JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Cam Bradfield and Austin Pasztor went from the bench to the trench in less than week.
The Jacksonville Jaguars actually performed better with them on the field.
The former backup offensive tackles are now starters for the Jaguars, whose patchwork offensive line could prove to be a turning point or a trouble spot for the winless franchise.
The Jaguars (0-5) traded left tackle Eugene Monroe to Baltimore last Tuesday, then lost rookie Luke Joeckel for the season five days later. That thrust Bradfield and Pasztor into spots they've never been before — Bradfield starting on the left side for the first time in his three-year NFL career and Pasztor on the right. How they handle the promotion could be the key to Jacksonville getting its sputtering ground game going.
"It's going to force us to communicate even more," guard Uche Nwaneri said Wednesday. "Some guys are stepping in. They've been here, so they know how we're running things. But we need to be able to be on the same page at the same time."
Jacksonville's line has looked discombobulated most of the season.
The Jaguars rank 30th in the league in rushing, averaging a little more than 58 yards a game. Switching to a zone-blocking scheme and getting three-time Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew back from a foot injury did little to boost a ground game that struggled most of last season.
Outsiders blamed the inside guys, saying Nwaneri hasn't fully recovered from knee and ankle injuries, that 36-year-old center Brad Meester is showing his age and that third-year guard Will Rackley simply had to be replaced.
The attention has since shifted to the edge protectors.
The Jaguars traded Monroe for two third-day picks in the 2014 draft, a move they made mostly to get Joeckel in his more natural position at left tackle. It also got the franchise something in return for Monroe, the eighth overall pick in 2009 who was in the final year of his rookie contract.
Monroe wasn't a perfect fit in the new scheme, so the Jaguars had decided they were unlikely to pay him the kind of money he would garner in free agency.
The move backfired when Joeckel broke his right ankle in the first quarter Sunday at St. Louis. Joeckel was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.
Now, the Jaguars are left with Bradfield and Pasztor.
"They did a nice job," coach Gus Bradley said. "We talked earlier about the world being big for some of those guys, but when they're thrust into it like that, I think that they performed pretty well."
Jacksonville ran for a season-high 96 yards against the Rams. Jones-Drew finished with 70 yards on 17 carries, though 68 of his yards came after contact.
"It's just how it's been," Jones-Drew said. "Runs are set up for you to beat one guy and now the guys have been a little bit lower in the box than before. You've just got to be ready for that."
Having receiver Justin Blackmon back from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy may have helped open things up. It also could have been that Jacksonville played St. Louis, which ranks 23rd in the league in total defense and 27th in rushing defense.
"I felt like a number of things came together," Nwaneri said. "Having Justin back took that extra man out of the box and Maurice started to get into a little bit of a groove. We started to see him break those tackles and stretch those runs out into bigger gains and us getting some movement on the line and creating some lanes for the running backs.
"It really allowed us to get into a rhythm with that running game in the second half last week."
Now the challenge is whether the Jaguars can continue to move the ball on the ground.
Jacksonville plays at Denver (5-0) on Sunday. The Broncos lead the NFL in rushing defense, giving up less than 70 yards a game. That's one of the many reasons the Jaguars are 28-point underdogs.
"Every man who's here is paid to do a job and paid to go out and perform at a high level," Nwaneri said. "People on the outside are going to say whatever they want to say. It's just people's nature. People like to see others go through misery, like to see people go through problems. But inside these walls, we're all confident in what we can do."
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