JACKSONVILLE, FLA. (AP) - Looking for a spark after an inconsistent start, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio challenged Maurice Jones-Drew to run for 150 yards in a game.
Jones-Drew responded with four consecutive 100-yard performances, an impressive streak that still failed to satisfy Del Rio's request. Jones-Drew pressed on, finally hitting the mark with a career-high 186 yards last week at Tennessee.
His reward? A game ball, a pat on the back and another challenge.
"We want him to be the No. 1 rusher in the league," guard Uche Nwaneri said.
Jones-Drew's recent surge _ he averaged 133 yards the last five games _ has him 53 yards behind Houston's Arian Foster (1,230 yards) heading into Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders. Jones-Drew brushed aside talk about taking over the top spot, instead preferring to credit his offensive line, tight end Marcedes Lewis and fullback Greg Jones for his success.
"I'm only one part of this puzzle," he said.
The most important part.
Jones-Drew is making a strong case for Most Valuable Player consideration. He has more carries than anyone in the league (261), and despite playing through knee, abdomen and wrist injuries, he has pretty much carried the Jaguars (7-5) to the top of the AFC South with four wins in their last five games.
Del Rio probably deserves some of the credit, at least for issuing the challenge during a team meeting.
"He's a special young man," Del Rio said. "He's a great football player. I think he has the heart of a champion. For him to respond when he's having personal success the way he does, I think that's indicative of a real leader. I think he understands it's not just about any one person. ... You can't do it by yourself and I think he understands that."
Jones-Drew realized that late last season. Banged up because of so many carries and his never-run-out-of-bounds attitude, Jones-Drew had one 100-yard game and two rushing touchdowns in the final seven games. He was equally slow to start this season, eclipsing the century mark just once in the first seven games and adding one TD on the ground.
He could have used a number of excuses.
Quarterback David Garrard was erratic, Jacksonville's offensive was shuffled and out of sync, and defenses were stacking the line of scrimmage early and often. Jones-Drew also missed part of the preseason because of a balky left knee, the same injury that slowed him last season.
Instead of pointing fingers, Jones-Drew spent extra time in the training room and remained confident things would turn around. Garrard settled down, guard Vince Manuwai recovered from a preseason back injury and moved back into the starting lineup, and Jones-Drew got relatively healthy and back to full speed.
"We knew MoJo was going to get going," Nwaneri said. "It's something that develops over time. Going into the last quarter of the season, he's playing his best ball right now and we're doing as good a job as we've done all season getting him holes and space to run. It's timed out just right."
Jones-Drew started his streak with 135 yards at Dallas, then ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns against Houston following a bye week. He really cranked things up the last three weeks, running for 133 yards and a touchdown against Cleveland, 113 yards at the New York Giants and then enjoyed a career day against the Titans.
He broke tackles inside, found wide running lanes outside and ran over defenders every time he got a chance. His saved his best run for last, when he eluded Chris Hope in the backfield, dealt Michael Griffin a ferocious stiff arm, put a nasty juke move on Tim Shaw and finally hit the ground after a 37-yard gain. The Jaguars ran out the clock from there, settling for a 17-6 victory that was more lopsided than the final score indicated.
Without that last run, Jones-Drew might have fallen short of the 150-yard mark again. Instead, it allowed him to move onto the next challenge _ after plenty of extra attention.
"It's cool everybody is coming to say hello to me, but there are other guys you should be talking to around here," Jones-Drew said. "Those are the ones that are really putting in all the work. ... I just think when we're able to run the ball, we're able to be balanced. When you're a balanced offense nowadays, you're hard to stop, and that's what we want to be."