Here are five key storylines the Cleveland Browns will be aware of as they take on their Week 13 opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
#1 - There's Bad...and Then, There's Bad: Although Cleveland has not looked very good in their past two games, both of those contests came against the AFC North division leaders, and a team that had snapped out of the funk that led them to an 0-4 start in the Steelers. The Jaguars are still the worst team in football, and it really shouldn't even be close. Even when you count their two wins, Jacksonville loses by an average of over 16 points per game (Cleveland loses by an average of 5.6 points per game).
The Jaguars rank last in the league offensively. They don't have a franchise quarterback, and their former stud running back is in decline and in the final year of his contract. Their big investment at wide receiver, Justin Blackmon, is pissing away his future. The defense is almost last in the league in sacks and turnovers, and they don't stop very many teams.
I know that Jacksonville has won two of their past three games under Chad Henne, but let's consider something about both of those wins. First, every bad team has their "Super Bowl," and the Jaguars' came when they upset the Titans 29-27. Last week against the Texans, they just were the better of the two worst teams in the AFC. If Cleveland loses at home to Jacksonville, that is the type of loss that would make me not just question the players on this team, but the coaching staff that has received so much positive press, including defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
#2 - Cecil Shorts Returns Home: If there is one player on offense that the Browns need to have their eyes on, it is Cecil Shorts III. Shorts was born in Cleveland, OH and went to Collinwood High School before attending Mount Union for college. With Blackmon on the shelf, Shorts represents the Jaguars' only legitimate receiving threat. Last year, he made a name for himself by catching long passes and having yards after the catch (17.8 yards per catch). This year, that average is down (12.1 yards per catch), but he's actually being targeted by the Jaguars more often. He has 58 catches for 700 yards and 1 touchdown. The Jaguars have also started using fourth-round pick Ace Sanders more often at receiver. He is small for a receiver (5-7, 178 lbs), but has 12 catches for 122 yards over the past two weeks.
#3 - Trying to Get Pressure: Even though the Browns struggled to protect against a defensively-challenged pass-rushing team in the Steelers last week, the Jaguars are even further behind in that department, averaging just 1.5 sacks per game. Their defensive ends, Andre Branch and Jason Babin, each have three sacks on the season. The rest of the sacks are scattered around, but overall, teams have time to attack Jacksonville both on the ground and through the air.
The Jaguars also are not a heavy blitzing team, as they tend to rely on their defenders getting the job done with man coverage. The leader of the defense is middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who is among the league leaders in tackles and is in his third year with the team since coming over from the Bills. Head coach Gus Bradley came from leading a good defense in Seattle, but it's going to take time for him to acquire the pieces he needs to run the 4-3 defense effectively in Jacksonville.
#4 - Youth in the Secondary: Part of the reason the Jaguars can't afford to bring extra players on a blitz very often is the fact that their secondary is so young. Cleveland's secondary also seems fairly young, but the Jaguars haven taken things to another level. The safeties are Johnathan Cyprien (2nd round) and Josh Evans (6th round), both of whom are rookies. The cornerbacks are Dwayne Gratz (3rd round) and Alan Ball. Gratz is a rookie, while Ball is a veteran.
It can't be easy trying to re-build a secondary in one season with three rookies, but if all three of them pan out, then Bradley will be well on his way to constructing the type of defense he needs. The group is very much a work-in-progress. While they had their best game of the season last week against Case Keenam, they gave up 419 yards through the air to Carson Palmer the week before.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: If there is a spot the Jaguars have done fairly well in, it's special teams (boy, that sounds familiar to Browns fans, doesn't it?). Jacksonville is 6th in the NFL at defending punts and 10th in the NFL at defending kickoffs. They aren't much of a threat at punt returns, where they are last in the NFL, but they rank 4th on kickoffs. Backup running back Jordan Todman has had the success on kickoffs, where he averages 28.2 yards per return.
Josh Scobee kicks field goals for Jacksonville and is 16-of-18 on the season. He is actually not too bad in his career from beyond 50 yards, connecting on 22-of-35 attempts (62.9%) from that range in his career. The Jaguars feature Bryan Anger at punter; a third-round pick in 2012, Anger is probably one of the top 10 punters in the league.