Packers at Jaguars countdown: Nelson's return vs. revamped defense

BY foxsports • September 9, 2016

The Green Bay Packers in their season opener will face a Jacksonville Jaguars team that went 5-11 in 2015.

That doesn't mean Week 1 of the 2016 season will be easy.

The Jaguars return the core of an offense that ranked third last year in passing touchdowns and 10th in passing yards. The team also revamped its defense, signing free agents Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson and Prince Amukamara and using six of its seven draft picks on defensive players.

The newfound balance could help the Jaguars to their best record since they went 8-8 in 2010, something owner Shad Khan said is a "reasonable expectation" for fourth-year head coach Gus Bradley and his squad.

The Packers are 3-2 all-time vs. the Jaguars, winning their most recent meeting, a 2012 matchup at Lambeau Field, 24-15.

Here's a closer look at Sunday's matchup:

3 THINGS TO WATCH

-- How will Jordy Nelson look in his first game in more than a year? The 31-year-old Nelson missed the entire 2015 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a preseason game. He did not play at all this preseason and only started practicing a few weeks ago. Head coach Mike McCarthy said this week that Nelson is a "full go," though he did not give an estimate of how many snaps Nelson would play.

Nelson had been arguably the Packers' best receiver in the four years before the injury. He caught 300 passes for 4,841 yards and 43 touchdowns in 60 regular-season games from 2011-14, leading Green Bay in receiver three of those seasons. Nelson was especially prolific in 2014, catching a career-high 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns while earning his first Pro Bowl selection. The Packers ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in offense each of Nelson's first seven seasons but slipped to 15th last year without him.

-- Who will win the quarterback battle? Jacksonville's quarterback, 24-year-old Blake Bortles, improved statistically last year, throwing for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns and completing 58.6 percent of his passes. Jacksonville this offseason signed running back Chris Ivory, who rushed for 1,070 yards with the Jets last year. That could take some of the pressure of Bortles and the passing game, but Jacksonville will need another strong season from the third-year pro.

The Jaguars return two of the more prolific receivers in the NFL in third-year pros Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Robinson caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, earning a Pro Bowl selection, while Hurns caught 64 passes for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Rodgers, meanwhile, is entering his ninth season as the Packers' starting quarterback. He's coming off a season in which he posted his lowest completion percentage (60.7) and quarterback rating (92.7) since becoming Green Bay's full-time starter in 2008. He should benefit from the return of Nelson, the signing of free-agent tight end Jared Cook, a slimmed-down Eddie Lacy and a bulked up Randall Cobb.

-- How will the remade Jaguars defense fare? Jackson, a defensive tackle, was a starter last year for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Gipson, a defensive back, has 13 interceptions over the past three years, while Amukamara has five. Those three will join defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., the third-overall pick in 2015 who missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the fifth-overall pick this year out of Florida State. Highly touted rookie linebacker Myles Jack will also join the unit.

Those newcomers should help a defense that yielded 28 points per game last year, which ranked 31st in the NFL. The Jacksonville defense ranked 29th in passing yards allowed, 24th in total yards allowed and 27th in turnovers forced.

2 THINGS TO REMEMBER

-- The Jaguars have struggled early in seasons in recent history. Jacksonville is 3-17 in the first four games of the year over the past five seasons, including 1-11 in three seasons under Bradley. The Jaguars started 1-5 last year, a stretch that included a 51-17 drubbing at the hands of the New England Patriots in Week 3. Jacksonville has not won a season opener since 2011.

-- The Packers will be starting two rookies on defense: Inside linebacker Blake Martinez and defensive end Dean Lowry. Martinez was a fourth-round pick out of Stanford, where he made 257 tackles, including 141 as a senior. The Packers selected Lowry six slots later out of Northwestern, where he played in 48 games, registering 134 tackles, including 31 1/2 tackles for a loss and 12 1/2 sacks. First-round pick defensive tackle Kenny Clark is also expected to get significant playing time. Green Bay will also be starting two second-year players on defense (cornerback Damarious Randall and linebacker Jake Ryan) and a third-year player in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The six other defensive starters have at least five years of experience.

1 KEY MATCHUP

Aaron Rodgers vs. the Jaguars defense

Rodgers started last year in MVP form, completing 73.6 percent of his passes and throwing 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in September. He did not live up to those benchmarks later in the year, however, completing just 61 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and four interceptions in Green Bay's final five games. Rodgers played sparingly this preseason and was without one of his top targets in Nelson. The game presents an opportunity for him to find his MVP form, despite the fact that Jacksonville's defense appears improved and that he and Nelson will be looking to re-establish their connection.

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