against Buffalo. Jacksonville found few holes against the Bills until quarterback Blake Bortles started scrambling in the second half. Still, the lack of a reliable ground attack is a major concern for the third-seeded Jaguars (11-6) heading into Sunday's playoff game at No. 2 seed Pittsburgh (13-3).
"It starts with us up front," rookie left tackle Cam Robinson said.
Coach Doug Marrone agreed, saying "if they're not doing their job up front, it's going to be very difficult."
"We have to figure it out and get it done in a quick fashion," Marrone added.
Little, if anything, changed down the stretch while Jacksonville continued to struggle.
The Jaguars averaged 3.58 yards a carry over the final seven weeks of the regular season, ranking 30th in the NFL. They ran for 155 yards in a 10-3 victory against the Bills, but more than half of those came from Bortles. His 88 yards rushing were the most by a Jaguars player in nearly a month.
Rookie Leonard Fournette hasn't looked the same since spraining his right ankle against the Los Angeles Rams in mid-October. He ran for 181 and 130 yards in consecutive weeks against the Steelers and the Rams, respectively, and broke off long touchdown runs in both games.
He's topped the century mark twice -- both barely -- since.
Bortles has picked up the slack at times, but he's not a guy the Jaguars rely on week in and week out to carry the offense.
They are built to run the ball and play stout defense.
"It's who we are," Bortles said. "We want to be able to run the football and do it different ways, so we have to figure it out, whether it's a during-the-week practice thing or execution thing on Sundays. ... It's a big part of our offense and who we are and who we want to be, so it's important that we figure it out."
There doesn't seem to be an easy fix since the problem appears to stem from several factors:
--Fournette is facing more stacked lines of scrimmage than any running back in the league. Of his 268 carries in 2017, 31 percent of them (82) came against eight- and nine-man boxes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That's nine more than second-place
--Fournette is missing holes and assignments. He's running with authority, but not waiting for holes or looking for cutback lanes.
--Opponents are loading up against the run because they have little respect for Bortles and a banged-up receiving corps that features two rookies. Allen Robinson (knee) was lost for the season on Jacksonville's third offensive play, and Allen Hurns (ankle) and Marqise Lee (ankle) have been slowed lately. Although newcomers Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook have been better than expected, they looked like rookies in recent weeks.
--Jacksonville's offensive line has been average at best, and every starter has missed games with injuries. Brandon Linder, one of the league's highest-paid centers, has been solid. But guards A.J. Cann and Patrick Omameh have struggled at times in a rushing attack that averaged 1.9 yards before contract (also 30th in the league) over the final seven weeks of the regular season.
"Right now, we have to do a better job," Marrone said. "Your performance on Sunday, that's going to be who you are for that week until you change it or you sustain what you're doing well."