The Jacksonville Jaguars have quickly become a fan-favorite in the NFL playoff picture. In a rare case of worst-to-first, this team has thrived under head coach Doug Pederson. Unfortunately for this Cinderella, the midnight hour may be close at hand as the Jags square off with the Kansas City Chiefs. Let’s look at the matchups Jacksonville will need to focus on if they are going to keep the fairy tale alive.
The Ultimate Mismatch For The Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars have improved defensively throughout the year. This includes their pass defense, which has eeked up towards the middle of the pack in the NFL. However, they are still among the league’s worst in covering tight ends. Gerald Everett and the Chargers’ other tight ends combined for 12 receptions and 156 yards last week. This week, they’ll take on the best pass-catching tight end in the league, if not in its history.
Travis Kelce is averaging 6.5 receptions and 78.7 yards per game. He has also converted 78 first downs this season and has been a headache to nearly every defense he’s faced. Kelce has been held under 50 yards only three times this season.
Jacksonville will need to mix coverages against the Chiefs regardless, but man coverage should be a large part of their scheme. It’s doubtful that any linebacker can keep pace with Kelce, even the league leader in total tackles. While Foyesade Oluokun may not be an option, perhaps Rayshawn Jenkins will be able to step up. He’s going to have his hands full, though, deciphering Kansas City’s pre-snap splits.
The Numbers Game
The NFL is a copycat league, and one of the latest trends has been the adaption of Vic Fangio’s Cover 6 defense. To put it briefly, the defense splits the field in half at the center (the position) and counts the number of skill players on each side. In a traditional shotgun formation, there are three players on one side of the ball and two on the other. In that case, the defense will play a cover four against the stacked side of the formation. On the weak side, the defense will drop into a cover two. This defense can be a nightmare for offenses when used correctly.
Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy have figured out the antidote throughout the season. Using pre-snap motion, Kansas City is able to determine the defense’s coverage while also causing an imbalance in the splits. With four receivers on one side, the Chiefs have canceled the defense’s advantage on that side while creating a man-to-man situation on the other side. Mix in Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield, and you’ve given Patrick Mahomes more options than he needs.
The best way for Jacksonville to combat this will be to play as much man coverage as possible. While the Kelce matchup is frightening, there is some good news. The Jaguars are the second-best team in the NFL at containing running backs in the air. Josh Allen will be a crucial factor as well. After a rough stretch in the regular season, Allen leads the league in quarterback pressures over the last three weeks with 23. If Allen can get to Mahomes often, then the Jaguars’ opportunistic defense has a chance to create game-changing turnovers.
What A Difference A Year Makes For The Jacksonville Jaguars
If Jacksonville wants to win this game, they will need to score plenty of points. Luckily, they have the right man on the sidelines this season. Doug Pederson has been a godsend to this franchise. After an abysmal season under Urban Meyer, Pederson has turned this team around well ahead of schedule. It’s no secret that Pederson, a former quarterback, is an offensive-minded coach. His in-game adjustments and maximization of his player’s talents give them a puncher’s chance in any game. Pederson’s no stranger to this underdog role, either. If there were ever a guy to lead this team to an AFC Championship Game, it’s him.
Tactically, let’s look at one of the most impactful plays of last week’s win against the Chargers. On a fourth down and short, the Jaguars lined up in a three-back formation. The offense was clearly showing a quarterback sneak, which likely would have succeeded, leading to a long field goal attempt for the win. However, Jacksonville handed the ball to Etienne on a stretch play that broke to the outside, leading to a huge run that set up a chip-shot game-winner from Riley Patterson. Plays like these are what make Pederson and his staff special. It isn’t enough to be aggressive. They take calculated risks with the potential for booming rewards.
Trevor or Travis?
With the season on the brink, Trevor Lawrence proved that he has what it takes to be a franchise quarterback. We can expect an efficient day from Lawrence, who should cut down on the four interceptions. Jacksonville is 11th in the NFL in pass protection, and Lawrence has been incredibly accurate with the football. He continues to struggle against mixed and disguised coverages, though, something the Chargers’ Asante Samuel Jr. took advantage of last week. Of course, Lawrence will need to be great in order to get a victory, but this game will hinge on the success of Travis Etienne.
Despite the Jaguars’ subpar run-blocking, the Chiefs will provide them with plenty of opportunities to move the chains. Kansas City frequently uses two deep safeties, which allows for one-on-one matchups in the box. Pair this with Etienne’s ability to get to the corner on stretch runs, and the Jacksonville Jaguars could find that their path to the AFC Championship is on the ground.