Jags' rookies vs. Colts' stars: natural order prevails

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

INDIANAPOLIS -- The way things played out on the final, crucial downs of the Colts’ win over the Jaguars was nothing short of the NFL’s natural order.

On Sept. 21, 2008 David Garrard drove the Jaguars to a win with a field-goal drive here at Lucas Oil Stadium. Sunday the Jaguars’ quarterback was positioned for similar heroics. The clock read 1:59. He had a timeout and a first-and-10 at his own 35-yard-line. The following series ensued:

“It’s kind of what the rules are,” said Freeney of beating rookie Jags' tackle Eugene Monroe on the final play of the game that mattered, helping preserve a 14-12 win. “He’s a rookie. I’m a vet. It just has to go that way.”

In Freeney versus Monroe, Mathis versus Eben Britton and Reggie Wayne versus Derek Cox, things came out as you’d expect. Established, productive and highly paid Indianapolis stars got the better of green first-, second- and third-round Jacksonville draft picks.

Freeney and Mathis were part of a productive pass rush that got only one sack -- from Freeney -- but forced Garrard to make quick throws. The Colts' pass rush rarely allowed for anything to develop downfield, stifling the potential for the sort of big play that could have made the difference for the underdog. Receivers caught only five of Garrard’s 28 throws, for an average of 12.8 yards.

Meanwhile, Cox picked off a Peyton Manning pass into the end zone early in the first quarter intended for Wayne. Cox later recovered a Joseph Addai fumble.

But he said he was tracking Wayne on all but about three plays when the wily veteran lined up in the slot. While not every yard goes against Cox’s record, Wayne was largely unsolvable as Manning looked to him 14 times. They connected on 10 of them for 162 yards and a touchdown.

Still, at the two-minute warning, Jacksonville had a reasonable chance to win the game.

Early on the Jags took advantage of some of the Colts’ aggression, with screens and throw into spaces rushers were coming from. But with time dwindling and a field goal needed, they couldn’t find the one big play to extend their life.

“When you’re in that situation [at the end], all their job is now is to go straight for the quarterback,” Garrard said of the Colts' pass rushers. “They know we’re not going to run the ball, they know we’re not going to do quarterback sneak or anything. They’re just going to pin their ears back and go after you. And that’s really where the test is for us, the test is for those two bookends [Monroe and Britton].

“It was tough. They’ve got good players. I can do a better job getting the ball out of my hands. But I’ve still got to have a little bit of separation so that I can throw it down the field. Overall, for their first time playing, against two top pass rushers, I thought they did a pretty doggone good job.”

Monroe and Britton were both understandably somber in the post-game locker room. They had the look many rookies thrust into early work have on such occasions, the look of players who spent three hours finding out exactly how difficult life as a pro is.

Monroe played Freeney to a standstill on some snaps. Other times, the end’s faster-than-you-can-comprehend spin move left Monroe an observer, hoping that Garrard saw what was coming and was able to evade it or throw before it arrived. Often, the quarterback was up to it.

“I think he might be the only person to spin like that,” Monroe said of Freeney. “Hats off to him. I haven’t seen anything like it. …It’s definitely a bit of a confidence booster to know I can come into a game and fight with a guy through the entire game who’s made a lot of people look silly.”

Britton said Mathis gave him the speed move on the last play, that he opened up too early, didn’t get a good enough punch on him, saw Mathis dip under it and beat him outside.

“That’s definitely a good guy to start with,” Britton said. “I don’t want to say I’m not going to see many guys like that but he’s a special player that’s for sure. I think that’s probably a great experience for Eugene and I, to go up against such incredible players like Freeney and Mathis in our first game.”

As for Cox working against Wayne…

The cornerback out of William & Mary surely never saw anyone like Wayne in college. Cox did some good things. But once Anthony Gonzalez left the game in the first quarter with a right knee injury Wayne said he felt additional pressure to produce, and he did so, largely at Cox’s expense.

“Good experience, that’s the kind of challenges you want, he’s a good receiver,” Cox said. “It was nice to play against him, compete against him, compete against a great guy like that. I cherish the experience, I am going to get better from it and see what the elite receivers are like in this league. … Not my best outing. I know what I need to get better at.”

Three rookies got on the Jaguars' team plane with a better understanding of what it will take to fight against Pro-Bowl caliber talent.

Three veterans went home tired but satisfied in the knowledge that for the first Sunday of the season, they held off the young guys nipping at their heels.