As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s season opener with Jacksonville at Mall of America Field, we asked Vito Stellino, the Jaguars beat writer for the Florida Times-Union, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) The Vikings may look at the Jaguars and think they’re staring into a mirror.
Let’s count the similarities. Both teams have second-year quarterbacks coming off rough rookie seasons and looking to turn a corner. As quickly as possible. For the Vikings it’s Christian Ponder, for the Jags it’s Blaine Gabbert.
Both teams have star running backs who didn’t play a down in the preseason, with neither figuring to get anywhere near a full workload Sunday. For the Vikings, it’s Adrian Peterson, still working back into form after his December knee surgery. For the Jags, it’s Maurice Jones-Drew, who returned to practice this week after a 38-day holdout.
And both teams have unproven but eager and even-keeled head coaches who are preaching a team-first approach and looking to heighten the work ethics of their squads. Leslie Frazier meet Mike Mularkey.
“They say you never want to follow a legend,” Stellino said. “But it’s a great idea to follow Jack Del Rio.”
Mularkey, Stellino said, has steadied things in Jacksonville after a roller-coaster nine seasons under Jack Del Rio. Team chemistry is a big priority for the new regime.
Meanwhile, Jones-Drew’s contract dispute produced, without question, the biggest headlines of the Jaguars’ offseason. But, said Stellino, the drama was pretty minimal in Jacksonville.
“There was a lot more drama and excitement around the country than there was here,” he said. “We had a new coach putting in a new system. But Mularkey was always in the mode of you coach what’s here. And he said all along you can’t get upset over things you can’t control. So they moved on and were ready to go with or without [Jones-Drew].”
Stellino said he expects Jones-Drew to play but get fewer than a dozen carries this weekend and also noted that likely starter Rashad Jennings will have a say in how much Jones-Drew sees the field.
“If Rashad’s going well, they’ll stick with him,” Stellino said. “Rashad is quick. He’s good pass catcher on third downs. He can get to the outside. He’s younger, too and he’s a good change of pace back.”
2) Like Ponder, Gabbert has a lot of room for improvement as he enters his second year starting. The biggest priority: improving his pocket presence.
Gabbert was skittish often throughout 2011. He had a completion percentage of .508, an abysmal quarterback rating of 65.4 and he threw 11 interceptions while taking 40 sacks.
“He was chucking and ducking and looked jittery a lot,” Stellino said. “He was young and everything. But he sure looked flustered in the pocket.”
In the preseason, Gabbert showed he has made progress with his pocket poise. And he should benefit greatly from working under a new coaching regime. Mularkey, remember, teamed with current Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to help Matt Ryan emerge as an immediate difference maker in Atlanta four years ago. And new Jacksonville quarterbacks coach Greg Olson. Olson was Drew Brees’ quarterbacks coach at Purdue (1997-2000) and, as the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay the past three seasons, he helped Josh Freeman develop quickly.
The hope is that Gabbert can experience a similar breakthrough.
“Sometimes you have to give a guy time,” Stellino said. “So we’ll find out a lot this year. Starting Sunday.”
3) Despite some questionable off-the-field behavior in the offseason – see: a June arrest with an aggravated DUI charge -- rookie receiver Justin Blackmon is showing that, on the field, he may be a big-time NFL difference maker before long.
First, the arrest.
“That raises doubts,” Stellino said. “When you blow a .24 [on the breathalyzer] before you sign a contract, it indicates you may have a problem and a lack of judgment.”
“Once he got here and started playing,” Stellino said, “he’s been the real deal. He snatches the ball in a crowd. I think he can really be a good one. They’ve gone to him a lot in the preseason. And he’s so productive in traffic. So he doesn’t have to be very open.”
The Jaguars’ biggest offensive free agent acquisition was receiver Laurent Robinson, who had just two catches for 18 yards in the preseason. Blackmon had 10 grabs, 136 yards and a touchdown.
“Looks like he’s ready to go already,” Stellino said.
4) The Jaguars defense seems solid but may be susceptible in the secondary.
Coordinator Mel Tucker and most of his defensive staff were retained even after Del Rio was fired and Mularkey was hired. (Tucker was the interim coach down the stretch of last season.) Now the Jaguars hope to build on a 2011 season that was impressive statistically – they ranked sixth in yards allowed (313 ypg) and 11th in scoring defense (20.6 points per game). But the Jacksonville defense was low on splash plays up front -- 31 sacks, and only four passes batted down a year ago.
The Jaguars’ most established defensive playmaker is probably Rashean Mathis, a reliable cornerback entering his 10th season. But Mathis, like Peterson, is returning from an ACL tear suffered late last season and probably isn’t back in top form yet. Fellow corner Derek Cox will likely miss Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury leaving Jacksonville to start Will Middleton alongside Aaron Ross at corner.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a potentially fun in-the-trenches bout to keep an eye on Sunday, we give you Jaguars defensive end Andre Branch against Vikings offensive tackle Matt Kalil. Branch, whom Jacksonville drafted with the 38th pick in April, has come on strong during the preseason.
“He’s definitely a legitimate pass rusher but it also looks like he can play the run,” Stellino said. “He looks like a good one.”