JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville used its bye week to retool its shaky defense. The Jaguars simplified schemes and hinted at relying on “more games and stunts” to spark a listless pass rush.
The changes will be put to the test Sunday when Jacksonville (3-7) hosts one of the NFL's hottest teams, the Baltimore Ravens (7-3).
Dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have won four in a row, including two on the road. Baltimore’s defense has been at its best during the streak, allowing 14.5 points a game. Sacks are up, third-down conversions are down and the Ravens suddenly look like the team to beat in the AFC North.
“I think any coach, any teacher, would say the same thing: When you see your students or your players start to have success in ways that you kind of envisioned for them, it’s very rewarding,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said.
“Then again, it’s tempered in our league especially by the fact that you know you’re coming up against a great opponent the very next week that’s very capable of making everything go in the other direction at any time.”
Jacksonville, which is a 3 1/2-point underdog, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, hasn’t proven capable of pulling off any upsets of late. The Jaguars lost six of seven before their bye, all of them in familiar fashion, with either the offense sputtering in the red zone or the defense surrendering way too much.
Jacksonville’s biggest issue has been an inconsistent pass rush, with veteran Josh Allen (three sacks) and linebacker Devin Lloyd bearing the brunt of the criticism. Lloyd has been benched in each of the last two games and is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by fellow rookie Chad Muma.
“I’m obviously looking forward to it,” said Muma, a third-round draft pick out of Wyoming. “I’m ready. I’m excited. When you’re previously in college, you’re looking up to all these guys, these tremendous quarterbacks that are able to do it with their feet and their arms, and Lamar’s one of those guys."
Jackson certainly is that, although he hasn’t thrown for more than 240 yards since Week 2 and has just one rushing touchdown in his last seven games.
“You just hope to slow him down, honestly,” coach Doug Pederson said. “He definitely can beat you both running and throwing. … You’ve got to win your matchups on defense, and you can’t let your eyes wander. You’ve got to be disciplined.”
Pederson indicated the defense simplified schemes.
“The guys have got to continue to work. The coaches have got to put them in a position to be successful, if that’s more games and stunts, if that’s just straight rush, whatever that is. Again, it goes back to winning your matchups. That’s something that the guys have to really focus in on. The coaches have to do a great job of putting them in a position to do that.”
The Jaguars are counting on a better start than they had in their previous two games. They trailed 20-0 at Kansas City in Week 10 and were down 17-0 seven days earlier the previous week against Las Vegas. They rallied in both and even beat the Raiders.
But it’s a position Jacksonville wants to avoid for a third consecutive game.
“We’ve got to be better in the first quarter,” Pederson said. “You never want to be down 17-0, especially to a team like this that’s playing well right now. It just opens up a lot of stuff for them. It’s crucial that you try to come out and score early.”
Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell returns to Jacksonville for the first time since the Jaguars traded him to Baltimore. Campbell played three seasons (2017-19) in Jacksonville and earned the nickname “The Mayor of Sacksonville."
The 36-year-old Campbell has 4 1/2 sacks this season, his most since leaving Jacksonville. He’s two shy of 100 for his career. His last game against the Jags came in 2013.
“It’s a little sentimental, I guess, but really it’s just another football game," he said. "It’s cool because I did spend three years there. It seems like it was a lot longer than it really was. It was just three or four years, but I had a lot of fun there.”
The Ravens have one game remaining on their schedule against a team that’s currently .500 or better, at Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.
Baltimore’s next four are against teams that currently are 3-7. Still, the Ravens needed a strong fourth quarter to put away lowly Carolina in a 13-3 victory last week, so they don't plan on overlooking Jacksonville.
“I’ve heard it said, ‘This is the best 3-7 team,’ whatever that means. All these teams are really good,” Harbaugh said. “This is the NFL, and this is a really good team. ... This is a young team. They’ve lost a bunch of (games) by one (score). They have a bunch of physical players, a physical offensive line. Their quarterback — you know their quarterback — he’s the No. 1 pick in the draft."
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Baltimore contributed to this report.
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Mark Long, The Associated Press