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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars’ run game still ranks first in the NFL, but the unit hasn’t been as productive over the past month.

Coach Doug Marrone is making fixing that issue a priority heading into Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks at EverBank Field. The offense’s identity and success is tied to what happens on the ground, and improvement is vital for the final month of the regular season.

“We got off to a good start, and I think people have made a very conscious effort to stop us in the run game,” Marrone said. “It goes back to what I said in the beginning. When you are a good running football team, then you should always be able to run the ball when everyone knows you are running it. We are not at that level yet. We are working hard for it.”
Leonard Fournette has only 226 yards over the Jaguars’ past four games. AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton
The Jaguars were able to run the ball despite defenses stacking the box. Leonard Fournette averaged 5.9 yards per carry against eight-plus defenders in the box, and 35.4 percent of his carries came against that alignment in Weeks 1-9, per ESPN Stats & Information.

However, Fournette has averaged just 2.1 yards per carry against eight-plus defenders in the box over the past four weeks despite facing that alignment on 24.7 percent of his carries. Part of that is because of injuries to right tackle Jermey Parnell (knee) and left guard Patrick Omameh (quad). Fournette has also been dealing with an ankle injury and hasn’t had the same kind of burst as he did earlier in the season.

Even so, stopping Fournette and the run game, and putting the game on quarterback Blake Bortles, is still going to be the way defenses attack the Jaguars the rest of the season. Bortles is coming off the best game of his career, but that was against an Indianapolis Colts secondary decimated by injuries.

“It’s going to be hard for us, especially for the running game,” said Fournette, who has run for 226 yards and one touchdown on 77 carries (2.9 per carry) in the past four games. “We’re a running team first, so I don’t let it frustrate me too much because I know what I’m capable of and my O-line is capable of doing. It’s December, and it’s going to be hard to score, hard to get into the end zone.”

Fournette has run for 822 yards in 10 games and is on pace for 1,150 yards, which would be the second-highest total by a rookie in franchise history. Fred Taylor ran for 1,223 in 1998.

“As long as the team wins, I win. It’s not about me,” Fournette said. “I don’t care about getting 1,000 rushing yards. It’s frustrating sometimes, but it doesn’t matter, as long as we win.”

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Here is a full list of the Jacksonville Jaguars players participating in Sunday’s “My Cleats, My Cause” campaign, as well as the causes they are supporting. Some of the cleats will be donated to be auctioned off at NFL Auction, the league’s official auction site.

DT Eli Ankou: Veteran’s appreciation

WR Arrelious Benn: EVERFI (a company that is helping education evolve)

FB Tommy Bohanon: Jacksonville Humane Society

QB Blake Bortles: Blake Bortles Foundation (helps first responders and the mentally disabled)

CB A.J. Bouye: American Cancer Society

LB Blair Brown: American Diabetes Association and American Cancer Society

DE Calais Campbell: The CRC Foundation (helps those who don’t have resources to excel in education and financial literacy)

S Barry Church: Fuel Up to Play 60

WR Keelan Cole: Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida

CB Aaron Colvin: Alzheimer’s awareness

NT Marcell Dareus: Hope for Haiti

RB Leonard Fournette: Crime prevention and The Jaguars Foundation

DE Dante Fowler Jr.: American Cancer Society

S Tashaun Gipson: Alzheimer’s awareness

RB Corey Grant: Child health education

TE David Grinnage: JDRF (Type 1 Diabetes research)

QB Chad Henne: GH Community Fund (helping revitalize parks and recreational facilities)

WR Allen Hurns: 88 Blessings, Inc. (helping single mothers and their families)

LB Myles Jack: Jacksonville Humane Society

DT Malik Jackon: Malik’s Gifts (helps at-risk children, military children and families, animal rescue missions, and families in need of emergency assistance)

NT Abry Jones: Wounded Warrior Project

TE Ben Koyack: American Diabetes Association

WR Marqise Lee: Family Support Services

TE Marcedes Lewis: The Marcedes Lewis Foundation (educating children about the benefits of healthy living and exercise as well as providing scholarships)

LB Lerentee McCray: Big Play McCray Foundation (helping at-risk youth in Ocala, Florida)

CB Jalen Myrick: Alzheimer’s awareness

DE Yannick Ngakoue: Jacksonville Humane Society

TE James O’Shaugnessy: Prostate cancer

DB Tyler Patmon: Light into Darkness (helping children find their special gift)

LB Donald Payne: Colon cancer awareness

LB Carroll Phillips: Sulzbacher Center (helping the homeless in Jacksonville)

OL William Poehls: Wounder Warrior Project

LB Paul Posluszny: Pat Tillman Foundation

CB Jalen Ramsey: First responders

LT Cam Robinson: Prostate cancer awareness

WR Allen Robinson: Within Reach Foundation (providing education opportunities and resources to low-income and inner-city children in Jacksonville)

DE Dawuane Smoot: Jacksonville Humane Society

WR Jaelen Strong: At-risk youth

DB Peyton Thompson: National Multiple Sclerosis Society

WR Dede Westbrook: Domestic violence awareness

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CLEVELAND — The Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Cleveland Browns 19-7 on Sunday to take a one-game lead in the AFC South. And while it was a jubilant locker room, head coach Doug Marrone and several players all said the same thing: Winning ugly is great, but it’s not sustainable.

The second half of the season is when teams are supposed to gather momentum for the playoff push, but dumb mistakes and injuries to key players on the offensive line have had the Jaguars (7-3) stuck in survival mode the past two games. They won both games — which is something multiple players have said wouldn’t have happened last season — but they know they have to start playing better.

“I talked to them afterwards, [and I told them] I think we’ve got to clean some things up to be able to push forward, to start going in that direction,” Marrone said. “I told the players, ‘I hate to be Debbie Downer, but we’ve got to clean some things up if we want to move forward in the direction that we want to move in.'”
Leonard Fournette worked through an ankle injury to gain 111 yards against the Browns, but he lacked his usual burst. AP Photo/Ron Schwane
That would be winning the AFC South and making the playoffs for the first time since 2007 — and doing some damage once they get there. For now, though, the Jaguars will take ugly victories because it obviously beats the alternative.

On offense, quarterback Blake Bortles threw the ball pretty well against the Browns, considering the chilly conditions — and the fact that he didn’t have No. 2 receiver Allen Hurns — but he lost a fumble, which has been an issue throughout his career. The offense had 284 yards, but 206 of them came in the first half. The unit sputtered in the second half when the run game couldn’t get going. The offensive line struggled to create much room, and the Jaguars felt the loss of Hurns in the pass game.

Special teams were a mess in the first half, too. The Jaguars gave up a 53-yard return on the opening kickoff, committed an illegal-formation penalty on a punt, got a 21-yard punt from Brad Nortman and had an offside penalty on Donald Payne that wiped out an onside kick that Josh Lambo had recovered.

That’s not all. Jaydon Mickens also dropped a punt (which he recovered), and Lambo missed a 41-yard field goal after he had gone 8-for-8 since signing with the team on Oct. 17.

Those kinds of mistakes on special teams didn’t hurt the Jaguars against the Browns, but they will against better competition — and in the playoffs, when every mistake is magnified.

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“At the end of the day, we’ve got to figure something out, because these type of wins, they’re not just going to continue to just roll,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “Every team in this league is capable of winning, but we’re going to start playing these good teams, like Seattle, so at the end of the day … all phases of our game got to be firing, whether it’s special teams, offense and defense.

“It’s a blessing to be able to get an ugly win like this, but right now, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board. We’ve got to figure something out for sure.”
Getting healthy at key spots will help, especially on the offensive line. Right tackle Jermey Parnell (knee) missed his second consecutive game. Left guard Patrick Omameh (quad) left the victory over the Los Angeles Chargers early and didn’t play against the Browns. Bortles was harassed in the pocket all day and was sacked twice.

Running back Leonard Fournette played after he was listed as questionable with a right-ankle injury. While he did rush for 111 yards, he didn’t look as good on Sunday as he did during the season’s first six games. He said after the game that the injury was something he was going to have to manage the rest of the season.

The Jaguars are winning ugly, which teams have to do sometimes, but that can’t continue if they’re going to make a deep run in the playoffs.

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BEREA, Ohio — Several Cleveland players said Wednesday they feel disrespected by Jacksonville Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson’s harsh comments about the Browns, and that topic was discussed by head coaches Doug Marrone and Hue Jackson with their respective teams.

Gipson was a Pro Bowler with the Browns before the team chose not to re-sign him as a free agent after the 2015 season.

In an interview with ESPN’s Freddie and Fitz radio show on Monday, Gipson took some swipes at Cleveland’s front office for letting him leave, predicted the Jaguars will score 40 points this Sunday against the NFL’s only winless team and believes the Browns will “probably go 0-16.”

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Jags’ Gipson ‘glad to get up out of’ Cleveland
Ahead of the Jaguars’ game against the Browns, Jacksonville safety Tashaun Gipson spared nothing in his criticism of the Cleveland front office, which he said has bungled decision after decision.
Gipson admitted to the media in Cleveland on Wednesday that his radio comments were “probably out of turn” and clarified that his remarks were directed at the Browns’ front office. But he said he stands “by my comments that we’ll be 1-0 on Sunday.”

“Anybody would be disrespected from that,” defensive tackle Danny Shelton said, according to Ohio.com. “So we’ve just got to go out there and play our game, be dominant.”

Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey said Gipson is only trying to “rile up” his teammates, but that his words have provided some extra motivation. Kirksey and Gipson are close friends.

“I’m going to say what I’m going to say to get my team riled up. The best man wins. The best team wins,” Kirksey told reporters.

Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer said he’s looking forward to “prove him wrong with those comments.”

Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said he addressed Gipson’s comments with his team and that the safety will not be disciplined.

“Obviously, I addressed it with the team today,” Marrone said on a conference call with media members who cover the Browns, according to Cleveland.com. “We’re really focused on ourselves. We know that we have a couple of tough matchups. We don’t necessarily match up well with Cleveland, so we’re going to have to play extremely well. I have a lot of respect for the coaches, the ownership and obviously the players there.

“That’s not something that we like to do as a team. It’s been addressed, and we understand that it is going to be very difficult for us to go on the road and win a football game.”

Browns coach Hue Jackson also addressed Gipson’s comments with his team.

“You can bet your bottom dollar I did,” Jackson said, according to CBS Cleveland. “I don’t think we need any motivation. We are an 0-9 football team so I don’t think we are looking for anything. The opportunity to play is motivation enough for this football team. We want to win. That is what it is all about.”

Rookie tight end David Njoku said he is looking forward to exchanging words with Gipson on the field Sunday.

“I love the smack talk. Without smack talk for me, I feel like the game isn’t complete. So that just drives me more. I just love it,” he told reporters.

“I’m going to be talking to him during the game. Obviously, if we’re competing against each other, smack talk is going to happen,” he said.

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Help is on the way … sort of.

We’ve reached the point in the NFL season where some top players will be returning from the minimum eight weeks spent on injured reserve. But how many of them can truly help your fantasy team?

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is the only safe bet (and still just 51 percent owned in ESPN fantasy leagues, so go get him).

Baltimore Ravens running back Danny Woodhead should be back for Week 11, but he’s entering a backfield that feels more crowded than when he left. Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson says he wants to play again, but he’s still a long shot. And it’s hard to get too excited about Cleveland Browns receiver Corey Coleman.

Here’s the lowdown from ESPN’s NFL Nation:

OLSEN: Olsen will be back after the Week 11 bye, and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton said he expected the 11-year veteran to “blend right into the role he’s had in the past and maybe be Cam Newton’s security blanket once again” after the Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin. In fact, Newton says he thinks Olsen’s pending return was one of the reasons why Carolina was comfortable letting Benjamin go.

Carolina does have other options that have emerged since Olsen broke his foot in Week 2, including receiver Devin Funchess and tight end Ed Dickson. But Olsen was ESPN’s No. 4-ranked tight end heading into the season for a reason. In 2016, he became the first tight end in NFL history to record three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Tight end Greg Olsen, right, is on track to return for Carolina in Week 12, meaning he could provide a late-season lift to both Panthers QB Cam Newton and fantasy players. AP Photo/Mike McCarn
JOHNSON: Don’t get too excited here. But hey, if you’ve got an extra bench spot now that the bye weeks are almost over, why not? Johnson told Sports Illustrated that the cast comes off of his dislocated wrist Monday, and he still wants to try to play this season even if the Cardinals are out of playoff contention. But there are many reasons to be skeptical he can heal in time or that Arizona would risk putting him on the field if the playoffs are out of reach. Plus, Johnson probably wouldn’t return to his every-down role immediately.

ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss says Johnson’s return will be determined by how quickly he can regain the function of his left wrist, which could take a week or two or the rest of the season. Weinfuss wrote recently that a doctor told Johnson a wrist injury is “tricky” to recover from because of the number of small bones and ligaments around the wrist.

WOODHEAD: The veteran runner/receiver should be close to full health when he returns from a hamstring injury in Week 11. “I’m feeling good, but I understand there’s a process,” Woodhead said. The concern is that running back Alex Collins and fellow runner/receiver Javorius Allen have played well in Woodhead’s absence, so both should continue to have meaty roles. But there’s no doubt Baltimore’s offense could use a jolt.

COLEMAN: The second-year pro is eligible to return from his broken hand in Week 11. But ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon cautioned against expecting too much right away. As he wrote, the former first-round draft pick has more to prove both on and off the field before he can live up to his lofty expectations.

RISING RECEIVERS

As ESPN Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein wrote, Marvin Jones has become a big-play, touchdown-catching, creating-space-when-there’s-not, red-zone-threat receiver. Jones has been on a tear over the past three games, with 19 catches for 331 yards and three touchdowns. Although the sixth-year veteran went quiet last season after a hot start, Rothstein said he believes Jones can be a trustworthy option for your starting lineups down the fantasy playoff stretch.

Sterling Shepard also has a chance to emerge as a consistent fantasy starter. ESPN New York Giants reporter Jordan Raanan said he was going to be the Giants’ No. 1 wide receiver down the stretch, probably playing close to 100 percent of the team’s snaps. “His target share will be high … both in the slot and on the outside,” said Raanan, who pointed out that Shepard got nine targets this past Sunday in his return from an ankle injury and should have had a 75-yard touchdown when Eli Manning overthrew him on a wide-open deep ball. Shepard still finished with five catches for 70 yards.

Likewise, Marqise Lee has been the Jacksonville Jaguars’ best receiver this season despite dealing with rib and knee injuries over the past three games. And as ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco wrote, coach Doug Marrone is expecting even bigger things from Lee as he gets healthier. Lee has 17 catches for 230 yards over the past three games (including his first TD catch of the season in Week 9). And DiRocco said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has been trusting quarterback Blake Bortles more to open up the passing game.

Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden also sees bigger games coming from second-year receiver Josh Doctson, who finally delivered the type of big-time, 38-yard catch in the final minutes of Sunday’s 17-14 victory at Seattle that teammates and coaches have seen in practice. “He’s a first-round guy; that’s a first-round catch,” Redskins cornerback Josh Norman said of Doctson, who finished the game with three catches for a season-high 59 yards.

Robert Woods was the most added position player in ESPN leagues this week after he caught his first two touchdowns of the season Sunday. He has become fantasy-relevant, with at least 59 yards in five of his past six games. But as ESPN Los Angeles Rams reporter Alden Gonzalez wrote after receiver Sammy Watkins had a season-high 67-yard touchdown catch in the same game, the Rams are going to keep spreading the ball around among Woods, Watkins and receiver Cooper Kupp, among others.

ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer said history suggests that veteran receiver Terrance Williams’ breakout game in Week 9 (nine catches for 141 yards) isn’t a sign of things to come and that he still remains fourth in the pecking order behind Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley. But Archer wrote about the respect the Cowboys have for Williams, even though he probably gets more grief from the outside than anyone else on the team.

New England Patriots receiver Phillip Dorsett probably won’t become too fantasy-relevant down the stretch this season. But as ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss wrote, Dorsett will have a nice opportunity to show how much he has grown with his new team this week while Chris Hogan is out because of a shoulder injury.

That type of opportunity doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon for Cincinnati Bengals rookie John Ross, however. ESPN Bengals reporter Katherine Terrell detailed what has kept the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft off the field.

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This isn’t the first time we’ve linked to one of Archer’s breakdowns of the Cowboys’ backfield without Ezekiel Elliott. But it’s more relevant now that the running back is finally set to serve his six-game suspension. As Archer has maintained, the Cowboys will use a committee approach with Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith to replace the Elliott monopoly.

Tom Brady must be thrilled to have tight end Martellus Bennett back, Reiss writes. Bennett should provide the Patriots a needed boost in the red zone, assuming his shoulder is healthy enough.

There are two reasons why you can use both New Orleans Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in your fantasy lineups: They’re both versatile enough to contribute in the run game and the passing game. And the Saints are running the ball as much as ever in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era.

The Miami Dolphins also like where their running-back duo of Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams is heading in the wake of the Jay Ajayi trade.
Indianapolis Colts RB Frank Gore is aiming to get rookie Marlon Mack ready to take the reins from him in the future.

Kareem Hunt’s slump has more to do with the Kansas City Chiefs team as a whole than himself.

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan has been “a little off” but needs to find his MVP touch.

Benjamin is on track to contribute Sunday in his Buffalo Bills debut.

Chicago Bears receiver Markus Wheaton is the ultimate wild card for fantasy owners.

Philip Rivers is up next on the Jaguars defense’s QB revenge tour.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville Jaguars center Brandon Linder will miss his second consecutive game with an illness when the Jaguars play host to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, but coach Doug Marrone said Linder is progressing with his recovery.

However, the team will not say exactly what type of illness Linder has other than that it’s not something he could pass to teammates by being around them.

“We know it’s getting better,” Marrone said. “That’s what I know right now. It’s just a matter of time [before Linder is cleared], and you never know what it’s going to be.”

Linder did not play in last Sunday’s victory over Pittsburgh, and he did not practice at all this week, but Marrone said Linder did some conditioning work on Friday. Tyler Shatley will start in Linder’s place again on Sunday against the Rams. The Jaguars ran for 236 yards, including 181 by Leonard Fournette, in their 30-9 victory over the Steelers.

In July, the Jaguars signed Linder to a five-year, $51.7 million contract extension, with $24 million guaranteed, which made him the highest-paid center in NFL history. He was the team’s third-round pick in 2014.

The Jaguars also have two players questionable for Sunday: receiver Arrelious Benn (groin) and left guard Patrick Omameh (hip). Both are expected to play against the Rams.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s time for another Jacksonville Jaguars mailbag. Each Saturday morning I’ll answer a representative question, hitting a topic that drew the most interest. Submit your questions via Twitter to @ESPNdirocco. Please use the hashtag #jagsmail.

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Which player from the Jaguars 2014 draft class do you envision Coughlin/Caldwell will decide to let hit the open market next year? #jagsmail
2:47 AM – Oct 27, 2017
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@ESPNdirocco: The Jaguars have already locked up center Brandon Linder (five years, $57.1 million) and linebacker Telvin Smith (four years, up to $50 million) and picked up the fifth-year option on quarterback Blake Bortles. That leaves only three players from the 2014 draft class that don’t have a contract beyond this season: receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee and cornerback Aaron Colvin.

Unless Bortles has a phenomenal second half of the season, his time in Jacksonville is likely over after this season. That’s not anything new so I’ll skip that so we don’t waste time. So let’s deal with Robinson, Lee and Colvin in order from least likely to be back to most likely:
Unless Aaron Colvin is willing to stay in Jacksonville for below market value, he probably won’t be back. Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire
Colvin: Though he has the talent to play outside, Colvin has been the Jaguars’ nickel back this season. That’s not a surprise considering the starters on the outside are Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, the top corner tandem in the NFL. That’s an issue for Colvin because he wants to play outside, which won’t happen here unless there’s an injury. Colvin also wants to be paid outside corner money, which is significantly higher than nickel back money, and that’s not going to happen here.

Colvin has played well this season (22 tackles, one fumble recovery) but nickel backs are not hard to find, so unless Colvin is willing to stay here for below market value — and he will be a player other teams will pursue — he won’t be back.

Lee: He hasn’t developed into the big-play receiver the Jaguars envisioned but he’s been solid after he proved he could stay healthy following his first two years. He won’t command a big-money contract so he could be an affordable option for the Jaguars at around $6-8 million per year. Lee did tell me he wants to be back but he may be willing to test the open market first.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Jaguars do with receiver Allen Hurns because that may play a role in what they do with Lee. Hurns — who joined the team in 2014 as an undrafted free agent — signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension last June after catching 115 passes in his first two seasons, including 64 for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Since he signed the deal, though, he’s caught 61 passes and missed five games with injury. He’s scheduled to earn $6.9 million in 2018, though only $4 million of that is guaranteed for injury only. The Jaguars can cut him before the third day of the 2018 league year and owe him nothing and have no dead money on the cap.

The Jaguars could opt to cut Hurns, keep Lee to play on the outside, and use 2017 rookie Dede Westbrook in the slot in 2018.

Robinson: It would be surprising if the Jaguars didn’t bring back Robinson. They’ve had the beginnings of extension talks and now that the team has finished Smith’s deal Robinson would figure to be their top priority. He may be hurt a bit by the fact that he’s sitting out this season because of a torn left ACL, but Robinson could still command a contract in the $14-$16 million range annually. If the Jaguars cannot work out a long-term deal, then expect them to use the franchise tag. The 2017 franchise tag value for a receiver is $15.7 million, so that wouldn’t be an outrageous option.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jaguars released kicker Jason Myers and signed former Los Angeles Chargers kicker Josh Lambo on Tuesday.

Myers struggled during training camp and preseason but got off to a solid start before struggling in two of the last three games. Meyers missed a 52-yard field goal attempt against the New York Jets in a game the Jaguars lost 23-20 in overtime and missed a pair of 54-yard field goal attempts in the Jaguars’ 27-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.

Myers made 11 of 14 field goal attempts and 15 of 17 PATs this season and all three of his missed field goals were from 50 yards or longer. His two misses against the Rams were wide left by a significant margin.

In his 37-game career with the Jaguars, Myers missed a total of 27 kicks: 12 PATs and 15 field goals. Two of those misses came in a 16-13 overtime loss to Indianapolis in 2015. Myers missed a 53-yarder in regulation and a 48-yarder in overtime.
Jason Myers was 0 for 3 this season on field-goal attempts of 50 yards or more. Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The Jaguars opted to keep Myers over fan favorite Josh Scobee, who also is the team’s all-time leading scorer (1,022), because of his strong leg. He had a rough season as a rookie in 2015. He missed seven PATs but only four field goals. He missed only three PATs but seven field goals in 2016.

Over parts of three seasons, Myers made only 10 of 19 field goal attempts of 50 or more yards (52.6 percent), which is well below the league average of 61.6 percent since he entered the league.

Lambo made 52 of 64 field goal attempts and 70 of 78 PATs in two seasons with San Diego. The Chargers surprisingly cut him in favor of undrafted rookie Younghoe Koo before the season began.

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Before the NFL flameout, the legal troubles and suspensions, the superstardom, records and Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel arrived in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 10, 2012, to face top-ranked Alabama.

Manziel racked up 345 total yards and scored two touchdowns to beat the reigning national champions.

What legend was growing for Johnny Football was fully birthed and the Heisman all but secured when all was said and done at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Five years later, players, coaches and broadcasters recall Texas A&M’s trip to Alabama:

Part I: The buildup

Alabama was 9-0 with its sights set on a second consecutive national title after a tooth-and-nail battle with LSU. Thanks to an AJ McCarron-to-T.J. Yeldon screen pass with 51 seconds remaining, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide escaped with a 21-17 win, and the path to another ring was clear. Their next opponent, SEC newcomer Texas A&M, was just another inevitable win on the way to SEC and BCS championships.

Alabama defensive end Damion Square: “I can remember being on the bus after a hard-fought LSU game in Baton Rouge and getting on the bus and saying, ‘Man, this don’t stop. We have A&M next week.’ And the guys didn’t know. They were like, ‘A&M? We’re gonna beat them. Our heartache is over,’ because LSU was always the team we had to worry about in the SEC.”
T.J. Yeldon and AJ McCarron beat LSU in dramatic fashion the week before facing Texas A&M. AP Photo/Bill Haber
Alabama middle linebacker Nico Johnson: “You get a new team in the SEC, of course in your head you’re like, ‘Nah, they’re not ready for this SEC play, this speed.’ … We weren’t practicing our best, we weren’t preparing our best, and Coach [Nick] Saban and Coach [Kirby] Smart had been preaching all week long that we needed to practice better.”

In College Station, the 7-2 Aggies were confident. Manziel’s Heisman Trophy campaign was heating up thanks to his weekly highlight reels — the latest coming from a 25-point victory at 15th-ranked Mississippi State. Manziel already had 2,527 passing yards, 922 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns. The Aggies respected Alabama, certainly, but the plans for an upset were in motion.

Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury: “Johnny was the kind that if he felt he could just go into the game and do his deal, there wasn’t a lot of extra put into it, if you can imagine that. But that was [a week] where he was spending some more time watching film. I think he understood the magnitude.”

Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter: “Coach [Kevin] Sumlin came to us all week and was telling us, ‘Don’t be surprised when we’re up by 20 at halftime. Don’t let it shock us and take us out of our game.'”

Kingsbury: “It was more psychological warfare. I remember [McCarron] crying after the LSU game … so we knew they were going to be emotionally spent to an extent. If you were ever going to catch them, it was going to be that week.

“I remember having to go back to 2011 to find a film where people really scored on [Alabama’s defense]. It was Georgia Southern, running the option, and I went and showed the film [to the players]. … I said, ‘Hey, listen, I know everyone’s saying they’re an NFL team and they can’t be scored on, and things of this nature, but I’m going to show you [an FCS] team and this is what they did to them.'”

Alabama long-snapper Carson Tinker: “That whole week, we didn’t have a quarterback on scout team. … It might have been a receiver, like Christion Jones. We said, ‘Hey, just scramble. Don’t even worry about throwing the ball.’

“The theme all week was, ‘Survive assaults.’ We knew Johnny was going to make plays, we just had to make sure we kept our composure.”

Part II: Pregame

When game day arrived, the anticipation was palpable.

Texas A&M radio network sideline reporter Will Johnson: “There’s something in that stadium, that the moment you walk in on game day — even if it’s six hours before kickoff and nobody’s there — it more than any other place has a feeling that something big is about to go down here.”

Texas A&M associate athletic director for football Justin Moore: “That might have been the first time we had been to a 100,000-seat stadium. This is the SEC. This is what we signed up for, right?”

Porter: “There were some Alabama alumni on the field before the game while we were warming up. Most of them were bigger guys, 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. A couple of them came over and talked to me and [linebacker Jonathan Stewart]. And they walked up to us and kind of looked us up and down and said, ‘Oh, are these the receivers practicing right now?’ We just kind of smirked at them and jogged off.”

Less than two hours before game time, Manziel — who wasn’t speaking with the media because Sumlin bars freshmen from doing so — let the world know where his mind was via Twitter.

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Give to them nothing but take from them EVERYTHING. Time to turn up and leave it all on the field #gigem #12thMan
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Kingsbury: “Usually on game days, he’s locked in and focused. He turns into a different beast.”

Alabama radio analyst and former Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage: “There was just a confidence in watching [A&M] in the warm-up that, ‘You know what? We’re pretty good and we’re getting ready to show the world.’ They had a looseness about them that day.”

Part III: Game time

Alabama went three-and-out on the game’s first possession and it didn’t take long for Manziel to show the Crimson Tide what A&M’s nine previous opponents already knew. On the Aggies’ fifth offensive play, Manziel took off for a 29-yard run, stiff-arming Alabama defensive back Deion Belue in the process. Two minutes and 50 seconds later, it was 7-0.

McCarron threw an interception. A&M took over and what came next was a play that won’t soon be forgotten: On third-and-goal from the Alabama 10-yard line, Manziel ran into right tackle Jake Matthews, bobbled the football, caught it, rolled to his left and found a wide-open Ryan Swope in the back of the end zone.

Will Johnson: “Of all the plays Johnny made, that’s the most speechless I’ve been.”

Kingsbury: “I just remember the whole crowd was going crazy … and then it was complete silence when Ryan catches that ball.”

Nico Johnson: “When I saw Johnny drop the football, pick it up and shake three or four guys, and rolled out and shook another guy and threw it off his back foot in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, I was like, ‘This is not meant for us to win today, man.’ It had that feeling like nothing would go our way.”
Alabama aimed to limit Johnny Manziel’s scrambling. He ran for 92 yards in the game. Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
A stunned crowd watched as Alabama went three-and-out and the Aggies marched downfield yet again. Sure enough, just as Sumlin told his players earlier that week, they were up 20-0 — except it was still the first quarter.

Alabama recruit (and later defensive lineman) Jonathan Allen: “I was excited. It was supposed to be a great game and then all of the sudden we’re down [20] because of someone named Johnny Manziel.”

Nico Johnson: “Of course we were bigger, so we were trying to punish [Manziel]. We were trying to make him feel those hits. But at the same time we couldn’t get to him because he’s so shifty and so fast. Well, it became frustrating and it caused problems because now every single guy is trying to do their own thing. … Now you get people not doing the right thing and then Johnny is going to be Johnny and he’s going to eat.”

But the Aggies knew the large lead wouldn’t last. Not against Alabama.

Kingsbury: “I remember calling [the offensive players] over, because I knew it was coming. I knew the run was coming, because [the 20-point lead] happened so quickly and seamlessly. I remember standing up and saying, ‘We’ve got to keep scoring.'”

Texas A&M running backs coach Clarence McKinney: “They got backed into a corner and they came out swinging. We felt that … it was just a matter of how we were going to respond to it.”

Alabama started running the ball more with Yeldon and Eddie Lacy and finally got on the board. Receiver Amari Cooper was a popular target on the next scoring drive, and by halftime the Crimson Tide were within six. Still, Saban wasn’t happy.

Nico Johnson: “Our game plan that week was to make Johnny a pocket passer. We didn’t want him getting outside and ripping and running and extending plays because that’s what he was great at. Well, we didn’t do that. So Saban, after seeing us frustrated on the sideline for not doing our job, he ripped into us. And Coach Smart said the same thing: ‘Just do your job. Just do your job.’ Because we weren’t. A lot of us weren’t doing our job and a couple players got pulled out because of that.”

Lacy began to pile up yardage in the third quarter and the Crimson Tide added a field goal to cut the A&M lead to three points. As day turned to night and the deficit shrunk, the home crowd fed off of it.

Texas A&M receivers coach David Beaty: “One of the biggest memories for me was just how electric that place was. It was unreal. That’s why you want to play college football, right there.”
AJ McCarron rallied Alabama in the second half, connecting on a long TD pass to Amari Cooper. John David Mercer/US Presswire
Part IV: Crunch time

As the game wore on, Manziel began to rely less on his legs and more on his arm. Early in the fourth quarter, Manziel threw a strike to Swope, who took a monster hit from Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (who was penalized for hitting a defenseless receiver above the shoulders). Swope stood up and let out a primal scream after holding on. The Aggies missed a field goal, but Yeldon fumbled on the ensuing drive.

The next A&M possession was two plays: a 42-yard Manziel toss down the right sideline to Swope and a 24-yard corner route to Malcome Kennedy for a touchdown to give the Aggies a 29-17 lead.

Kingsbury: “[The two throws] were as perfect as you could get.”

The Crimson Tide weren’t done, however. McCarron found Cooper for a 54-yard touchdown on the next drive to close to within 29-24, and the defense finally began to corral Manziel. By the time McCarron found Kenny Bell for a 54-yard gain to the Aggies’ 6, there were just more than four minutes to go and only 18 feet separating Alabama from taking the lead.

On third-and-goal, McCarron scrambled for 13 seconds and headed for the end zone, where he was met by cornerback Dustin Harris, setting up fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.

Will Johnson: “That was real tension on the sidelines … we’ve come this close to a monumental win and now it could get taken away. Energy and elation left the A&M sidelines after those two bombs and now reality was setting in. The defense is on the field, so Johnny’s not the one that can bail you out now, it has to be somebody else.”

Bell went in motion to the right side. McCarron took the snap. Cooper ran high and Bell ran underneath. A&M cornerback Deshazor Everett jumped in front of Bell — avoiding the rub by Cooper — and intercepted McCarron with 1:36 left.
Deshazor Everett sealed Texas A&M’s win with his late interception. AP Photo/Dave Martin
Moore: “It was one of those where they practiced it and screwed it up in practice. Finally, by the end [of the week] of practice, they had finally gotten it right. So it turned out they were in that exact play in that situation, and Deshazor was ready for it and jumped out.”

Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis: “My head was actually down. I was kind of praying and I picked my head up at the last minute and I saw him jump the route, and it just went ecstatic from there. Like a joy you never felt before.”

Part V: The aftermath

When the clock hit triple zeroes, the Aggies celebrated.

Will Johnson: “You’ve seen A&M do the water bottle thing where they throw the water in the air after a big win. Well, the ceilings in the Alabama visiting locker room are really low. So they throw the water in the air and they’re jumping so high and the ceiling is so low that they were busting through the tile. … By the time the team left the locker room, there were all these tiles that were stacked up on top of each other on the floor and people were commenting, ‘I guess we’re going to have to send them a bill.'”

Lewis: “We broke a few tiles in the ceiling that we had to apologize for … but it was all worth it.”

Alabama, on the other hand, was in shock.

Allen: “It was somber. Just a feeling of defeatedness.”

Nico Johnson: “Coach Saban after the game said, ‘This is what happens. This is what happens when you don’t prepare your best. When you don’t prepare your best, you get the worst end of the results.'”

Alabama radio play-by-play announcer Eli Gold: “A lot of people were concerned: Has this ended Alabama’s season? There were many, many people saying, ‘Did the dream of this season end on the field today?'”

Savage: “That was a while ago and Bama had not transitioned defensively and not really embraced the idea that, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to adjust our philosophy here because the sport is changing right under our feet.’ That was one of the games that really set in motion them adjusting their recruiting, trying to get more athletic defenders at all levels of the defense, corners playing safety and that concept. That was one of the games that steered them in the direction they’re in now.”

The Aggies had seemingly arrived. Tracy Wolfson, the CBS sideline reporter, concluded her postgame interview with Sumlin by saying, “Welcome to the SEC.” And Manziel became a national sensation with a signature Heisman moment secured. Later that night, even an LSU defensive lineman gave Manziel a ringing endorsement.

Porter: “I think the media was kind of shocked. We weren’t shocked.”

Moore: “It certainly changed the perception of A&M. … It let everybody know that we could compete at the highest level. And it just changed expectations, too.”
The Aggies reveled in their victory over No. 1 Alabama. AP Photo/Dave Martin
Kingsbury: “[Manziel] was already going pretty good down in College Station, prior to that. … [The Alabama win] took it to a whole other level. We show up and there’s I don’t know how many thousands of people waiting — and here comes the rock star. They had to have police security literally walk him through these masses of people to get him to his car.”

Lewis: “I still get asked about the Alabama game. It’ll live on forever. … Any time I have A&M gear on, people ask what year I played and, ‘Did you play with Johnny Manziel?'”

In the end, both teams had good conclusions: The Aggies finished 11-2 and Manziel won the Heisman; and the Crimson Tide went on to win another national championship.

Tinker: “[In the locker room] Saban was like, ‘What do we do now?’ And I remember the speech Saban gave after the LSU game the year before in 2011, and word-for-word I just said the speech he gave last year. I feel like that was my shining moment as a senior. I said, ‘Guys, we still have an opportunity to do something great. We still have a chance to go to the SEC championship. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Keep fighting. Keep doing everything we can to be the best football team we can be, and we’ll see what happens.’

“That’s what Saban said the year before when we lost to LSU, and we ended up playing in the national championship. … I gave that same speech and the same thing ended up happening. We had one loss, we went back and won the SEC championship game, and got to play Notre Dame in Miami.”
Sumlin: “That whole year had an impact. [That] one game was a big deal. But the season — for what people thought would happen with the move to the SEC — I think that entire year was really a positive situation for the football program. … There’s pluses and minuses that came with that, too, and we all know what those are.”

Nico Johnson: “[Manziel] had a great season to that point and then he pretty much solidified his Heisman Trophy by going to Alabama and beating us in our house. It was crazy. And then we continued to win throughout the year and it made his performance even greater that day.”

Texas A&M radio play-by-play announcer Dave South: “I still say it to this day … I’ve seen some great players in those 47 years [of calling football], but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like Johnny Manziel.”

 

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jaguars could be without starting receiver Marqise Lee and starting center Brandon Linder for Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh.

Lee (ribs) and Linder (illness) were among four players the Jaguars listed as questionable for the game at Heinz Field. Receiver Jaelen Strong (hamstring) and safety Jarrod Wilson (shoulder) — both reserves — also will be game-day decisions. Linebacker and core special teams player Lerentee McCray (knee) is out.

Lee did do some work Friday, and coach Doug Marrone said that was encouraging, because the receiver had not practiced since suffering the injury during Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets.

“You can’t ever walk in someone else’s shoes when it comes to pain tolerance, but it’s a painful injury,” Marrone said.

Not having Lee would create a huge issue for the Jaguars, who lost top receiver Allen Robinson for the season with a torn left ACL in the season opener. Lee is the Jaguars’ second-leading receiver (13 catches for 159 yards) behind Allen Hurns (16 catches, 186 yards, two TDs).

The Jaguars have only two other healthy receivers who have caught a pass this season: undrafted rookie Keelan Cole (four catches) and veteran Arrelious Benn (one), whose main role is on special teams. They would have an increased role on offense against the Steelers if Lee can’t play.

Strong, whom the Jaguars claimed off waivers on Sept. 19 from Houston, suffered a hamstring injury on a diving catch in his first practice with the Jaguars and missed the team’s next five practices. He was limited in each practice this week and is unlikely to have much of a role on offense.

Max McCaffrey, whom the Jaguars signed off New Orleans’ practice squad on Sept. 12, has played in the last three games mainly on special teams and does not have a catch.

Linder did not practice on Wednesday but was limited on Thursday and Friday. Tyler Shatley would start in his place.