Browns, Jaguars will pit young quarterbacks on struggling teams in prime time.
The Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew is second in the AFC with 854 yards rushing. The Browns are giving up 142.8 yards per game.
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CLEVELAND -- Always outspoken, often opinionated, and sometimes outrageous, Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew felt the NFL should have moved Sunday's kickoff between the Jaguars and Browns.
An epic matchup deserved a high-profile TV slot.
"Both of us are 3-6, both love to run the ball, play solid defense, two young quarterbacks, definitely prime time," joked the man called Mojo, tongue firmly planted in cheek. "It should have been a Tuesday night game."
Or maybe Tuesday morning.
On the surface, the Browns-Jaguars matchup looks less than inviting. However, it does appear the two teams are near mirror images of each other -- young, struggling-if-not-inept offenses, better-than-average defenses, coaches feeling the heat, and fans eager for the season to either end or turn around quickly.
One week after a stunning, one-point loss at home to St. Louis, the Browns get a chance to improve their record against a comparable opponent before they get to December, when they'll play five games inside the brutal AFC North. The Jaguars appear to be the calm before the storm, but to survive the Browns will have to slow Jones-Drew, who comes in second in the conference with 854 yards rushing.
Stopping the run has been a major issue for the Browns, who gave up 128 yards to Rams running back Steven Jackson last week and are allowing 142.8 yards per game.
"Each week we know we have to face a talented runner," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "Steven Jackson was a load last week. We had our hands full with him and this week Maurice Jones-Drew. He's having a tremendous year. He's a smaller back, but you can't look at his size and overlook him. He's great out of the back field. They use him a lot on third down. He can stand in with the big guys.
"It's a good test for us again, and our mindset on the defensive side of the ball is to hold him under 100 yards rushing."
Jones-Drew has proven to be quite the road runner.
He leads the league with 94.8 yards rushing per game on the road since 2009, with two of his three 100-yard games this season coming away from home. Last week, Jones-Drew churned out 114 yards on 25 carries in Jacksonville's 17-3 win at Indianapolis. And although Cleveland's defense has been giving up ground in huge chunks, Jones-Drew said statistics can be deceiving.
"I watched the tape against the Rams, and they did a pretty good job of bottling up Stephen Jackson," he said. "He broke a couple of good runs but for the most part it was two, three, four-yard runs he was getting. It's going to be tough for us. Stats are stats. Anytime you play an NFL team there are a lot of things that go on, so hopefully we'll be a balanced attack this week."
Passing has been a challenge all season for Jacksonville, and this week will be especially difficult.
The Jaguars are averaging a league-low 122.1 yards per game as rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert goes through the growing pains that come with the transition from college to the pros. Gabbert, the No. 10 overall pick in this year's draft, has been plagued by his own inaccuracy, dropped passes, and a dearth of playmakers.
This week, he's got another problem in the Browns' top-ranked passing defense.
"Yeah, they're the No. 1 defense in the NFL against the pass," he said. "They're the sixth overall defense in the NFL, so it's another great defense we're playing. It just means we've got to work even harder."
Gabbert's best option this week might be to simply hand the ball off to Jones-Drew, who gained 133 yards rushing last season in the Jaguars' 24-20 win over the Browns. Jones-Drew added 87 yards receiving as Jacksonville won despite six turnovers.
"Mojo is going to do his thing, and my job is to do mine," Gabbert said.
The Browns spent much of the week trying to figure out their red zone and end zone woes.
Quarterback Colt McCoy moved Cleveland inside St. Louis' 20-yard line four times last week, but had to settle for a field goal from Phil Dawson on each touchdown-less trip. The Browns' inability to score has been a season-long epidemic as they've yet to score a TD in the first or third quarters of any game, a troubling trend the club can't allow to continue.
Making matters worse, the Browns have gone more than two games and 25 consecutive drives without scoring at home.
"We've been doing a pretty good job of moving the ball down the field, then we get to the red zone and kind of fizzle out," tight end Benjamin Watson said. "It's very disappointing for us as an offense, especially when you move the ball down the field. At the end of the day, it's about putting points on the board -- that's why you play offense."
Browns coach Pat Shurmur believes his offense is close to breaking through what seems to be an invisible wall at the goal line.
"There was a handful of plays last week where had we executed them better we'd have got into the end zone," he said. "I think our scheme is sound, I do like our players, and we have receivers, tight ends, and backs that can do all the right things to get the ball in. It's just a matter of doing it."
The same is true for the Jaguars, whose best chance may be to put the ball in Jones-Drew's hands and let the 5-foot-7, 208-pound bowling ball roll. In the 27 games Jones-Drew has carried more than 20 times, the Jaguars are 18-9.
Mojo wouldn't mind 30 to 40 carries.
"That's a great idea," he said. "I'm 26 years old. I'm young, cute. My wife says that."