Jaguars Season Report Card: Offense, defense must do more to keep team ascending

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) celebrates with teammate wide receiver Christian Kirk (13) after his touchdown catch during second quarter action. The Jacksonville Jaguars hosted the Tennessee Titans to decide the AFC South championship at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, FL, Saturday, January 7, 2023. The Jaguars went into the half trailing 7 to 13. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) celebrates with teammate wide receiver Christian Kirk (13) after his touchdown catch during second quarter action. The Jacksonville Jaguars hosted the Tennessee Titans to decide the AFC South championship at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, FL, Saturday, January 7, 2023. The Jaguars went into the half trailing 7 to 13. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

Until the Jacksonville Jaguars win a Super Bowl, there may never be a more rewarding season in franchise history than 2022.

This was a comeback for the ages, one more exhilarating than the joyous 1996 run when that team also won the last five regular-season games to get into the playoffs as a wild-card entry.

While the Jaguars advanced to the AFC Championship in the ‘96, ‘99 and 2017 seasons, what they accomplished in head coach Doug Pederson’s first year should go down as more uplifting than any of them because of the dreadful place this team had been stuck in for so long.

Falling one game short of the Super Bowl back in ‘96 was an amazing feat for a second-year franchise, and those back-to-back road playoff wins at Buffalo and Denver were historic.

Jaguars' outside linebackers Travon Walker (44) and Josh Allen (41), seen here combining to sack Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in an AFC wild-card game, had a pedestrian year as pass-rushers and that's part of the reason why the defense didn't reach its potential.
Jaguars' outside linebackers Travon Walker (44) and Josh Allen (41), seen here combining to sack Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in an AFC wild-card game, had a pedestrian year as pass-rushers and that's part of the reason why the defense didn't reach its potential.

However, those Jaguars and their fan base had no scar tissue built up. They didn’t know true misery that came from years and years of losing.

The ‘99 season ended with such a humongous thud — getting bludgeoned at home in the second half of the AFC Championship game by the hated Tennessee Titans, losing 33-14 — it wound up overshadowing an NFL-best record of 14-2.

Even the ‘17 postseason run, where the Myles-Jack-wasn't-down rants have yet to totally subside from that AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots, lacked the same feel-good vibe of 2022 in its aftermath.

That’s because, five years ago, many still wondered if the winning formula could be sustained with a dominant defense and Blake Bortles as the quarterback. Sure enough, Bortles was gone just 13 months later and the team eventually crumbled from too much selfishness, quickly returning to irrelevancy.

No such concern exists with the current Jaguars.

With the head coach-quarterback combo of Pederson and an ascending Trevor Lawrence, along with a locker room culture hailed as one of the NFL’s best, the future of the Jaguars has never looked brighter at any point in history.

As Pederson said Monday about his team’s prospects moving forward — “the window of opportunity is now” — the Jaguars have a right to feel bullish about the future. This doesn’t look to be an outlier like 2017, but is quite possibly the start of a long playoff run as Tom Coughlin’s teams delivered in the late 1990s.

This year’s recovery from a winless October (five consecutive losses by one score) featured remarkable comeback wins over the Las Vegas Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans twice to win the AFC South division.

Then came the eye-popping excavation from a 27-0 hole against the Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC wild-card round, a feat that will live on in “Duuuval” for decades to come.

Looking back, all the downs and ups of 2022 made for an exhilarating ride. Pederson’s team overcame a ton of adversity to produce incredible highlight moments, finishing with a 10-9 record that exceeded all preseason expectations.

Here’s the Jaguars’ grades on the final report card and what each facet of the team can do better moving forward:

Offense: B 

It cannot be overstated how much Lawrence’s vast improvement in the second half of the season directly led to a six-game jump in the Jaguars’ record from 3-14 last year under Urban Meyer.

Nothing quite illustrates Trevor’s rise from a mediocre quarterback through his first eight games to top-10 league status in his last 11 games than his BL (before London) and AL (after London) comparison in the red zone.

Lawrence completed 13 of 38 passes (34.2 percent) with 8 touchdowns and 3 interceptions after reaching the opponents’ 20-yard-line through the Denver Broncos’ game, a 21-17 loss. From November through the end of the playoff run last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, a far more efficient Lawrence completed 34 of 51 passes (66.6 percent) with 15 TDs and zero interceptions in the red zone.

Just that stat alone largely explains why the Jaguars totally reversed field, going from a 2-6 start to winning eight of their last 11 games.

Lawrence’s regular-season numbers (387 of 584, 4,113 yards, 25 TDs, 8 interceptions, 95.2 QB rating) were all a significant jump from his rookie year, and his after-London stats are a strong indication of how much the light went on for him in Year 2.

In the last nine regular-season games, Trevor’s quarterback rating of 104.6 led the NFL and his eight 100-plus ratings for the entire season set a franchise record. Contrast that with a rating of 72.6 (four TDs, five INTs) during the Jaguars’ five-game October losing streak, it shows how much he truly flipped a switch.

The same thing happened in the 31-30 playoff comeback win over the Chargers, where Lawrence went from a first-half nightmare (four interceptions) to a transformation in the last 31 minutes (4 TD passes). Whenever dogpiled by adverse circumstances, it seemed to bring out the best in No. 16.

Naturally, the Jaguars’ top weapons of Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, tight end Evan Engram and running back Travis Etienne were beneficiaries of Lawrence’s increased accuracy and efficiency in the red zone.

With Etienne finishing as the league’s ninth-leading rusher (1,125 yards) — plus Kirk (84 catches, 1,108 yards), Jones (82 catches, 823 yards) and Engram (73 catches, 766 yards) all achieving career bests in those categories — the Jaguars were the only NFL team to have a 1,000-yard running back and three receivers hit the 750-yard mark.

Having such a wide array of weapons made up for the Jaguars’ lacking a true No. 1 receiver or definitive playmaker, though Etienne’s explosiveness did feature runs of 48, 49, 49 and 62 yards.

A much-improved offensive line had to replace starters Ben Bartch and left tackle Cam Robinson due to season-ending injuries, but Phil Rauscher’s unit did a commendable job protecting Lawrence by allowing just 28 sacks, the fifth-best total in the NFL.

Right guard Brandon Scherff toughed out the last month of the season with hernia/abdomen issues, which will force him to undergo surgery Monday to repair the damage. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who has started every game in his career, had his best season in a contract year, allowing just five sacks (according to Pro Football Focus) in 622 dropbacks.

Second-year tackle Walker Little took a major step in his development by capably filling in for Robinson the last five games (including playoffs). Veteran Tyler Shatley started the final 14 games after Bartch’s departure and there was little dropoff.

On the flip side, the Jaguars must get better in short-yardage situations. They converted just 20 of 32 times (62.5 percent) on third-and-1, which was 24th in the league. On fourth-and-1, it’s a little better at 66.7 percent (8 of 12), putting them at T16. You can bet Pederson will make that a point of emphasis in 2023.

There was decent improvement in third-down efficiency, going from 35.9 percent last year to 41.9 percent, which ranks the Jaguars 11th in the NFL. But the four remaining playoff teams (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Kansas City and Cincinnati) are all in the top-5, showing how paramount it is to keep the chains moving.

Moving Forward. It's hard to imagine the Jaguars, providing they stay relatively healthy, won’t improve in most areas in 2023 because Lawrence will have the huge benefit of knowing Pederson’s system a lot better.

His timing with receivers should vastly improve, thus avoiding misses on short to intermediate routes. The addition of trade acquisition Calvin Ridley, providing the NFL takes him off its suspension list, should give the offense a jolt.

The first order of business is getting Engram and right tackle Jawaan Taylor, both unrestricted free agents, back in the fold. Both are key members of Lawrence’s surrounding cast and having your franchise QB comfortable is a good thing.

For his part, Lawrence must take better care of the football. His nine lost fumbles were tops in the NFL and 12 fumbles overall were fourth. That will bother him enough to improve in that area, just as he did cutting down on red-zone interceptions.

Etienne had a terrific season after missing his rookie year with a foot injury, but there were also too many games where his light workload made him a non-factor. The Jaguars are 5-1 (playoffs included) when Etienne got a minimum 15 carries, all after James Robinson got traded to the Jets.

Lawrence might be the franchise savior, but elite quarterbacks need a dependable running attack to close out games. With Etienne averaging 5.1 yards per carry, the Jaguars would be better off seeing an uptick next season from his 220 rushing attempts.

Defense: C-plus 

There were plenty of times when the unit under first-year coordinator Mike Caldwell didn’t look any different than Jaguars’ defenses that got exposed the past four years.

In the first eight games, the Jaguars held a lead for 234 minutes out of a possible 480 and opponents only had it for 104 minutes, yet the Jaguars lost six times because they couldn’t finish.

A lot of that was on the defense, which was given leads in the fourth quarter at Washington (22-14), at Indianapolis (27-26), New York Giants (17-13) and Denver (17-14), but couldn’t hold on.

There was certainly nothing different about Caldwell’s unit in terms of yards allowed. The Jaguars were 24th in total defense (353.3 yards) and 28th against the pass (238.5 yards), numbers that rarely lead to winning a division championship or getting into the postseason.

So what changed to have the Jaguars go from absorbing a five-game losing streak in October, then winning their last five regular-season contests?

In one word: takeaways. The Jaguars forced 27 turnovers, triple the amount they had last year and the second-most in the last decade, behind only the 2017 defense that had 33.

And not just any takeaway, but game-deciding ones that turned potential losses into wins against Baltimore, twice against Tennessee and the pick-6 by Rayshawn Jenkins to steal an overtime win over Dallas.

The late-season run was triggered by a four-turnover siege on the Titans’ offense in Nashville, none more impactful than linebacker Shaquille Quarterman’s thumping hit on Derrick Henry, a fumble which led to a go-ahead touchdown in a 36-22 victory.

In a Week 18 rematch at TIAA Bank Field, the Jaguars were on the verge of losing the AFC South to third-team QB Joshua Dobbs when Jenkins made the play of the year. He strip-sacked Dobbs, forcing a fumble that was picked up by Josh Allen for a 37-yard, game-winning touchdown with 2:51 remaining.

It’s no coincidence the Jaguars’ defense had only two takeaways during the five-game losing streak, then 11 in the five-game winning streak to end the regular season.

As impactful as those turnovers were, it doesn’t change the fact this was really an average defense overall. It was woeful on third down, allowing opponents to again convert 43.2 percent, almost identical to last year.

Allen put together a respectable season with a team-leading 22 QB hits and 11 tackles for losses, but only had six sacks, a career-low among his three seasons where he played a full allotment of games.

He also went eight straight games without a sack, pretty stunning when you consider Allen was in a contract year (the Jaguars picked up his fifth-year option for 2023) and healthy. By comparison, Dawuane Smoot, a backup pass-rusher who missed five games with injuries, had five sacks playing half as many snaps (446) as Allen (894).

The defense simply didn’t affect the quarterback to the level expected, as evident by having the fifth-fewest sacks (35) in the NFL. They had none in the season-ending loss to Kansas City, despite facing a hobbled Patrick Mahomes and allowed backup QB Chad Henne to engineer a 98-yard touchdown drive when he filled in for one series.

Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall draft pick, had a decent rookie season as a disruptor, but had no special numbers (3.5 sacks) and too often disappeared in games like the Chiefs’ playoff loss.

The Jaguars got an NFL-leading 184 tackles from linebacker Foye Oluokun, though his pass coverage was spotty. Jenkins and cornerback Tyson Campbell delivered consistent quality performances, while cornerback Darious Williams (16 pass breakups) excelled once the Jaguars moved him off the slot to the outside.

Defensive lineman Arden Key (4.5 sacks) was a bargain free agent at $4 million despite playing only 40.8 percent (475) of the defensive snaps. Roy Robertson-Harris was arguably the team’s  best lineman in the past month (20 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 TFL, 8 QBH, 3 PD).

The problem for this defense was lack of consistency. Caldwell never knew from one week to the next which one would show up.

Moving forward. This is where the Jaguars need the biggest upgrade. They could use an impact cornerback to complement Campbell and another quality pass-rusher. Their young linebacker corps must do a better job in pass coverage, particularly against tight ends.

Impact help likely isn’t coming in free agency, so they better invest wisely with their nine draft picks, especially the first two at No. 24 and No. 56.

If the Jaguars want to advance further in the playoffs in 2023, the defense has to take a big step up like the offense did in the second half of this season.       

Special teams: B-plus 

This has routinely been the best unit in recent years, thanks in no small part to the superb skill level of Logan Cooke, and nothing changed this season. The Jaguars’ fifth-year punter, still the net-punting average leader in NFL history (minimum 250 attempts) with a 43.2-yard average, finished third in gross punting average (49.3 yards) and sixth in net punting (43.8 yards).

Cooke also had 24 of 58 punts (41.3 percent) downed inside the 20, slightly above his career percentage of 39.2. In addition, when kicker Riley Patterson’s leg wasn’t completely healthy for long kicks, Cooke did an admirable job handling kickoff duties. He had five touchbacks out of eight kickoffs.

Patterson, acquired August 31 off waivers from the Detroit Lions, finally settled what had been an awkward situation trying to find a reliable kicker.

He did a solid job by making 30 of 35 field goal attempts, none more important than the 36-yarder as time expired to complete the 31-30 comeback win over the Chargers. He also nailed a 48-yarder at the end of regulation to force overtime against the Cowboys, which the Jaguars ended up winning on Jenkins’ pick-6.

After doing next to nothing in the first half of the season, return specialist Jamal Agnew got untracked with kickoff returns of 54 yards against the Titans, 52 yards against the Las Vegas Raiders and 63 yards against Kansas City in the AFC divisional round. Later in that playoff game, he barely got taken down by Chiefs’ kicker Harrison Butker at his own 45 or that would likely have been a touchdown.

With Agnew providing a late-season spark, the Jaguars finished seventh in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 24.9-yard average. The punt return game wasn’t as potent as the Jaguars finished 22nd with a 7.9-yard average.

Coach Heath Farwell’s coverage units did their part by holding the opposition to 7.0 yards on punt returns, good for sixth in the league. Kickoff coverage held opponents to 21.5 yards for a ranking of 13th.

Overall, the Jaguars’ special teams finished 11th in the annual rankings compiled by Dallas-based NFL writer Rick Gosselin, who ranks all 32 special teams in 22 different categories.

The Jaguars came in last place in field goal percentage defense as opposing kickers made 29 of 30 field goals (96.6 percent) in the regular season. The only miss came when Baltimore’s Justin Tucker was short on a 67-yard attempt to win the game on the final play.

During the playoffs, the lone missed kick for opponents was a huge gift when the Chargers’ Cameron Dicker pulled a 40-yard attempt wide left, keeping the Jaguars’ deficit at 30-20 on the first second-half possession.

Moving forward. This should be a strength for the Jaguars again in 2023 as all the key special teams members are under contract, with Andrew Wingard being the lone exception. But since Wingard is also a reliable backup safety and wants to be back, GM Trent Baalke will likely make a strong effort to retain him.

Patterson hasn’t been around the NFL long enough yet to be guaranteed a job next season, so it’d be wise to bring in some competition for him during training camp. With one more year left on Agnew’s contract, it’s comforting for the Jaguars to still have one of the league’s most dangerous returners. Cutting him for salary-cap purposes would be a really bad idea.

Coaching: A-minus 

It’s a good thing Jaguars owner Shad Khan didn’t wait any longer than 37 days after Doug Pederson first interviewed with him to make the hire. Can you imagine how different things might be right now if Pederson had been offered another job and taken it?

Who knows if Lawrence would have ascended as much as he did the second half of the season without Pederson and his army of quarterback lieutenants — offensive coordinator Press Taylor, QB coach Mike McCoy and passing game coordinator Jim Bob Cooter — tutoring him every step of the way.

But the reality is Khan finally got the right coach after three abysmal failures and another who flamed out after one terrific season.

Pederson pushed so many right buttons in his first season that it’s impossible to list them all. His clock management skills and use of timeouts were borderline masterful, which helped force overtime in the Cowboys’ game after counterpart Mike McCarthy totally fell asleep at that wheel.

By no means was the coaching staff perfect — not with the offensive shortcomings against Houston and Denver, or the defense failing to close out games at Washington, Indianapolis or home against the New York Giants — but there has to be context to this grade. You have to consider where Pederson was in the rebuilding process after the Meyer train wreck.

Coaches had to get adjusted to each other before Pederson and his staff even began to cultivate relationships with players. Only seven of the 20 main position coaches/assistants with the Jaguars had even worked with the boss at previous stops.

Then you add eight unrestricted free agents coming into a new locker room, plus the rookies and other late additions like Patterson and defensive lineman Corey Peters, it’s always a crapshoot how that whole mix is going to blend together.

The best indicator of how Pederson had created a solid work culture came during the worst part of the season. As the Jaguars absorbed five consecutive losses, there was no finger-pointing or players ranting off the record to the media about any particular issue.

With all the core members of the team, the message about sticking to the Pederson process and being optimistic that the Jaguars would turn things around remained intact.

Team leaders like Allen, Lawrence, Scherff, Kirk, Jenkins and Cooke never wavered in the belief that Pederson was building “something special.” Nobody panicked over being 2-6, 3-7 or 4-8.

Even when reaching the playoffs seemed an impossibility after getting blown out by the Detroit Lions, the players refused to concede anything. That’s the mark of a quality head coach passing down a message and the players buying into it.

Without a galvanized locker room, there’s no way the Jaguars rally from four double-digit deficits, or trailing the Baltimore Ravens 19-10 in the fourth quarter, to win games.

As for Pederson’s offensive acumen, nothing quite reveals his impact as a play-caller than the Jaguars’ final rankings in total offense (ninth), run offense (14th) and pass offense (10th). In the previous decade, which encompasses 30 categories, the Jaguars had only three top-15 rankings (total and run offense in 2017, passing in 2015).

Another sign of Pederson being a difference-maker was the massive reduction in penalties. The Jaguars were flagged 90 times for 674 yards, the sixth-least amount of penalty yards in the NFL. Over the previous seven years, the Jaguars averaged 116 penalties for 1,028 yards. That speaks to discipline and being well-coached.

Whether Pederson wins NFL Coach of the Year or not, this was possibly the best coaching job in franchise history, certainly right there with what Coughlin did in ‘96. It also helped that the Jaguars stayed healthy, with only six starters losing a combined 26 games.

Moving forward. It remains to be seen how much staff turnover there’ll be after just one season (receivers coach Chris Jackson left to take a similar job at the University of Texas), but the guess is Pederson’s staff stays fairly intact.

That continuity will be a big advantage as there won’t be near as much adjustment needed this offseason. Pederson and his assistants should be able to install things quicker, with the players’ learning time shortened due to system familiarity.

Pederson won’t take anything for granted, not in an AFC loaded with elite quarterbacks. But thanks to the culture he built and the talent GM Trent Baalke acquired, this organization is sitting on something really good for the next few years. (904) 359-4540 

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Pederson gets high marks, Trevor ascent uplifting on Jaguars' report card