JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Wide receiver was supposed to be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ best position group, one that would be able to overcome an injury.
It was painfully evident on Thursday night, though, that it might not be the case. Without DJ Chark in the lineup, the Jaguars had trouble doing downfield and weren’t able to stretch the field to create space underneath. The result was the offense’s worst game of the season in a 31-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins at TIAA Bank Field.
Rookie Laviska Shenault had been effective in multiple spots -- in the slot, outside, at running back and as a Wildcat quarterback -- and rookie Collin Johnson also has been involved. Chris Conley was coming off a career year in 2019 (47 catches for 775 yards). Dede Westbrook had been inactive the first two weeks but had 66 catches in each of the past two seasons. Keelan Cole was the Jaguars’ leader in receptions (11) through the first two weeks as Jacksonville started 1-1.
So even without Chark, who missed the game because of a back/chest injury suffered against Tennessee last weekend, the offense was supposed to be OK. But Conley dropped two passes, including a deep one on third down in which he adjusted to the throw and the ball hit him in the stomach. He also was penalized for offensive pass interference on another play, which was costly because quarterback Gardner Minshew lost a fumble on the next play and the Dolphins recovered at the Jacksonville 5. Miami quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ran in for a touchdown five plays later.
Minshew and the offense had been efficient in the first two games -- he ranked in the top 10 in completion percentage and passer rating -- but without Chark in the lineup, it was clear the Dolphins (1-2) weren’t worried about getting beaten deep. Until Miami went into prevent mode, Minshew had been 0-for-5 on throws of more than 10 air yards. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, he had at least two completions on those throws in every game of his career.
Minshew also was leading the NFL in completion percentage and passing touchdowns against the blitz in the first two weeks. The Dolphins blitzed him on only five dropbacks and Minshew completed just two passes on those plays for 10 yards.
The Jaguars’ most effective receiver was running back James Robinson, who had six receptions on swing passes or dump-offs. They just couldn’t push the ball downfield.
Chark has 10 days to heal before the Jaguars’ next game, and it’s clear the offense functions better when the third-year receiver is out there.
Describe the game in two words: Disappointing dud. The Jaguars had created some optimism -- and quieted the "tanking" narrative -- in the first two weeks, but that all went down the drain with Thursday’s clunker on national television. Minshew played his worst game (30-of-42, 275 yards, no TDs, one interception). So did the offensive line in pass protection. The defense made Fitzpatrick look like Patrick Mahomes. And the Jaguars lost two starters -- linebacker Leon Jacobs (knee) and safety Andrew Wingard (core muscle) -- as well as backup kicker Brandon Wright (groin) to injuries. This is the first time this season the Jaguars looked like the team many expected before the season began, a team many analysts expected to end up with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Troubling trend: The Jaguars allowed the Dolphins to score touchdowns on their first three possessions (the first time Miami had done that since Week 11 in 2011), which continued a streak of opening flat defensively. The Titans scored TDs on their first two drives last weekend and Indianapolis found the end zone on its first drive -- and had a chance to at least add a field goal on the second before getting stopped on fourth-and-1 from the Jacksonville 3-yard line. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash has 10 days to try to figure out a way to get a stop on Cincinnati’s first drive, whether that’s blitzing more or personnel changes. Considering the quarterbacks remaining on the schedule -- Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson -- there could be some long afternoons, especially if the offense isn’t able to bail out the defense the way it did the first two weeks.
Silver lining: Robinson continues to justify Jacksonville's decision to waive Leonard Fournette. He had 129 yards of total offense and two touchdowns against the Dolphins and he now has the most yards from scrimmage of any Jaguars player through their first three games.