JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars are 6-2, rested and ready for the second half of the 2023 NFL season coming out of the bye week.
After starting the season 1-2, sitting atop the AFC South at midseason is a great spot to be in. But the Jaguars know there are some things that have to be fixed or changed if they’re going to fight for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, reach the AFC Championship Game or even the Super Bowl.
Starting with a matchup against the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers (5-3) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX), the No. 1 priority should be to stop turning the ball over on offense — especially in the red zone. Three of the Jaguars’ 13 turnovers have come in the red zone, more than every team except the Atlanta Falcons and Las Vegas Raiders (both with four).
“To have the record we have and to have given the football away like we have is not common, and that’s something we know is not a formula for success,” offensive coordinator Press Taylor said. “… I think we have eight turnovers when we’re inside field goal range. If, worst-case scenario, the drive stalls out and we end up kicking field goals with a really good kicker, those points are critical for us. Instead, we’ve given the football away and given away opportunities to score.”
Sunday could be a good matchup for the Jaguars’ offense because San Francisco’s defense has struggled in the red zone. The 49ers are allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 61.1% of their red zone trips and only one of the 13 turnovers they’ve forced have come in the red zone.
Defensively, the Jaguars have been one of the league’s biggest surprises. They’re third against the run (allowing an average of 79.3 yards per game) and are tied for the league lead with 18 turnovers.
The 49ers rank fifth in the league in rushing (133.5 yards per game) behind Christian McCaffrey’s league-leading 652 yards on the ground and they’ve been one of the league’s best teams in terms of taking care of the football. They’ve turned it over nine times, the fifth-lowest total in the league.
“You’ve got to play 11-on-11, and it’s about our pieces against their pieces and how best we can maneuver our guys and try to create some matchups somewhere,” coach Doug Pederson said about Sunday’s matchup.
“… It doesn’t keep you from continuing to try and execute your game plan. Good players, give them their respect and you still got to play.”
After this weekend, the next month and a half features games against AFC title contenders Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) and Baltimore Ravens (7-2) and playoff contender Cleveland Browns (5-3) — as well as two games against AFC South foe Tennessee Titans (3-5).
Here are four trends that stood out before the bye week that should continue for the Jaguars to have success over the final nine games.
On the surface, quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s stats aren’t especially impressive: 1,935 yards, nine touchdown passes, four interceptions. Mac Jones (10), Derek Carr (10), Jordan Love (12) and rookie C.J. Stroud (14) all have more touchdown passes, and 15 players have more passing yards.
That’s not exactly the offensive output that many expected from Lawrence in the second season of Pederson’s offense with the addition of receiver Calvin Ridley. But a closer look at Lawrence over the past five games shows that he’s been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL despite those less-than-eye-popping totals.
During the Jaguars’ five-game winning streak, Lawrence is third in the NFL in ESPN’s Total QBR (73.3) and completion percentage (70.9%). Lawrence is positively impacting games even though he’s not throwing for 350-400 yards and three touchdowns every game. He hasn’t been perfect — the end-zone interception against Pittsburgh, for example, was his worst decision and throw of the season — but he is one of the main reasons the Jaguars haven’t lost since Sept. 24.
Pederson isn’t worried about Lawrence still being shy of double-digit touchdown passes.
“We’ve been able to rush the ball pretty well,” Pederson said. “[Travis] Etienne has had some good touchdown rushes as well. That’s going to take a touchdown pass away from Trevor. A lot of these games we’ve jumped out to leads [and] we’re playing from ahead and not from behind so maybe you don’t throw as much in the second half and you can rely on your run game a little bit.”
Lawrence had to carry the offense in the second half of last season, when he threw 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in the seven games following the bye week. He hasn’t had to do that in the first eight games.
However, the Jaguars have games remaining against three teams that rank in the top 10 in total defense: 49ers (10th), Browns (first) and Ravens (second). All three also rank in the top eight in rush defense so running the ball could be tough, which would mean that Lawrence may have to do what he did last season.
Running back Travis Etienne Jr. has carried the Jaguars’ offense through the first eight games. He has scored eight touchdowns, which is nearly half of the offense’s total (18), and has accounted for a third of the team’s big plays (runs of 10 or more yards and receptions of 20 or more yards).
However, the team wants to ease his workload. He’s second in the NFL with 151 carries (Josh Jacobs is the leader with 158 but has played one more game) and with 178 total touches (Jacobs lead with 187) and that’s a pace that coaches don’t want to continue.
“I think we need to continue to involve as many people as we can,” Taylor said. “Now, Travis has played well and has produced for us in critical moments. He’s rattled off a bunch of explosive plays…
“He’s a guy that’s capable of breaking the game open at any point in time, but yes, we’d love to take a little bit of physical wear and tear off of him and get somebody else going in those situations.”
That should mean more work for D’Ernest Johnson and Tank Bigsby, who have rushed for a combined 89 yards on 32 carries (2.8 per carry). Johnson is a veteran the Jaguars signed in the offseason and he has proven he can be effective. Bigsby, the team’s third-round pick, has fumbled twice and had a pass bounce off his hands and get intercepted and is averaging just 2.3 yards per carry.
That doesn’t automatically mean Johnson will get more work than the rookie.
“[Bigsby] is a really good player and he’s a young player, so our confidence doesn’t drop nor should it,” Pederson said. “D’Ernest has done it in his past and his career. Now we’ve just got to get Tank more comfortable, more reps, more opportunities, and I think those will come in the next nine games.”
Kirk and Engram on track for career highs
Receiver Christian Kirk and tight end Evan Engram had career highs in catches and yards in their first season in Jacksonville in 2022, and both are on pace to either match or significantly exceed those numbers in 2023.
Engram’s 73 catches for 766 yards last season were single-season franchise records for a tight end and he’s more than halfway to those numbers in eight games. He leads the Jaguars with 51 catches and is second with 434 yards, which puts him on pace to break the record he set in 2023: 108 catches for 922 yards.
Jimmy Smith is the only player in franchise history to surpass 100 catches in a season. He did it twice, catching 112 passes in 2001 and 116 passes in 1999. Smith and Keenan McCardell are also the only players to surpass 90 catches in a season: Smith had 91 in 2000 and McCardell had 93 in 2001 and 94 in 2000.
Engram is averaging a career-low 8.5 yards per catch this season, but he leads all tight ends in the NFL with 289 yards after the catch. The only thing he hasn’t done is find the end zone, but he’s not bothered by that.
“That’s going to come,” Engram said. “We have to be better in the red zone in general. That’s obviously a goal of ours, to score more points in the red zone. But my day will come for sure.”
Kirk caught 84 passes for 1,108 yards and eight touchdowns in 2022 and he’s on pace for 91 catches for 1,105 yards in 2023. That would make him just the third player in franchise history to post multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons, joining Smith (who did it nine times) and McCardell (four times).
“I think you realize that when the offense is clicking, it runs through both of those guys,” Pederson said. “Whether Calvin [Ridley] is being taken away by double coverages and all that, Trevor seems to find Evan and Christian somewhere.
“… There’s a comfort level with the quarterback, Trevor, and just knowing where they’ll be, second year in the system, all that kind of stuff. It’s a nice comfort to have.”
Allen’s pursuit of Calais Campbell’s record
Josh Allen is having the best year of his career. His nine sacks are tied for fifth in the NFL (one behind league-leader Danielle Hunter’s 10) and his 48 quarterback pressures are fourth. He’s on pace for 102 quarterback pressures and 19 sacks, and it’s that latter number to monitor, and not only because it would guarantee him a massive payday in 2024.
Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Calais Campbell has the single-season franchise record with 14.5 sacks (set in 2017) and Allen had a goal of breaking that record going into the final season of his rookie contract with the Jaguars.
“Of course,” Allen said. “If I’m not trying to achieve the best of what I can do then what am I settling for?”
When Allen gets his next sack he’ll become just the third player in franchise history to record multiple double-digit sack seasons (Campbell and Tony Brackens did it twice). He has 36.5 career sacks and needs just one more sack to tie Yannick Ngakoue (37.5) for second on the franchise’s all-time list. If he were to sign a contract extension — he’s playing on the fifth-year option — and stayed healthy he’d almost certainly surpass Brackens (55) as the team’s all-time sacks leader.
“He’s finishing,” defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell said. “That was one of the goals coming into this year, that we needed to finish more when we rush. Josh has done a great job of getting away, going home and working on his skill [during the offseason], coming back and he’s studying, he understands what he wants to do.
“…Josh is buying into the rush plan and it’s paying off for him.”