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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Big Cat Country

Some information given to us courtesy of Big Cat Country’s Ryan O’Bleness

New York Giants v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Courtney Culbreath/Getty Images

In preparing for Sunday’s matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Big Cat Country’s Ryan O’Bleness and I sat down for a small Q&A for one another’s publications.

1. It’s a bit broad but how are the Jacksonville Jaguars? Are things settled down after an awful 2021 season? Is Doug Pederson the coach?

It’s hard to get a true read on this team. I think Jacksonville is a very young team that competes, but doesn’t know how to win consistently yet after a long culture of losing has plagued the franchise for so long. This is a team that has been in many one-score games, but has often blown fourth quarter leads.

I do think the Jaguars are more talented than fans and pundits initially thought to begin the season, but the ceiling on this team probably remains around the seven-win mark. The team goes as quarterback Trvor Lawrence goes (more on him in a moment), and the defense has taken some steps back after a relatively strong start from the unit.

As for the 2021 team, the Jaguars are in a much better place as the calendar approaches December 2022. There is a night and day difference with Doug Pederson at the helm compared to the antics of Urban Meyer. Pederson is a head coach who has actually accomplished things in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl as both a player and a coach, and it’s obvious his players believe in his vision and want to play for him. Pederson is also very skilled at drawing up creative plays and creating mismatches. None of that could be said about Meyer.

I do think Pederson is the right coach to turn around this long dormant franchise. However, he has made some bone-headed in-game decisions throughout the year, and it certainly hasn’t been perfect for him, but what coach is perfect? This team still has a long way to go, but if anybody can get Jacksonville to become a real competitor in the AFC again, I believe it is Pederson.

2. How’s Trevor Lawrence looking this season? Are Jaguars fans seeing development and progress?

Lawrence has been inconsistent, but is starting to put it together. Jaguars fans have been quite hard on him, especially earlier in the season, because he is yet to truly deliver on the promise of his unlimited potential. But when you’re dubbed as “generational talent” and were considered to be the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, expectations are pretty unfair. Even though Lawrence does have a sky-high ceiling and possesses all of the skills and traits to one day be the NFL’s best quarterback, or close to it, what fans and observers need to understand is that it still takes time to develop in the NFL, especially at the quarterback position.

He has shown bad tendencies over his first two seasons: locking into one receiver, not going through his progressions quick enough, not taking the check down when it’s needed, getting too aggressive or trying to do too much himself, etc. But, it is evident over the past few weeks that he is learning. Where he particularly has struggled this season is in the red zone. Perhaps it is an issue of being too aggressive or overzealous inside the 20-yard line. He has appeared to have made better decisions there over the past game or two, though. But on the season as a whole, he has completed just 25 of 50 passes for 166 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in the red zone. The low completion percentage and turnovers have been the concerning parts because points are being left on the board there.

Overall on the season, Lawrence has completed 227 of 348 passes (65.2 percent) for 2,334 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions with a passer rating of 89.7. Most of those numbers rank toward the middle of the pack in the NFL so far this season, but over the last two games, Lawrence has played very well. In those two contests, Lawrence has completed 54 passes of 71 passes (76 percent) for 498 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s also using his legs more, rushing for 79 yards on 10 carries (7.9 yards per carry) in that span. It’s a small sample size, but maybe Lawrence is beginning to figure it out.

He also had very strong games early in the season in the victories against the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers. He had a very poor game filled with turnovers in heavy rain conditions against the Philadelphia Eagles, and I would classify the other games around the “average” mark (maybe slightly above or below depending on the game).

Lawrence also makes a couple of “wow” throws every game that make you realize just how good he is and how great he could be. He needs to work on his touch and accuracy a bit, but he has the skill set to make just about every throw. It’s really about efficiency and consistency with Lawrence, and likely only a matter of time before he truly unlocks his potential. Pederson is the right coach to get him there.

3. You’re suddenly Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman. How do you go about scheming against the Jaguars defense?

The Jacksonville defense seems to be susceptible to crossing routes and throws over the middle of the field. The Colts had a lot of success with this in the second meeting between the teams on Oct. 16 and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce did some damage as well. That is expected against a Mahomes’ led offense, but what was more concerning was the Jaguars’ inability to stop a Kansas City rushing attack that was not statistically strong entering the game. The Chiefs rushed for 155 yards, led by Isiah Pacheco’s 82 yards on the ground.

The Jaguars still rank 11th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (110.1 yards per game), but after a strong start to the season in that regard, things seem to be trending downward. The Ravens run the ball really well, ranking second in the NFL with 162.8 rushing yards per game. Of course, a lot of that is due to quarterback Lamar Jackson’s ability to make plays with his feet, but if I am Greg Roman, I am testing Jacksonville’s rush defense. Give the ball to Kenyan Drake early, call Jackson’s number in the run game, use the read option/run-pass option to their advantage, etc.

If the Ravens are able to establish the running game, that’s when I would open it up to play action passes, crossers over the middle and a couple of vertical deep shots. I would not test Jaguars cornerback Tyson Campbell too often, but the rest of the secondary is very beatable. Jacksonville ranks 24th in the NFL in passing yards allowed (247.6).

If the Jaguars don’t force Jackson to beat them through the air and can’t make Baltimore one-dimensional, it will be a long day for Jacksonville.

4. Who are two Jaguars players (one offense, one defense) Ravens fans should pay specific attention to in this game that may not be on their radar?

Nobody talks about offensive linemen, so offensively, watch how the two tackles, Jawaan Taylor and Cam Robinson, perform in this one. Those two have had strong years overall, but the Jaguars allowed five sacks to the Chiefs in the last game. Taylor struggled in particular against Kansas City’s Chris Jones. It will be interesting to watch if they bounce back against Calais Campbell and the Ravens. In terms of skill players, Christian Kirk and Travis Etienne Jr. are the big names, but wide receiver Zay Jones has been a pretty reliable target for Lawrence and may be a guy who Ravens fans are not expecting a lot from.

On defense, defensive lineman Duwaune Smoot has, seemingly of of nowhere, become one of Jacksonville’s best pass-rushers. He leads the team in sacks with five and also has three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

5. The line for this game is Ravens -4 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Do you agree with this line? Where would you place it?

Since Baltimore is on the road, I think that line feels about right and I wouldn’t necessarily change it by more than a half-point or so. The Ravens are a better team overall and are currently in a better place than Jacksonville, though. I expect the Jaguars to compete and keep it relatively close, but I also expect Jackson to be too much to handle for this Jacksonville defense. I don’t bet much, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think the Ravens win by more than a field goal, so my advice would be to take the Ravens to cover.

6. The Ravens struggle on the road against the Jaguars, with a 3-7 record. What would need to happen for the Jaguars to pull off the upset?

Well, as mentioned, Lawrence has to play a great game. That means he needs to be accurate, cannot give the ball away and has to sustain drives that are leading the points more often than not. He needs to play smart and take what the defense gives him. Lawrence will also need Etienne to be successful on the ground to take pressure off of the passing game, but that is easier said than done against Baltimore’s third-ranked rushing defense (86.4 yards allowed per game). It’s important for the offense to stay on the field long enough to give the defense a breather and keep them well-rested.

Defensively, like I said, Jacksonville cannot afford to let Jackson win with both his arm and his legs. The Jaguars need to contain him in the rushing game and force him to win through the air. The defense also has to generate turnovers and get off the field on third down. The Jaguars are allowing opponents to convert on third downs at a 42.15 percent clip (24th in the NFL).

Again, I don’t see it happening, and I expect the Ravens to win, but I do see this being a closely-contested game for the most part.