The Cowboys know they just escaped with a win over the Texans. That one should’ve been wrapped up at halftime, but instead they trailed until the final minute. The last time this team played poorly enough to lose to an inferior team, they responded by blasting the red-hot Vikings.
Let’s hope the Cowboys come out with a similar mindset, because this Jaguars team is not one you can overlook. In their first year under new head coach Doug Pederson, a familiar foe for the Cowboys, Jacksonville is starting to hit its stride. Second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence is starting to thrive under Pederson’s watch, and over the past six weeks he’s fifth among all quarterbacks in EPA/play and second in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE).
That said, the Jaguars are still not where they need to be, though that’s to be expected at this stage. They’re coming off an impressive win over their division rival Titans, but the week before they lost to the Lions 40-14. Pederson’s team is experiencing a ton of variance right now, but at their best they can compete with anyone.
It all starts with Lawrence, who is starting to resemble the generational talent he was at Clemson. Lawrence isn’t working with an elite group on offense but he’s elevated all of them with his play. The offensive line is 30th in pass block win rate but Lawrence is 26th in pressure rate and 23rd in sacks taken. Credit that to Lawrence’s average of 2.55 seconds to throw, the second fastest rate of any quarterback.
Lawrence is getting the ball out quick, and he’s completing 66.2% of his passes. A lot of his success is aided by Pederson’s play calls, as Jacksonville is running RPOs at the 12th highest rate and using play-action at the ninth highest rate. That’s helping the pass protection hold up just a little bit longer, as well as creating larger throwing lanes for Lawrence.
That said, this passing offense is very dependent on staying on schedule. Lawrence is tied for the 11th fewest completed air yards and is 15th in rate of throws that travel 20 yards or more downfield. The Jaguars are 15th in third-down conversion rate and Lawrence is 19th in EPA per third down dropback. In short, this offense struggles to move the ball when they get behind schedule.
Part of those struggles stem from a highly unreliable rushing game. While Jacksonville is eighth in passing DVOA, their run game ranks 22nd in rushing DVOA. They’re averaging 4.7 yards per carry, the same as the Cowboys, but the Jaguars are getting runs stuffed on 25% of their rushes; that’s the highest stuff rate in the league. For comparison, Dallas is getting stuffed on just 14% of carries, the third lowest rate.
That’s good news for a Dallas defense that’s been making strides in run defense lately, climbing all the way to sixth in run defense DVOA at the moment. Nose tackle Johnathan Hankins has played a big part in that, so it’ll be interesting to see how Dallas adjusts with him out with an injury. But the Cowboys also boast the top spot in pass defense DVOA, easily making this the best secondary Lawrence has faced all year. And with this unit being second in sacks and first in pressures, the Cowboys will be the biggest test yet for Lawrence and his ability to evade oncoming rushers.
On the flip side, Jacksonville’s defense has been slumping hard lately. They got off to a hot start under first time defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, but have fizzled since. Their defensive front has been solid all year, and Jacksonville is seventh in pressure rate despite having the fourth fewest sacks. Edge rusher Travon Walker, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, has come on hot after a slow start to the year: he’s recorded at least three pressures in four of his last five games. However, Walker is dealing with a high ankle sprain this week, which could have a massive impact in this game.
As good as the Jaguars’ front seven has been, the secondary has been a problem. Ranked 30th in pass defense DVOA, they’ve surrendered the fifth most passing yards and first downs through the air this year. Cornerbacks Darious Williams and Tyson Campbell have struggled to prevent big plays all year, and Campbell has allowed the fourth most passing touchdowns this year. Furthermore, linebackers Foyesade Oluokun and rookie Devin Lloyd are both in the top 20 of coverage snaps for a linebacker and are both allowing at least 10 yards per reception with a completion percentage of at least 79% apiece.
Much like the Texans, the Jaguars play zone coverage at an exceptionally high rate, nearly 75% of all plays. They do have a wider variety of types of zone coverage, but it hasn’t done much for this secondary. Dak Prescott should have a lot of space to fit throws into, and certainly more than he did last week against Houston. That bodes well for this offense as they try to incorporate James Washington and T.Y. Hilton going forward.
The Jaguars are not having a special season - they’re sitting at 5-8 right now - but they are absolutely not a team that can be overlooked. They have the talent to upset a good team, as they proved just last week. If the Cowboys play the way they’ve shown they’re capable of playing this year, they’ll win this game comfortably. But if they play like they did against the Texans, they’ll lose. With this game coming on the road, it’ll be a good test of this team’s resolve after they won a game they had no business winning last week. It’s gut check time for Dallas, and it comes at a perfect time with the Eagles waiting just around the corner.