Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida as the Los Angeles Chargers will face the Jacksonville Jaguars. Here’s what you should know:
JAGS’ OFFENSE HAS BEEN REVIVED
Before the beginning of the 2021 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars made a bold coaching hire in Urban Meyer. Meyer, who possesses the third-highest winning percentage among coaches in NCAA history, rolled into Duval County owning three national championship rings from his days with the University of Florida and Ohio State, and had garnered respect within the coaching community for his spread-based, power-running offensive approach.
The problem with Meyer, however, was twofold. First, he had never coached in the NFL prior to last season so it was going to take time for him to get used to – he had been fond of saying that being in the pros was like, “playing against Alabama every week”. Unlike college football where there are some pushovers, every team in the NFL possesses good players. Secondly, infamy seems to follow Meyer around, as he’s dealt with numerous off-the-field scandals everywhere he’s been (some he created himself), and they carried over to the pros – so much so to where he lost both credibility within the Jaguars’ locker room and his job.
To correct this error, owner Shad Khan and general manager Trent Baalke hired former Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson. Pederson, who led the City of Brotherly Love to their first Super Bowl title in 2017, has brought respectability back to the Jaguars and is looking to win another championship.
The Doug Pederson offense – a chip off the old block from his mentor, Andy Reid – is a West Coast-style unit that is built off misdirection concepts, quick underneath throws, screens, bootlegs and occasional downfield route combinations. He has the perfect triggerman for this attack in second-year man Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback taken from Clemson with the first overall selection in 2021’s draft.
The mobile and accurate Lawrence was touted as the most pro-ready signal caller in years but went through growing pains a year ago with a completion rate under 60 percent and a 12:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio. This season, however, has been a complete turnaround as Pederson has tailored his system to Lawrence and fixed his mechanics – namely speeding up his footwork and delivery while also giving him defined primary reads – resulting in a 66.3 percentage and throwing for 25 scores with just eight picks. The Jaguars also won the AFC South with a 9-8 record.
Unlike a year ago, Jags also have talent and speed at the skill positions supporting Lawrence. Former college teammate Travis Etienne was taken by Jacksonville in the same year to add some explosiveness to their backfield and he’s responded with an 1,100-yard rushing season.
Christian Kirk, an ex-Arizona Cardinal, provides speed and refined route running ability, Marvin Jones brings shiftiness and quickness to the table and Zay Jones also makes contributions out of the slot while the trio of Evan Engram, Chris Manhertz (a Canisius College graduate) and Dan Arnold man the tight end position.
The Jags have an offensive line that isn’t very athletic or powerful – save for tackle Cam Robinson (who is currently injured) and guard Brandon Scherff. The rest of this unit is composed of Tyler Shatley, Ben Bartch (also injured), Luke Fortner, Walker Little and Jawaan Taylor.
Jacksonville ended 2022 10th in total yards, passing and scoring, and 14th in rushing.
JACKSONVILLE DEFENSE UNSPECTACULAR
Defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, a longtime linebackers coach with the Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals, is finally getting a shot to run an NFL defense in 2022. Cullen, like colleague and longtime NFL assistant Bob Sutton, wants his system to primarily operate out of a base 3-4 and feature man coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where (the system is similar to what Sutton learned from his former boss in New York, Rex Ryan).
Unfortunately for Caldwell, this roster doesn’t quite have the manpower to run his schemes the way he wants at this time. 2022 saw the Jags finish 26th in total yards given up, 28th against the pass, tied for 25th in sacks and 12th versus the run and in points.
Former Seahawk Shaquill Griffin usually travels with the opposition’s best receivers but isn’t quite talented enough to do so on a consistent basis (and is also out with an injury). His teammates on the back end include Tyson Campbell, Tre Herndon, Darious Williams and rangy safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Andre Cisco.
The Jaguars boast a speedy pass-rushing linebacker corps with some potential that includes former first round picks Josh Allen, Travon Walker and K’Lavon Chiasson. Foyesade Olukun and Devin Lloyd are good run stoppers at inside linebacker as well. Their defensive line leaves a lot to be desired, however and is manned by veterans DaVon Hamilton, Folorunso Fatukasi and Roy Robertson-Harris.
BOLTS’ OFFENSE AGGRESSIVE AND TALENTED
During his time as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills from 2015-16, former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn preferred a running game predicated on man-blocking schemes and gap/power principles with guards and tackles pulling around the edge. He and ex-offensive coordinator Shane Steichen brought that approach, plus a vertical passing game based off Coryell system concepts to Los Angeles, and it has been kept along with a few tweaks by current play caller Joe Lombardi.
Quarterback Justin Herbert, while slightly overlooked coming out of Oregon and stuck in the shadows of Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa in his draft year, has shown to be a worthy successor to Philip Rivers. A mobile signal-caller with intelligence, a strong arm and improved ball placement, it was widely believed that the Ducks’ conservative system held Herbert back a bit and more creative minds could bring out the best in him, and so far that has been the case. He’s also shown to be disciplined, plays well within structure and has a good sense of timing and rhythm.
Herbert has a plethora of options as his disposal. The consistently overlooked Keenan Allen is one of the league’s best route runners when healthy (he excels on slants and pivot/whip routes) and understands how to play off opposing cornerbacks’ leverage. Counterpart Mike Williams is a solid downfield threat and physical red zone target (but is out with a back injury), Josh Palmer and DeAndre Carter have played well in supporting roles and Gerald Everett remains one of the game’s most unappreciated tight ends. This group especially does well out of stack alignments.
Running back Austin Ekeler, who is a shifty ballcarrier and a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and split out wide, also has a nose for the end zone having scored double-digits in total touchdowns in three of the last four years. He operates behind an offensive line made up of Rashawn Slater (who has been dealing with a bicep problem), Jamaree Salyer, Matt Feller, Cory Linsley, rookie Zion Johnson and Trey Pipkins III.
A huge dichotomy exists on the Chargers’ offense – they were third in the NFL in passing but third-last in rushing.
CHARGERS’ DEFENSE ALSO GIFTED, BUT BANGED UP AND INCONSISTENT
After four years of executing Gus Bradley’s Cover Three zone philosophy, head coach Brandon Staley brought a different approach to the Bolts in 2021. Staley, a former assistant under Vic Fangio and John Fox (and play caller with the Rams), favors a four-man pass rush and two-deep safety looks out of a 3-4 with well-disguised hybrid coverages that feature man and zone concepts – but mainly relies on Cover Four, or “quarters” coverage with each defensive back dividing the field into fourths and matchup principles to take away vertical concepts.
The cornerbacks who play in these coverages for the Chargers are second-year man Asante Samuel Jr. and Michael Davis (who has replaced the injured J.C. Jackson) on the outside and slot extraordinaire Bryce Callahan. Samuel Jr. is a spitting image of his father, former New England Patriot and Eagle Asante Samuel – a gambling ballhawk who excels in man and zone coverage and takes chances to get interceptions. More often than not, he usually guesses right. Safety Derwin James is versatile enough to play as a deep centerfielder and as a box safety and Nasir Adderly is the other starter next to him.
Up front the Bolts are anchored by Sebastian Joseph-Day, a talented run stopper and Morgan Fox while Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack make up one of pro football’s best pass rusher combinations at outside linebacker.
L.A.’s linebackers are made up of former first-round pick Kenneth Murray, Drue Tranquill and Kyle Van Noy. Murray and Tranquill are both sideline-to-sideline playmakers – the former being an A-plus athlete whose recognition of formations is up-and-down and the latter is a nice run defender.
Like their offensive teammates, the Chargers’ defense had a big difference between the passing and running game. They were just 28th versus the run but seventh against the run.