Jaguars win, but offense sputters with no edge playmaker

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ biggest offensive issues last season looks like it could be one again in 2018 -- at least it was in the 2018 season opener against the New York Giants.

The Jaguars had hoped using a receiver-by-committee approach would be enough to offset the fact they don’t have a No. 1 receiver, especially since they expected significant growth out of second-year players Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. But it was evident throughout Sunday’s 20-15 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium that the offense needs an edge playmaker.

Even before Leonard Fournette left the game late in the first half with a right hamstring injury, the Giants didn’t seem overly concerned with the Jaguars’ passing game. They still stacked the box to stop Fournette, who obviously keys the offense. The Jaguars were able to take advantage of that with some misdirection and short throws to the backs.

But once Fournette went down, there was nobody else to step into the playmaker role. T.J. Yeldon was solid as Fournette’s replacement (51 yards rushing, 18 yards and a TD receiving) but the Jaguars needed someone else to make a play. Nobody did.

Bortles was unable to hit any throws down the field, other than a 31-yard throw to Cole on the second offensive snap. But other than that, Westbrook, Cole and Donte Moncrief weren’t really able to stretch the defense. Bortles tried three times to hit Moncrief down the sideline on back shoulder throws, but he missed two and had the other intercepted.

One of the reasons the Jaguars added Moncrief in free agency and drafted DJ Chark in the second round was to stretch the defense and keep them from stacking the box. Per ESPN Stats & Information, no team in the NFL faced more eight-plus man boxes than the Jaguars did last season (145 carries). Fewer defenders in the box makes it easier to run the ball, but the lack of much success down the field didn’t help on Sunday.

Losing Marqise Lee for the season with a knee injury certainly was a factor, but Lee was not a downfield playmaker either (12.7 yards per catch career average). The team signed Moncrief in free agency to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $9.6 million, but he managed only one catch for 14 yards on five targets. Bortles completed only six passes for 53 yards in the second half.

Other than the 31-yard catch, Cole had three receptions for 23 yards. Westbrook had five catches for 51 yards. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins had three for 25 yards.

“We have to win our one-on-one battles,” Westbrook said. “That’s huge for us. That’s huge for anybody whenever you have everybody low in the box trying to stop the run. That’s just something we have to into next week’s practice on getter better for.”

Bortles had several passes deflected at the line of scrimmage and had to dump some off with pressure in his face, but he also missed some open throws.

Were it not for Myles Jack’s interception return for a touchdown and Donald Payne’s recovery of a muffed punt with less than a minute to play, the Jaguars would not have been able to overcome the lack of offensive production in the second half (four first downs, 121 yards). The only time the offense had the ball inside the Giants’ 44-yard line came on their last possession, when Payne recovered the muffed punt at the 22.

The Jaguars were unable to re-sign Allen Robinson in free agency, and he’s the kind of downfield playmaker the team needed. It’s early, and Moncrief has done that in the past, so he could still be that player for the Jaguars -- but it needs to happen pretty quickly or the offense is going to struggle again, especially if Fournette is out for a significant length of time.