Plenty Of Improvement, But Room For More: Jaguars’ Health Check At Midpoint Of London Stay
By Simon Carroll
The Jacksonville Jaguars bounced back from consecutive losses on Sunday, plucking the Falcons’ feathers en route to a comprehensive 23-7 win at Wembley Stadium. Simon Carroll looks back at a successful weekend for the teal and black, and whether their weekend across the pond can be a launch pad for the season that many expected in Duval County:
A Required Reset
“This break came at the right time for us.”
Doug Pederson cut something of a relieved figure in the post-game press conference at Wembley on Sunday. The Jaguars head coach – usually a placid, composed individual – was visibly annoyed one week earlier, his team having been humbled at home by the Houston Texans. Pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong in Week 3, with all three phases of the game under scrutiny. Pederson demanded a response. And whilst it wasn’t perfect, the performance was much improved.
Pederson acknowledged the yearly trip to London was needed. This franchise is battling the weight of expectation – something that is unfamiliar in Jacksonville. The end of last season, coupled with the growth of franchise QB Trevor Lawrence and the acquisition of receiver Calvin Ridley, has the Jaguars mentioned amongst the elite in the AFC. Playoff football is the barometer for success, and the level they showed against the Texans wasn’t that of a team playing in January.
A reset was required. The team was trying too hard, forcing the issue. Getting away from Jacksonville for a change of scenery and an opportunity to bond as a team was welcomed. And it seems to have done the trick, as the Jaguars bounced back to winning ways. With the second leg of a London double header on the horizon, things look optimistic – but Doug and his coaching staff will know more is needed if they are to beat the Bills and head home with a winning record.
After the misfires from the week before, the offense looked back in sync. Lawrence had his best game of the season, showing good mobility to extend plays and hit his targets downfield. Calvin Ridley got back to his game-changing ways, and Christian Kirk was leaned on heavily to move the chains. This unit suffered from the loss of Zay Jones, but seems to have found its rhythm without him – despite added injuries to Jamal Agnew and Parker Washington. Washington was effectively ruled out of the Bills game by Pederson on Monday, whilst Agnew and Jones remain ‘day to day’ regarding their returns.
The Jaguars have a pass rush! Jacksonville fans have bemoaned the lack of sacks from this team for the past six seasons. And despite a raft of first round draft picks, the production has remained stubbornly underwhelming. Well that changed on Sunday. Josh Allen got to Desmond Ridder three times at Wembley – an International Series record for one player. It included the game-sealing strip sack of a quarterback who struggled to challenge the Jaguars all game, aside from the one impressive touchdown strike to Drake London in the third quarter. The Jaguars will certainly want to take this momentum with them into the Bills game to try and disturb Josh Allen and his high powered passing attack.
That front seven benefited from some pretty impressive coverage in the secondary. Tyson Campbell fared well against the aforementioned London, whilst his opposite number Darious Williams had a day to remember. The 6th year corner had five tackles against the Falcons, as well as an impressive pick-six midway through the second quarter. There seems to be a real confidence in the back end of this defense, with Andre Cisco looking imperious as the center fielder and Rayshawn Jenkins bringing his physicality down into the box. Meanwhile, Tre Herndon practically erased Kyle Pitts all game, limiting him to to catches for 21 yards all game. This defense is legit.
Injuries haven’t been used as an excuse by this coaching staff, which is admirable. But they have certainly had an effect on performances. The most obvious would be on the offensive line, where the Jaguars shuffled some personnel on Sunday to find more cohesion. Rookie Cooper Hodges was a revelation in preseason, only to suffer a patella injury that still keeps him out. Ben Bartch assumed duties at left guard, but was replaced by Tyler Shatley against the Falcons.
Atlanta’s pass rush did little to test this offensive line, but it will be a different story at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this weekend. Gregory Rousseau is on fire, and there’s rumors even Vonn Miller might be back. The Bills will present a much sterner challenge. Doug Pederson intimated that Cam Robinson was in good condition and will be monitored this week, noting he could improve their third down conversion – particularly in the run game. Could that see Walker Little kick inside? Time will tell…
Speaking of third down conversion – it has not been good. The one glaring weakness of this offense has been moving the chains consistently on third and fourth down. On Sunday they went 6/16 in such situations, the week before 5/14. Overall for the season, 3rd & 4th down conversion stands at a paltry 30.5%. Considering their average yardage to gain has been just shy of 4 yards, this is not a pretty figure. The Bills bring with them a fierce defense that just contained a Dolphins team to 20 points – a whopping FIFTY less than the week before. The Jags will need to make their possessions count.
One final concern – Chad Muma. The second year linebacker stepped in for the injured Devin Lloyd on Sunday, given the unenviable task of controlling Bijan Robinson. Muma made some big plays in the second half in coverage, but his athleticism was exposed by Robinson, who near enough juked him out of his cleats with his first touch of the ball. There will be better players than Muma who will fare worse against the presumed OROY, but it’s a concern for the Jaguars – Bills RB James Cook is a similarly elusive ball carrier, and Muma will have his hands full once again.
Sunday: A True Litmus Test
In my last article I asked what was wrong with the Jaguars. A little self-reflection allowed this team to address many of the issues that were raised, and it showed against the Falcons. It’s easy to overreact to a 1-2 start in a sport where there are only 17 games on the schedule. But the Texans loss was so egregious and unexpected, it shocked not only fans but the coaching staff too. Doug Pederson had preached a fast start all offseason, only to find his team heading to London sub-.500 once again. But the team responded as required, and morale is back. This was just a blip, and the Jags are looking forward – not back.
One win out of two was the minimum for this trip – but will momentum be cut short if they fail to beat the Bills on Sunday? Prior to the season, this game against Buffalo and the ‘other’ Josh Allen was considered an early season yardstick to see just how competitive the Jaguars could be in the AFC. Now, it holds much more weight than that; win, and the Jaguars are truly back on track with the wind in their sails and the NFL very much on notice. Lose, and they return home 2-3 with more questions than answers.
This trip may have come at just the right time for Pederson and the Jaguars. Playing the Bills this week is a different story entirely.
Feature Image Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
PREVIOUSLY THE FOUNDER OF NFL DRAFT UK, SIMON HAS BEEN COVERING COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND THE NFL DRAFT SINCE 2009. BASED IN MANCHESTER, SIMON IS ALSO CO-CREATOR & WEEKLY GUEST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST.