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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (0-0) at Indianapolis (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
Sports Network) - For the first time since 2001, Tony Dungy won't be standing on the sidelines to guide the Indianapolis Colts. The Jacksonville Jaguars couldn't be happier.
Indianapolis kicks off its 2009 season and the Jim Caldwell era this Sunday with a home test against AFC South rival Jacksonville at Lucas Oil Stadium.
After an 85-27 record and .759 winning percentage in seven years at the helm of the Colts, a span that included a Super Bowl title following the 2006 season, Dungy decided to call it quits. Taking over is Caldwell, the Colts' associate head coach who has never before served as an NFL head man.
He draws a pressure-filled task in taking over a club that hasn't missed the postseason since 2001, and does so without defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, who is also gone and replaced by Larry Coyer.
However, not everything has changed in Indianapolis (12-4). Peyton Manning is still under center completing passes to Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, while Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis continue to hunt opposing quarterbacks.
The Colts come into this game having won each of their last nine regular season tests, the longest active streak in the league, but did drop their AFC Wild Card game at San Diego in overtime to end last season. Indianapolis hasn't lost in the regular season since October 27 of last year and hasn't tasted defeat at home since a 23-21 setback to Jacksonville on September 21, 2008.
The Jaguars won that game on Josh Scobee's 51-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. It marked Jacksonville's first win in Indy since the 2004 season.
It was also a rare triumph versus the Colts in the Dungy era. Jacksonville went just 4-10 against Indianapolis with Dungy as the opposing head coach.
The Jaguars (5-11) hope to rebound in 2009 after a disappointing season a year ago, when injury and chemistry issues led them to a last-place finish just one campaign removed from an 11-win season.
Jacksonville parted ways with linebacker Mike Peterson and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to stabilize the locker room, while veteran free agents such as wide receiver Torry Holt and offensive tackle Tra Thomas combine with draft picks Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, a pair of highly- regarded offensive linemen, to add depth to the club.
Also gone is running back Fred Taylor, a Jaguar since being drafted by the team in 1998 who amassed 11,271 yards rushing and 70 total touchdowns in 11 seasons.
The Colts hold a 12-4 edge in the regular season series with Jacksonville, including an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home. Indy was a 23-21 home loser when the teams met in Week 3 of last season, but the Colts returned the favor with a 31-24 victory at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Week 16. The Colts swept the 2007 home-and-home, including a 28-25 win when the teams met in Indy.
Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio is 4-8 against the Colts as a head coach, while Indianapolis' Caldwell will be meeting both Del Rio and the Jaguars for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Although he passed for a career-high 3,620 yards last year, Jaguars quarterback David Garrard spent a lot of time under pressure due to his banged-up offensive line, which probably explains his 13 interceptions after throwing just three picks in 2007. It also didn't help that his receiving group included four wideouts -- Reggie Williams, Jerry Porter, Matt Jones and Dennis Northcutt -- who were all let go by the club in the offseason. Right guard Maurice Williams and left guard Vince Manuwai both missed 15 games a year ago due to injury, while center Brad Meester missed six contests. All three are expected to start in this game, as will Britton (Arizona) at right tackle. Monroe (Virginia) could also see a start if newcomer Thomas can't go because of a back injury. They will need to give Garrard time, as Holt (64 receptions, 3 TD with St. Louis in '08) is his only experienced target. Former Viking Troy Williamson starts at the other wideout spot. With Taylor gone, Maurice Jones-Drew (824 rushing yards, 62 receptions, 14 TD) becomes a full- time starter for the first time in his career. He is expected to play in this contest despite suffering a minor injury in Jacksonville's final preseason tuneup.
Jones-Drew draws a good assignment this weekend, as the Colts ranked just 24th against the rush last year, though they were sixth in pass defense. Not only will defensive tackles Antonio Johnson (13 tackles) and Daniel Muir have to find Jones-Drew's tiny frame at the line, but ends Mathis (48 tackles, 11.5 sacks) and Freeney (28 tackles, 10.5 sacks) and Indianapolis' linebacking group, led by Gary Brackett (99 tackles) in the middle, will have to account for his ability to dart to the outside. Second-round pick and defensive tackle Fili Moala (USC) will also get a chance at stuffing Jones-Drew at the line. Clint Session (94 tackles) will see a new role, as he shifts from the strong linebacker position to the weakside, while Tyjuan Hagler (27 tackles) takes his old spot opposite Session. Jacksonville may elect to try and go to Holt deep, as Colts safety Bob Sanders is out with a knee injury. It is unknown when Sanders will return to action, but he missed practice time this week. Free safety Antoine Bethea (hand) and corner Kelvin Hayden (hamstring) also battled preseason injuries, but should be okay for this contest. Melvin Bullitt (72 tackles, 4 INT) starts in Sanders' place.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The Colts began last season with two losses in three games as Manning was slowed early on due to offseason knee surgery. Once he got up to speed, Indianapolis took off, with Manning throwing for 4,002 yards and 27 touchdown passes. He shouldn't have a hard time getting into an early groove in this one, as Manning has thrown 29 career TD passes versus the Jaguars. However, for the first time in his career he won't have Marvin Harrison to throw to, as the longtime wideout was released this past offseason. That shifts the spotlight completely on Wayne (82 receptions, 6 TD) and Anthony Gonzalez (57 receptions, 4 TD). Tight end Clark will also be a target, as he notched 77 catches and six touchdowns last year. What the Colts would like to do is get the ground game going. They ranked 31st in rushing in 2008, with featured back Joseph Addai accounting for 544 yards and seven touchdowns. He also missed four games due to injury last year, so Indy added first-round pick Donald Brown to the mix. The team's offensive line will also try to stay intact, as eight different lineman made starts a season ago.
Jacksonville will need to create pressure to prevent Manning from getting comfortable, but that was a season-long struggle for the club in 2008. No Jacksonville player reached even five sacks last year, with ends Reggie Hayward (24 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Derrick Harvey (19 tackles, 3.5 sacks) combining for just eight of them. That lack of pressure caused the Jags to rank 24th versus the pass. Cornerback Rashean Mathis (40 tackles, 4 INT) is the leader of the secondary, but missed four games due to injury. He returned a pick 61 yards for a score versus the Colts last year. Free safety Reggie Nelson (54 tackles, 2 INT) will look to bounce back from a subpar sophomore season, while former Eagle Sean Considine appears in line to start at the strong safety spot. Daryl Smith (69 tackles, 2.5 sacks) starts in the middle at linebacker, flanked by Justin Durant (70 tackles) and Clint Ingram (38 tackles, 2 sacks).
Jones-Drew owners will get their first look at him as a featured back, and he draws a favorable matchup as well. Garrard is a tough start, even without Sanders in the Colts' lineup, while Holt should be the main focus of Indy's pass defense and may have trouble finding room. Manning, meanwhile, has done well versus the Jaguars in the past and is a must-start along with Wayne, Gonzalez and Clark. Addai owners will likely see how many carries Brown is going to take away, so start another option if possible. Neither defense is a great choice, as Jacksonville was able to score points off the Colts last year, while the Jags' D has to deal with Manning.
Don't expect the Colts to miss a beat just because Dungy is gone. They are still the team to beat in the AFC South thanks to a star-studded offense, though the defense will miss Sanders. The Jaguars feel they are once again ready to take a run at that crown and were able to play Indianapolis tough in 2008, but a healthy Manning will be the difference in this one. Jones-Drew's preseason injury also makes the task a bit more difficult for the Jaguars. When all is said and done, Indianapolis extends its regular-season winning streak to 10 games.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 28, Jaguars 17
09/10 17:56:28 ET
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