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Seahawks-Jaguars preview: The Jimmy Graham show and more to watch for

Philadelphia Eagles v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Fresh off their biggest win of the season, an emphatic 24-10 victory over the NFL-leading Philadelphia Eagles, the Seattle Seahawks will travel across the country to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars are already enjoying their winningest season since 2010, and seem to be locked into one of the AFC’s playoff spots. The Seahawks’ victory on Sunday night launched them back into the NFC playoff conversation, and a win in Jacksonville would go along way for Seattle’s playoff seeding.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, completed their sweep over division rival Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, winning both games by a combined score of 57-10 and sacking Jacoby Brissett a cruel 14 times over the two games. Now 8-4, Jacksonville trails the Tennessee Titans in the division due to a tiebreaker, but with the Titans faltering and the Jaguars rolling, the AFC South is there for the taking. Regardless of what elite trash talker and gift to the NFL Jalen Ramsey thinks, Sunday’s game has major implications for both sides:

Handling the Jaguars up-front:

After facing the deepest, most talented defensive line in the league last week, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks will now be tasked with taking on perhaps the second deepest, most talented defensive line in the league. Jacksonville blends together dominant veterans with skillful sophomores to create a terrifying concoction. Seattle handled the Eagles’ defensive line well last week, allowing pressure on just 16 of 36 dropbacks; they’ll need a similarly effective performance on Sunday to give Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense a chance.

Long-time Arizona Cardinal and feature player in Wilson’s nightmares Calais Campbell has been enjoying his best season yet, his first with the Jaguars. Campbell insanely has registered over 24 pressures from both the left and right side of the line this season, and broke Jacksonville’s single season sack record last week. He’s capable of winning from either side, as well as from the interior. With three forced fumbles and 12.5 sacks entering week 14, he remains one of Bobby Wagner’s biggest competitors for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

On the inside, the newly acquired Marcell Dareus joins Malik Jackson and Abry Jones as the main contributors. Jones has started all 12 games at nose tackle, while Jackson offers another versatile option and is incredibly disruptive from the inside. Dareus, meanwhile, has shored up the Jaguars’ one flaw on defense. In weeks 1-7, opposing offenses averaged 139 yards per game on the ground. In the five games since he was acquired, that number is down to 83 yards per game. Jacksonville’s defensive line can win inside, they can stop the run, and finally, their edge rushers can get home.

Pass rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler have both enjoyed breakout seasons. Ngakoue was a standout rookie on a bad Jaguars team last season, out-shining Fowler and collecting eight sacks. Fowler recovered from a torn ACL suffered in offseason workouts prior to his rookie season in 2015, posting four sacks in his first season on the field. In 2017, they’ve both made the step up. Ngakoue has become an every-down player and is outshined only by Campbell, his 10 sacks putting him second on the team. In his two seasons, he’s shown a penchant for getting the ball out as he arrives at the quarterback; his six forced fumbles so far in 2017 have eclipsed the four he forced in his rookie season. Fowler, meanwhile, has become a situational pass-rusher and is shining in that role. His 6.5 sacks are third on the team, while he plays less than 50-percent of the defense’s snaps on a weekly basis. Like Philadelphia last week, Jacksonville’s defensive front can hurt an offense in a variety of ways, and like last week, it’s going to take another strong performance by Seattle’s offensive line to slow them down.

Will the Jaguars go back to what works?

Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone made waves this offseason when he said he wanted to run the ball on every single play. On the one hand, Blake Bortles. On the other hand, running on every down didn’t make a ton of sense. But as sure as a head coach walking out on his team, they committed to the run heavily to begin the season. Rookie phenom Leonard Fournette totaled 130 carries in the first six games, including a season-high 28 in a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Since then, Fournette has dealt with minor injuries and a team-enforced suspension, and too much has fallen onto Bortles’ shoulders. The quarterback-turned-meme has thrown over 30 passes in five consecutive games, a clear departure from the recipe that worked so well to begin the season. Similar to the early Wilson-Seahawks (but with far, far less competent quarterback play), dominating time of possession and a stifling defense is the Jaguars’ strengths. They’ve won just once when their opponent scores double digits; in games they’ve won, their opponents are averaging just eight points.

Marrone and co. aren’t solely to blame for the recent switch in philosophy. Since returning in week 10, Fournette has struggled, topping 100 yards just once. Just 21-percent of his carries in that span have gained five yards or more - the NFL average is 33-percent - and he’s averaging just 3.3 yards per touch. Even still, Fournette is a transcendent talent at the running back position, 11th in DYAR among ‘backs and, well, a brick shithouse. If Jacksonville is to get back on track, grab hold of their division, and have a chance at making noise in the AFC playoffs, they’re going to need to get back to what works.

The Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright factor

Tackles are a trivial stat, for a variety of reasons. Wagner and K.J. Wright’s performance last week against Philadelphia is an excellent example of why. LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi are two of the most difficult ‘backs in the league to bring down, especially one-on-one. Wright and Wagner did an excellent job of arriving at the ball on time, cleaning up and finishing tackles whenever it appeared Ajayi or Blount were going to start carrying the pile of Seattle defensive linemen several yards further. The duo combined to register just 16 tackles, but were in on a helluva lot more than that.

Fournette and Chris Ivory represent a similar challenge; players capable of churning out yards after contact. To maximize the Seahawks’ defensive line’s impact, Wagner and Wright are going to need another week of half-step early recognition and cleaning up tackles on every carry. But for as much of a challenge Fournette and to a lesser extent, Ivory represent after contact, it’ll be just as much of a task before contact.

The Jaguars’ running backs have 1080 yards on the season before contact, the most in the entire NFL. It’s a credit to their offensive line, as well as an indication of just how run heavy their offense has been this season. Like Ajayi, Fournette has the ability to decimate a defense when he gets to the second-level. His combination of power and explosiveness is a tough proposition for any defender in the open field. Thankfully for Seattle, they have one of the best linebacker duos in the entire league, featuring the best linebacker. Reading and reacting to runs is an innate skill to Wagner, and that will be put to the test against the Jaguars.

The Jimmy Graham show

Jacksonville cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey are very, very good. On the season, the duo has combined for six interceptions, 16 pass breakups, and one opposition choke-hold. Bouye has an opposing passer rating of 31.7, while Ramsey’s is 51.9. The Jaguars’ defense as a whole has allowed an opposing passer rating of just 65.6, the best in the league. And so for as great as Doug Baldwin is, and for how impressive Paul Richardson’s breakout campaign has been, it could be a quiet game from the pair on Sunday. Enter touchdown maker extraordinaire, Jimmy Graham.

By now, Graham’s resurgence is no secret. The tight end has an NFL-leading nine touchdowns, all of which have come in his last eight games. However over that time, Graham’s averaging just 4.5 catches and 41 yards per game. That’s not a knock on Graham. The ability to put the ball in the paint at any given moment is an incredibly valuable skill, and one that only a handful of players possess in any given season. However against Jacksonville, there’s a chance his volume, and impact all over the field, is increased substantially.

Not only will the Jags’ tandem of Bouye and Ramsey have the potential to completely wipe Baldwin and Richardson from the game, but they could be missing a key piece on defense. Linebacker Telvin Smith, as rangy of a linebacker as they come, remains in concussion protocol as of Wednesday — although he did practice fully. If Smith were to miss another game, Jacksonville could of course turn to Myles Jack - whose shadowing of Nelson Agholor when they were both in the PAC-12 remains one of the most impressive college football displays I have ever seen - to cover Graham. If it isn’t Jack or Smith, the job would likely fall to safety Tashaun Gipson. Gipson is coming off a great game against the Colts, not allowing a catch and picking off Brissett. Graham, however, has a healthy eight inches and 55 pounds on Gipson, meaning Jack or Smith is likely the Jaguars’ best option. Graham’s unique combination of size, pass-catching ability and finding the ball makes him an elite threat in the redzone. With Seattle coming up against the league’s best cornerback duo, it’s time for his dominance to transfer to the rest of the field.

A win on Sunday would keep the Seahawks on pace with the division-leading L.A. Rams, setting up a massive NFC West showdown the following week. Assuming Seattle holds serve at home against the Rams, they would own the tiebreaker over L.A., and move that much closer to hosting a playoff game.