3TFO: Chiefs @ Jaguars, Week 1
We’ve finally gotten to the regular season and in this matchup that’s a chance to start fresh after disappointing 2012 campaigns that saw both the Chiefs and Jaguars with the top two picks in April’s draft. Both teams underwent coaching changes as well, so we’ll get to see Gus Bradley in a new role in Jacksonville, while Andy Reid brings his pass-heavy offense to Kansas City after more than 10 years in Philadelphia.
As is the case with most NFL games, this matchup will come down to quarterback play. Can Alex Smith show that his last two years in San Francisco weren’t a fluke and take a team that, though they were the worst in the league last year, is one that definitely has some talent on both sides of the ball? Likewise, Jacksonville appears to be all in on Blaine Gabbert and they backed that up by selecting a tackle to protect him in the draft. Can he take a step forward and become the quarterback that the Jags envisioned when they selected him in the first round a few years ago? So far he hasn’t come close, but a new season and new head coach might be enough to get him on track.
This should be an entertaining game, one that features some interesting matchups and areas to keep an eye on.
Fast Pace Offense
Limited in practice this week, it appears that Gabbert is on track to start for the Jaguars on Sunday. He didn’t get too much work in preseason before going down with a thumb injury – just 48 snaps – but we did get a glimpse of what Jacksonville is trying to do on offense. Much like a lot of NFL teams, they look to be adopting a faster tempo with more no-huddle concepts in an attempt to keep defenses vanilla and squeeze more plays into their 60-minute games. This was evident over the past month as Gabbert spent an average of just 1.98 seconds in the pocket before throwing the ball, the lowest time of any quarterback. Teammate Chad Henne wasn’t too far behind, as his 2.12 average snap to attempt ranked among the five quickest as well. Of course, both were also among the fastest throwers in 2012 but based on the small sample size of this preseason, they’ve both been getting rid of the ball significantly faster.
Look for the Jaguars to utilize lots of screens , flares, and other quick passes as Gabbert in preseason attempted just five of his 25 passes over 10 yards in the air, with close to a third of them going behind the line of scrimmage. This not only simplifies the reads, but also helps neutralize the opposing pass rush, which will feature the dangerous Justin Houston and Tamba Hali on Sunday. Also expect the Jags to continue their heavy use of play action – Gabbert executed a play action fake on 46.2% of his preseason dropbacks, the highest rate of any quarterbacks.
For the Kansas City defense, it will be critical to keep plays in front of them and avoid missed tackles. They were actually pretty solid in this area in 2012 despite their overall poor play. The Chiefs only missed 86 combined tackles during the regular season – far better than teams such as the Falcons and Saints, whose defenses both missed over 120 tackles.
Can the Jaguars Rush the Passer?
After finishing as our lowest-graded pass rush a season ago, the Jaguars are surely looking to make some headway in terms of getting after the quarterback. However, if preseason is any indication, they haven’t made much progress. So far they’ve been going with Tyson Alualu and Jason Babin as starters on the outside. Alualu is an interesting choice at LDE because he’s a bigger body and has typically played inside at tackle. The move isn’t surprising, though, considering Gus Bradley used Red Bryant in a similar role in Seattle. Jacksonville shouldn’t expect much pressure out of him, as he got to the QB just once in 36 preseason pass rushes. This was after ending 2012 with our third-lowest Pass Rushing Productivity rating among defensive tackles. On the other side, Babin wasn’t much better in preseason with four pressures in 57 pass rushes; he hasn’t been quite the same player he was in Philadelphia since joining the Jaguars.
We’ll see if either Jaguar has an impact against the Chiefs, who boast a pretty formidable tackle combo, at least in terms of talent and draft position, in Branden Albert and Eric Fisher. At left tackle, Albert built on a strong 2012 campaign with an equally successful preseason, as he surrendered just two pressures in 61 pass blocking snaps – he doesn’t lack incentive playing under the Franchise Tag. At RT, Fisher hasn’t been quite as good in his first NFL action, with a -4.4 overall grade through three games, though he’s fared better in pass protection than run blocking, having given up six pressures in 58 passing snaps. The top pick’s been struggling with injury too, so that’s probably been a factor in addition to the move from left tackle in at a smaller college to right tackle in the NFL.
In going up against the Chief tackles, Jacksonville will also have to be weary of Alex Smith, who’s not the most dangerous running threat, but is far from a statue in the pocket, with the mobility to keep plays alive and scramble past opposing linemen.
Jags WRs vs. Flowers and Smith
With their top receiver Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games, it will be up to the likes of Cecil Shorts, Mike Brown, and Ace Sanders to get the job done in the passing game against the Kansas City defensive backs. Certainly a challenge, as Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith form a very solid pair at corner. Smith, after coming to the Chiefs this offseason, allowed just one catch in five preseason targets, while getting two pass defenses and an interception. Unfortunately, the one catch went for 49 yards, showing the big cornerback’s propensity to get beaten deep if opposing receivers can beat him at the line of scrimmage. On the other side, Flowers has been average this preseason, but otherwise is among the few elite players at the position; since 2009 he’s consistently been among our highest-graded cornerbacks, and there’s no reason he won’t continue to play at that level in 2013.
Something to keep in mind is that Flowers lines up almost exclusively on the offensive right side at LCB, and based on preseason he’ll likely see a lot of the shifty Sanders, depending on how much the Jaguars play the rookie. Likewise, Smith will more often match up with Shorts and Brown, both of whom have lined up primarily at LWR in preseason. While Smith certainly has the size to match up against bigger, more physical receivers, it will be interesting to see how he fares against this Jacksonville group, featuring smaller, quicker players.
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