Keys to the game: Chargers-Jaguars
Fun defenses, Herbert-Lawrence and two conflicting offensive architects
Turn the clock back a year: The Jacksonville Jaguars were picking up the pieces of a disastrous season that ended with the firing of Urban Meyer in his first season. The rumblings early on were that the Jaguars were interviewing candidates like Matt Eberflus, Jim Caldwell, Nataniel Hackett, Todd Bowles and Doug Pederson. As the days went on, almost all of their top candidates disappeared as the apparent “Favorite” was snapped up by another team (Eberflus to the Bears, Hackett to the Broncos and a bizarre showdown between Byron Leftwich and Trent Baalke which left the aforementioned candidate to pull himself out of the race).
When the dust settled, the Jaguars literally “settled” on Doug Pederson. The man whom just three years earlier was standing on the podium in Minnesota gifting Eagles fans with their first Super Bowl championship. The man who QB-whispered his way through a Carson Wentz MVP-worthy season then guided Nick Foles to the unlikely promised land. NBD.
On the other side of the country, Justin Herbert, in the middle of a record-breaking sophomore season that had him as the darling of a league starved for franchise quarterbacks, was in meeting rooms and on the practice field preparing for what ultimately would be a soul-crushing “Lose-and-out” overtime loss in the Week 18 finale. The blame on the season fell on Brandon Staley’s underachieving defense but the belief was that the Chargers organization was trending in the right direction with their young franchise superstar.
This week the Jaguars enter the playoffs as AFC South division champions and in one of the most unlikely outcomes of the 2022 season, they will be hosting the Los Angeles Chargers at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.
Let’s cut to the chase. Both teams have fascinating defenses: The Jaguars run a zone-heavy, dynamic, blitz-centric defense led by standout #1 draft pick Trayvon Walker and Arden Key; the Chargers feature veteran pass rusher Khalil Mack and all-world safety Derwin James as part of a surprisingly dynamic defense that has shifted away from the more conservative approach Staley deployed in 2021.
Those things aside, let’s not kid ourselves; the matchup to watch on Saturday is the two young, premier quarterbacks who will go head to head. No one could have possibly missed Justin Herbert’s rise to stardom in 2021. In 2022, it may have taken a hot finish or an unlikely division-clinching win-and-in performance last weekend for the entire NFL community to lean forwards in their chair and celebrate Trevor Lawrence.
Two of the NFLs youngest, flashiest and brightest QBs will go head-to-head on Saturday night and that’s about all you need to know. Get your popcorn ready.
The WOW Plays
Gaudy statistics are nice for fantasy football fanatics but nothing quite puts a young QB on the map like seeing them execute high-difficulty plays against an NFL defense. It’s the thing that separates the men from the boys, as they say. Herbert is the poster child for these plays. Exhibit A:
For Lawrence, the plays are a tad less sexy and less on the move but they are the kind of plays that offensive coordinators drool about because it looks just like it was drawn up on the board. Whether it is zone coverage or man coverage these guys are covered by a normal human NFL QB:
Go-To Concepts: The Jags
Let’s dig into some of the Jags’ go-to concepts that Pederson has implemented to put Lawrence in the best position to make plays.
Fortunately for Pederson, Lawrence doesn’t need easy options to be presented to him and he’s happy to take the plays that should be there. For starters, Trevor Lawrence might be as good as any quarterback in the league right now at hitting the turkey or honey hole in zone coverage. His pre-snap reads, his anticipation and accuracy are all top-notch in this regard.
Here’s one shot against the Titans. The Jags are in 11 personnel (their preferred package with Evan Engram detached from the formation). They are facing what initially appears as Cover 6 with Cover 2 on the bottom of the screen but ends up a quarters coverage. This is a classic hi-lo concept against Cover 2 but the Titans play it pretty tight. Initially, it looks as though the corner will take the flat but then he drops into the deep quarter. Lawrence is already letting loose with the ball and it could have been a disaster had it not been for the outstanding throw:
On the next play, the Jags ran a similar concept. This time, running back JyMycal Hasty split out to the bottom of the screen with Christian Kirk in the slot. Kirk is the underneath threat and Hasty runs a stutter go and Lawrence delivers the strike to the so-called turkey hole, ripping it between the corner and safety.
That’s a problem for Brandon Staley (duh) – one of the league’s best one-off, defensive gameplanners. If Staley decides to revert back to his two-deep, zone looks and quarters coverage concepts – a mainstay of his defensive identity – he might be in for a long day as Lawrence has demonstrated a consistent ability to read those types of coverage and get the shot play.
Another familiar concept that Pederson rode all the way to Super Bowl 52 was the widely used spread concept mesh. Coaches love this concept as it can be run with average talent at the skill positions, stretches the field both horizontally (and vertically- with the wheel route), and is great against both man and zone coverage. The core idea behind mesh is to clutter the short middle of the field with 2 receivers crossing paths and the vertical element usually comes from a running back running a wheel route to the outside. This often results in a matchup against a linebacker but when things get cluttered, defensive responsibilities slip. As on this play, Hasty comes out of the backfield completely unaccounted for on a coverage bust and the result is an easy big play:
Here’s the same concept against man coverage. Here Pederson sets clutter to another level by essentially creating a wall in the middle of the field. With 3 receivers running in one direction and walling off defenders the DB trailing in man on Evan Engram has no chance as he screams across the yield wide open:
The designs are sound. They work. But Lawrence has been up and down within those base concepts. He ranks fourth among all QBs in explosive plays vs. two-deep safety looks this season, but he sits 26th in EPA per play vs split-safety look – putting him behind Russell Wilson, Kenny Pickett and Davis Mills. It’s a good-day, bad-day thing. If Staley rolls with split-safety looks featuring a bunch of movement on the back-end – as is his want – then we’re staring down a high-variance game: Either Lawrence rips a couple of holeshots or he puts the ball in harm’s way.
We know what Pederson and Lawrence can do against two-deep looks, be it man or zone, but what if Staley toggles to a single-deep look, as he did against Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ brand of pace-and-space football?
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