Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Divisional Round 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 divisional round games will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri as the Jacksonville Jaguars will face the Kansas City Chiefs. 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 credibility within the Jaguars’ locker room and costing him 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, run-pass options 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.
Former All-Pro Calvin Ridley was acquired from the Atlanta Falcons and will give the Jags a legitimate threat at the wide receiver position next year after sitting out 2022 due to a suspension. In the meantime Christian Kirk, an ex-Arizona Cardinal, provides speed and refined route running ability, Marvin Jones brings 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 have the manpower yet 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. They were, however, tied for fourth in takeaways.
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.
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS DANGEROUS
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. In Philadelphia his passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick was vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Alex Smith it became conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated many college concepts in recent years and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
For years Kansas City employed wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. Following a trade to the Miami Dolphins, Reid and general manager Brett Veach decided to replace him by committee. The similarly speedy Marquez Valdes-Scantling, burner Mecole Hardman and rookie Skyy Moore give the Chiefs a trio who can beat anyone vertically and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid along with John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster, who excels on short and intermediate routes.
Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most defensive backs and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers and is excellent at creating yards after the catch. Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020 and continues to remain his usual elite self. Backups Noah Grey and Jody Fortson’s roles have expanded this year as Kansas City has experimented more with formations featuring multiple tight ends.
In 2020 the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, hoping to upgrade a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy. Edwards-Helaire, however, has been injured and ineffective – leading to Isiah Pacheco taking over. Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon are adept at hurting teams not just on the ground but through the air as well, especially on screen passes, and McKinnon has turned into an effective red zone weapon.
Those backs and Mahomes operate behind an offensive line that has undergone many changes since 2020. Injuries and underperformance, especially in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saw the Chiefs say goodbye to names like Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, Austin Reiter and Kelechi Osemele and hello to new faces like four-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr., All-Pro Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and Andrew Wylie.
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. Early in the 2021 season Mahomes was still feeling the effects of a deteriorated front-five as he showed too much unnecessary movement both in and outside the pocket (due to anticipating pressure that wasn’t there), sloppy footwork and not playing within the timing and structure of Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy’s attack. He also wasn’t taking what defenses were giving him coverage-wise and was forcing plays down the field that didn’t need to be.
As the year went on, Mahomes has settled down. His mechanics have improved – especially by holding the ball higher so he can throw quicker and fixing his lower body base – and his coaches have incorporated more short and intermediate concepts like “smash” and “flood” – resulting in him being more decisive and his offense becoming more rhythm-based and less vertical.
As usual the Chiefs’ offense has been lethal, ending 2022 first in total yards, points scored and passing, but just 20th in rushing.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE ON THE REBOUND
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit, but between 2016-18 it took a nosedive – bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his old assistants from Philadelphia in Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man overload blitzes and coverages involving mainly Cover One, Two, Zero and two-deep man with press technique by the cornerbacks and the safeties rotating before the snap.
The biggest key to Kansas City’s defense used to be former Arizona Cardinal and Houston Texan Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his many snaps at slot cornerback, box safety, nickel/dime linebacker, free safety and outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence were valuable to the Chiefs – so valuable to the point where he was mainly used as the team’s middle hole defender in Cover Two zone and not a linebacker. But Mathieu left in free agency for the New Orleans Saints along with fellow safety Daniel Sorenson, and in their place now are ex-Texan Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill.
The Chiefs also underwent a makeover at cornerback. Veterans Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton and DeAndre Baker are gone and L’Jarius Sneed is now joined by youngsters Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Bryan Cook and Jaylen Watson. This group is used by Spagnuolo in dime packages with Sneed and Watson on the outside and Cook blitzing from the slot.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. All-Pro Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive lineman in the league and is the linchpin of this unit thanks to his combination of burst and hand usage off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boasts elite quickness as well and Derrick Nnadi, Carlos Dunlap, Mike Danna and rookie George Karlaftis are the team’s other contributors in their front four. At linebacker Kansas City employs Nick Bolton – who is usually their best second-level defender in subpackages – Willie Gay and Leo Chenal.
Unlike their elite offensive counterparts, the results from this unit over the last few years have been uneven. After a two-year stretch which saw Kansas City finish the 2019 regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass and racking up 45 sacks (11th-best among all defenses) and a 2020 campaign that ended with the Chiefs ranked 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions, Spagnuolo’s defense saw a downturn in 2021 – ending the year 27th against the pass, 21st against the run and fourth-last in sacks.
This year Kansas City has seen a rebound on this side of the ball. Although 18th against the pass, 16th in points given up and tied for 20th in turnovers, they improved in total yards allowed (11th), rushing yards surrendered (eighth) and was second in sacks.