Heading in the right direction, but slowly: Assessing the Jaguars at the bye

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The bye week is as good a time as any to reflect on what the Jaguars have accomplished and what they have left to work on. So let’s start with the two most important components of any football team: the head coach and the quarterback.

As far as coaching is concerned, Doug Pederson has already done the first and most important task assigned to him when he was hired. Pederson’s consistent and laid-back demeanor has steadied the ship for the Jaguars after the tumultuous and short-lived Urban Meyer era.

Pederson and his offensive staff have also inserted more creativity in the play calling and play design than Jaguars fans have seen from their team—at least since the Tom Coughlin era and maybe ever. And finally, Pederson and company have helped to develop Trevor Lawrence after a disappointing rookie year for the former No. 1 overall pick.

Trevor Lawrence’s improvements

As a rookie, Lawrence threw 12 touchdown passes and a league-high 17 interceptions.

Already this year, he has exceeded his touchdown total from a year ago with 13. And he is on pace to throw 10 interceptions. A substantial improvement from a year ago.

He has improved his accuracy (from 59.6%-65.2%), and his yards per attempt, yards per completion and yards per game are all up. But the key metrics in quarterback improvement are red zone, third down and fourth quarter play.

These are all areas where Lawrence still needs to improve.

In the red zone, Lawrence has thrown a league-high three interceptions and is completing just half of his passes. All but one of his touchdowns have come from within the 20-yard line, a sign of the lack of explosiveness of the Jaguars’ offense. His 72.2 quarterback rating inside the 20 drops by another 11 points when the Jaguars are inside the 10. The reason young quarterbacks struggle in the red zone is that the field is shorter and there is less room to operate which demands faster processing and more precise route running. It’s not just on Lawrence, but he’s a part of the equation.

On third down, Lawrence is completing just 57.5 percent of his passes. The good news is that he is taking care of the ball on third down—he has thrown only one interception on third, his quarterback rating is seven points lower than it is on second down. He has run for eight first downs in third down situations, six of which came on third down and three or less to go.

Finally, the 4th quarter. When the game is on the line, Lawrence is completing 59 percent of his passes and has thrown four touchdowns and three interceptions. His 76.2 quarterback rating is the lowest of any quarter. And when the Jaguars are trailing with less than four minutes to go, the numbers are even more grim. 44 percent completion percentage, one touchdown three interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 29.6.

Struggles in these scenarios are to be expected for a young quarterback, but they are metrics that bear watching over the final seven games of the season.

Travis Etienne’s emergence

If you are looking for positive takeaways from the first half of the season, it’s the emergence of Travis Etienne. The second year back has become RB1 for the Jaguars. He has turned in three games with over 100 rushing yards, and two more with over 100 scrimmage yards. He’s shown he can run hard in addition to being elusive. The one knock on Etienne is how he performs in short-yardage situations. On third or fourth down with three yards or fewer to go, Etienne has converted a first down only half of the time. You would like to see that number closer to 65 percent or better. Like all aspects of football, it’s not all on Etienne, but he plays a key role. One other interesting note about Etienne. All four of his rushing touchdowns have come when the Jaguars are trailing in ballgames, even though he has more carries when leading or tied.

Defensive identity

When the season began, it appeared the Jaguars would be a defensive-led team. After allowing Washington to score 28 points in an opening-day loss, the Jaguars shutout the Colts and held the Chargers to just 10 points. Even in a loss to the Texans Jacksonville surrendered just 13 points. Since then, injuries and poor play have plagued the Jaguars’ defense. Even in the one win since the victory over the Chargers—the seven-point win over the Raiders, the Jaguars allowed 20 points.

In the final seven games of the season, the Jaguars’ front must get more pass pressure. So far on the season, the Jaguars have just 16 sacks. Only five teams in the league are worse. Five of those sacks came in the Week 2 win over Indianapolis. The Jaguars have only one other game with more than a pair of sacks this season, a three-sack performance against the Broncos in London.

What’s next?

If you judge progress by the team’s record alone, there are only two games that appear to be likely wins: at the Lions on Dec. 4 and at the Texans on New Year’s Day. That would leave the Jaguars at 5-12. A modest improvement over last season. But the more important measurables will come with the quarterback and the defense. And as always, the progress will be measured against the team’s health. The Jaguars are making progress, but it’s a little slow right now.

As Doug Pederson said when he was hired, this is not an overnight fix.