NFL Preview - San Diego (4-7) at Jacksonville (3-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Jacksonville Jaguars just fired their head coach. With the San Diego Chargers saddled with their longest losing streak in a decade, the team could be contemplating making a similar change in short order.
The reeling Chargers will attempt to start another strong December run when the disappointing club heads to EverBank Field for Monday's matchup with a Jacksonville squad that won't have Jack Del Rio roaming the sidelines for the first time in nine seasons.
The Jaguars parted ways with Del Rio on Tuesday amidst a seismic organizational shakeup in which owner Wayne Weaver also announced an agreement to sell the team to Illinois businessman Shahid Khan. The move came just two days after Jacksonville suffered its second straight loss and fell to 3-8 on the season with a 20-13 home defeat to AFC South-leading Houston.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was elevated to Del Rio's post and wide receivers coach Johnny Cox was also let go, while general manager Gene Smith was given a three-year contract extension in one of Weaver's final decisions.
Del Rio had been in charge of the Jaguars since 2003 and compiled a 68-71 overall record during his tenure. He guided the franchise to AFC playoff appearances in both 2005 and 2007 and a postseason victory in the second of those years, but the team had not produced a winning mark since that 2007 campaign.
"I told Jack I appreciated the nine years he served the organization, and his contributions to the organization and the community," said Weaver. "But we deserved better and the community deserved better. We've been very average over the last few years."
One change that won't be made is at quarterback, as Tucker said he'll be sticking with Blaine Gabbert despite the rookie's struggles. Jacksonville enters Monday's tilt last in the NFL in scoring (12.5 ppg), total offense (250.0 ypg) and passing yards (131.3 ypg) and mustered a mere 255 total yards against the Texans last week.
Gabbert was pulled in favor of journeyman Luke McCown in the fourth quarter of that game after completing an off-target 13-of-29 passes for 136 yards and an interception. The 2011 first-round draft pick has hit on only 48.5 percent of his attempts this year and thrown just two touchdown passes over his last five outings.
The Chargers have been going through some quarterback issues of their own during an underachieving season that's placed head coach Norv Turner squarely on the hot seat, with three-time Pro Bowl selection Philip Rivers having been intercepted a league-high 17 times. San Diego is minus-10 in turnover margin over its first 11 contests, the third-worst ratio in the NFL.
An inability to win close games has also plagued the Chargers. Last weekend's 16-13 overtime setback to fellow AFC West member Denver was the team's sixth loss in a row and marked the fifth time over the course the skid it fell by seven or fewer points.
San Diego is mired in its longest in-season winless drought since dropping nine straight bouts to close out the 2001 schedule. Now three games behind first- place Oakland in the AFC West standings, the Bolts are in danger of missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year as questions begin to arise about Turner's future.
"There's nothing I can say to make it sound good," said Rivers. "It's about as rough as it gets."
The Chargers have had a tendency for very fast finishes under Turner, however, having amassed a stellar 15-2 record in December in his first four seasons at the helm. San Diego has won 20 of 22 games during the month since 2006.
These teams have split four lifetime meetings, with the Chargers evening the series by virtue of a 38-13 home rout during Week 2 of last season. The Jaguars have won both of the games played in Jacksonville, however, posting a 27-21 triumph over San Diego in 2003 and a 24-17 decision in 2007.
Turner is 2-3 against the Jaguars as a head coach, including a 1-1 mark while with the Chargers. He bested Jacksonville twice while manning the Washington Redskins from 1994-2000 and also lost to the Jaguars in 2004 while with Oakland.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The down season turned in by Rivers (3211 passing yards, 16 TD, 17 INT), whose 17 picks are already the most he's thrown in his six years as the Chargers' starting quarterback, has been one contributing factor to the team's unwanted record, but the fiery field general can't be solely held to blame for his turnover woes. San Diego has been ravaged by injuries across the offensive line, with Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman (concussion) and left tackle Marcus McNeill (neck) both out for the remainder of 2011, and the front wall was without three starters against the Broncos. Rivers was pressured constantly as a result and could complete only 19-of-36 passes for 188 yards, a far cry from the 334-yard, three-touchdown effort he put forth in last year's meeting with Jacksonville. Guards Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green are expected to return this week after also missing the Denver game, with the latter a candidate to kick out to tackle and protect Rivers' blind side. Wide receiver Malcom Floyd (19 receptions, 1 TD) appears also ready to come back from a hip injury that's kept him out of the last four losses, and the deep threat burned the Jaguars for 95 yards and a score on just three catches last season. He's part of a strong pass-catching corps along with big-target wideout Vincent Jackson (44 receptions, 825 yards, 7 TD) and standout tight end Antonio Gates (40 receptions, 4 TD), who's playing through a nagging foot problem as well. The makeshift line didn't have much trouble opening up holes for the running game last week, as top back Ryan Mathews (717 rushing yards, 3 TD, 36 receptions) gained a career-best 137 yards on 22 carries. The 2010 first-round pick works in a tandem with bruiser Mike Tolbert (340 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 6 total TD), and both could see considerable work if the Chargers go run heavy on Monday.
While the Jacksonville offense has been abysmal throughout 2011, its defense has more than held its own under Tucker's command. The Jags have yielded an average of 292.5 total yards and 183.4 passing yards thus far, both the fourth- lowest totals in the league, and limited Houston to a scant 215 total yards and nine first downs a week ago. There is concern at cornerback, however, as regulars Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox have both landed on injured reserve in recent weeks and fill-in William Middleton (38 tackles, 1 INT) is a question mark for Monday after missing practice time with a knee ailment. There isn't an elite pass rusher on the roster, though end Jeremy Mincey (37 tackles, 4.5 sacks) has been effective in that area along with providing sound play against the run and fellow lineman John Chick (8 tackles, 2.5 sacks) has impressed in a situational role, but the team is well-stocked at linebacker with offseason pickup Paul Posluszny (84 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and the underrated Daryl Smith (80 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) on the strong side. Safeties Dwight Lowery (32 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Dawan Landry (70 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 INT) have also performed well in their first seasons as Jaguars, a big reason why Tucker's group has held opposing quarterbacks to 6.4 yards per pass attempt.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jacksonville's offense is centered around the terrific talents of running back Maurice Jones-Drew (1040 rushing yards, 5 TD, 23 receptions), and for good reason. The short but powerful sixth-year pro is well on his way to another Pro Bowl nod after churning out a third straight 1,000-yard season, and he's been kept under four yards a carry in just two of the Jaguars' 11 games. Jones- Drew's consistent production has been even more remarkable considering just how anemic the team's passing attack has been, with Gabbert (1371 passing yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) having made a slow transition to the pro game during a trying rookie year. The 22-year-old hasn't been helped by the fact Jacksonville may have the worst collection of receivers in the league, with wideout Mike Thomas (37 receptions, 1 TD) the only outlet than can be termed as remotely reliable. Tight end Marcedes Lewis (27 receptions) has been a relative non-factor one year removed from a 58-catch, 10-touchdown campaign that landed him in the Pro Bowl last year, while wide receiver Jason Hill was placed on waivers Wednesday after making little impact opposite Thomas. His release grants an extended opportunity for lightly-tested youngsters Jarrett Dillard (14 receptions, 1 TD) and Cecil Shorts. Jacksonville has scored just 11 touchdowns for the entire season and has reached the 20-point mark only once in 11 games.
San Diego did a tremendous job bottling up Jones-Drew in last year's encounter, holding the Jaguars' offensive catalyst to a pedestrian 31 yards on 12 carries, but a repeat performance would be unexpected. The Chargers are surrendering 131.9 rushing yards per game (25th overall) this season and were scorched by Denver's read-option scheme last Sunday, with the Broncos piling up 208 yards on the ground in the win. Oakland ran for 191 yards on San Diego two weeks previously, so it's clear a front seven led by inside linebackers Donald Butler (70 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and veteran Takeo Spikes (76 tackles, 1 sack) will have its work cut out on Monday. Pressuring the quarterback has also been a sore spot for the defense, with the Bolts' 19 sacks the fifth-fewest in the league. The club's best pass rusher, outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (27 tackles, 3 sacks), just returned last week from a foot injury that kept him out of the three previous games, and he and counterpart Antwan Barnes (27 tackles, 6 sacks) will be counted out to make Gabbert uncomfortable in the pocket. The San Diego secondary also hasn't played to expectations this year save for free safety Eric Weddle (66 tackles, 5 INT, 7 PD), who's accounted for five of the team's 10 interceptions.
KEYS TO THE GAME
For San Diego, it's first about stopping all the self-inflicted mistakes. The Chargers's 24 giveaways are the most in the AFC this season, and they've committed three turnovers four times on the year. Not surprisingly, they've lost all of those games. San Diego has a huge advantage in talent and experience at quarterback and the receiving corps, and it's important it uses those weapons to its benefit against a Jacksonville defense that's good but rather banged up.
The Jaguars know their best chances of coming away with a victory lies in running the football with authority and playing solid defense. The latter shouldn't be much of a problem, and they're 3-1 this season when rushing for over 130 yards. If the Chargers can't keep Jones-Drew under wraps like they did last year, another loss could be in the cards.
With Rivers still not in a groove and the depleted state of San Diego's offensive line, the Chargers' best course of action on Monday may be feeding Mathews and Tolbert the ball. The Jaguars have been better against the pass than the run on defense, having allowed 145 rushing yards or more four times this season.
The Chargers have historically played their best football at this time of the year, and although it may be too late to salvage a spot in the playoffs, they should be at least motivated to get stop a winless streak that's lasted almost half a season. Jacksonville's upheaval in both the coaching staff and personnel over the past few days could work in San Diego's favor, and it's injuries on defense are worrisome as well. Unless Gabbert can make substantial progress from what he's recently displayed, the Jaguars don't seem to have the horses to outscore a Chargers team that simply has more playmakers. It's unreasonable to think the Chargers will be able to put it all together with all their problems, but they still should have enough to get the job done as long as they don't once again cripple themselves with mistakes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 20, Jaguars 13
12/02 19:59:52 ET