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The Jaguars weren’t able to come up with a win in the first month of the 2021 NFL season after a tight loss to the Bengals on Thursday Night Football, in which Joe Burrow led a five-minute march down the field to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired. Jacksonville allowed just 15 rushing yards on four carries on the drive, but Burrow completed all five of his passes for 68 yards. Let’s break it down.

All of Cincinnati’s passing plays on the final drive were out of an empty backfield to allow Burrow to gauge Jacksonville’s pressure and coverage looks. The Jaguars didn’t disguise much on the first play, as it deployed a four-man rush with a Cover 3 zone coverage behind it.

Burrow glanced left when he caught the snap to keep Myles Jack at bay, who has a habit of trying to help do everyone’s job for them at times. But by the end of his three-step drop Burrow’s full attention was on the mismatch in the slot between linebacker Damien Wilson and nuanced route runner Tyler Boyd. Boyd expertly faked a pivot outside before turning back inside, leaving Wilson in the dust checking to see if his ankles were still intact and a wide-open area for Burrow to target.

The Bengals again line up in empty, this time with three receivers to the left. The Jaguars do a better job of hiding its intentions as Jack and Wilson creep up to the line of scrimmage and two safeties roam over the top.

Since the center initially turned to his right to pass block, Wilson brought the heat from the opposite side as Jack and Josh Allen dropped into shallow coverage. Rayshawn Jenkins buzzed down to occupy the curl/hook zone, resulting in another Cover 3 play with four rushers.

The Bengals run a hitch/slot fade combination route to its right side for the second time, but an error or miscommunication in the secondary leaves Samaje Perine wide open in the flat while Jenkins and Shaquill Griffin both chase the deeper route.

Burrow again looks for the option route from Boyd out of the slot, but Jack is too close for comfort and Burrow can feel Dawuane Smoot closing in, so he quickly moves on in his progression and finds the easy 15-yard completion.

Jacksonville calls for Tampa 2 coverage based on the two deep safeties and Wilson’s instant backpedaling towards the middle deep zone (compare to the first play of the drive). Burrow immediately notices Wilson’s movement and fires a ball to C.J. Uzomah before Jack leaves his designated area to help. Cincinnati runs the right-side hitch/slot fade combo for the third straight passing play, but a five-yard curl between too linebackers was easy money for Burrow.

Another empty formation, another two-high shell, another four-man rush- even another hitch/slot fade combo (albeit to the left this time). And of course, another pitch and catch from Burrow to Boyd with Wilson in coverage. Boyd is on the other side of the formation than his first completion and fake pivots inside before bursting outside, and Burrow has enough time in the pocket this time to keep his eyes on him and pick up a solid gain on 1st and 20. Are we noticing some trends?

For the grand finale to officially put the Bengals in field goal range, Burrow calls an audible for a tight end jailbreak screen after the Jaguars line up with six defenders on the line of scrimmage and what looks to be obvious man coverage behind them. Jack again bails out of the blitz after the center turns his way, and Smoot pancakes Burrow but not before the ball is released for a 25-yard gain on a throw that traveled zero yards downfield.

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Jenkins sensed receivers coming towards him to block and immediately starts running towards Uzomah, but since Uzomah came back to the ball so he could tunnel behind blockers, Jenkins was quickly blocked out of the play. Tyson Campbell gets caught watching the ball and doesn’t notice Uzomah moving away from the sideline, and by the time the ball is caught Campbell’s momentum brought him out of the play as well.

Wilson and Jack allowed a combined seven receptions on seven targets for 69 yards and a touchdown (good for a 147.3 passer rating). The linebacker duo also allowed four first downs and 5.6 yards after catch per reception. While their performance in coverage was poor, Jacksonville didn’t really have any other options- had it sent blitzes, Burrow likely would have adjusted from empty to complete passes like the final Uzomah first down, and had it played man coverage then contested catch maestro Ja’Marr Chase would’ve been a go-to option for Burrow in addition to Boyd out of the slot against Tre Herndon.

Jacksonville’s late defensive failure was less about a coaching chess match and more about the fact that the Jaguars are simply overmatched in terms of talent in almost every game they play, including Thursday night. It was the closest loss of the season for Jacksonville and it’s clear that the team has improved from week to week in multiple areas, but until better players wear gold and teal no loss should come as a surprise.

Other Thoughts

  • wrote last week that the Jaguars had to improve its production on early-down passes. Jacksonville’s 38.2% success rate (based on if the play resulted in negative or positive expected points added, per on first and second down in the first two weeks of the season ranked last in the league. In the past two weeks, that rate has jumped up to 52.1%, which would rank 14th for the first full month of the season. Nice!
  • Dan Arnold looked good in his Jaguars debut, catching two balls for 29 yards and two first downs. He was expectedly only in for certain packages (he played under a third of offensive snaps and his receptions were on an RPO and a play action beneath route) but I’m cautiously optimistic for what he can bring to the offense as a receiver.
  • According to Sharp Football Stats, Jacksonville used 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) on 23% of plays through the first three weeks of the season- that rate figures to increase following the addition of Arnold and the loss of D.J. Chark due to injury.
  • I haven’t been shy in my criticisms of Lawrence, but he looked in the zone for the first time this season and played his best pro game to date on Thursday. He’s had a god-level throw in every game that less than 10 other quarterbacks would even consider, let alone attempt successfully (D.J. Chark week 1 touchdown; Marvin Jones week 2 touchdown; D.J. Chark week 3 touchdown; Jamal Agnew week 4 sideline catch), and while he continued to make excellent passes against Cincinnati he also cut down on smaller mistakes.
  • According to Next Gen Stats, Lawrence improved his completion percentage above expectation from -11.2% in weeks 1-3 to 9.0% in week 4, and per PFF he lowered his uncatchable target rate from 31.1% to 19.1% and his turnover-worthy throw rate from 7.0% to 0%.
  • On a similar note, it’ll be interesting to see how the offense performs moving forward sans Chark. He was Jacksonville’s best downfield threat and his big-play ability will surely be missed, but perhaps Lawrence will be less aggressive and take higher-percentage throws without Chark in the lineup. Explosive plays are obviously good but it’s hard to warrant deep shots without talented receivers at the other end of downfield passes.
  • Another positive takeaway from Lawrence’s first primetime game was his production on the ground. It was evident in the first three weeks that opposing defenders weren’t respecting the possibility of Lawrence keeping the ball on read options, but calling his own number will result in positive plays for himself (he had three first downs and a touchdown with an overall 71% success rate on seven carries against Cincinnati per and consequently create more room for the running backs when he opts to hand the ball off as defenders are forced not to ignore the threat of Lawrence’s legs. 
    • His absurd athleticism at 6’6 tall has been evident while managing the pocket, but Lawrence’s ability to gain yards on scrambles and designed quarterback runs will be a massive benefit for the offense should he continue to tuck and run more often (he had just three rushes in the first two weeks compared to 14 in the past two weeks). And before anyone worries about a potential injury, Lawrence has also done a great job of protecting himself from hits by sliding and bracing for contact. The Jaguars coaches have also done a good job calling for those read options in high-leverage situations like late downs and short yardage. There were plenty of encouraging signs from Jacksonville’s offense on Thursday as it now gets an extra three days to prepare for Tennessee’s weak defense in week 5.
  • Thinking about upcoming free agent wide receivers… Davante Adams or Michael Thomas would be a dream, but they’re probably nothing more than that; Chris Godwin is unlikely to leave Tampa Bay and I’m not sure how well he’d fit considering Jacksonville already has a Z receiver in Laviska Shenault; Mike Williams figures to leave the Chargers after Los Angeles didn’t sign him to an extension last offseason and instead chose to draft his potential replacement in Josh Palmer, but he’s likely to be overpaid as this season looks like it’ll be the most productive of his career; Michael Gallup is similar to Williams as a true X receiver who can win one on one situations downfield, but his return on investment may be greater since he’s fairly underrated due to being in an offense with Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. If Gallup or Williams have unreasonable contract demands, the next best option - if not the best in general - would be the return of Allen Robinson assuming he leaves Chicago.