JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – San Francisco came to town and brought a reality check with them.
The Jaguars aren’t quite ready for the elites of the NFL. Not yet.
Jacksonville saw its five-game winning streak end with a thud on a dreary, forgettable afternoon at EverBank Stadium, a one-sided 34-3 loss that brought a fast start back down to reality.
What is wrong with Jacksonville, and can it be fixed? Sure, the Jaguars (6-3) still control their playoff fortunes, but the questions are legitimate. Can Jacksonville win the games that matter with an offense that has regressed from last season? In showcase games against two of the league’s best this season, the Chiefs in Week 2 and Sunday against San Francisco, the disparity has been enormous.
The 49ers (6-3), who came to town reeling and in the midst of a three-game winning streak, made Jacksonville look like the error-prone, overmatched team that it was in the first half of 2022.
San Francisco dominated Jacksonville at the line of scrimmage and fanned the flames of the growing issues on that side of the ball. When Travis Etienne isn’t ripping off big plays, the offense struggles to move the chains. That issue was present before the bye week and remains as true in Week 10 as it did in Week 1.
The offensive line, average against decent teams, was overmatched from the get go against one of the league’s top defensive fronts. Trevor Lawrence has yet to regain the form he flashed during the second half of 2022 and struggled badly against constant pressure. Against the backdrop of a suffocating pass rush, Lawrence threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. He was outplayed throughly by Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy, who threw three touchdown passes and left with the game in hand for backup Sam Darnold.
After such a promising start, the listless performance from the Jaguars — especially coming off of a bye week — was a bit unsettling. Jacksonville atop the AFC South but the lead over a better-than-expected Houston team doesn’t feel nearly as insurmountable as it did. The Texans beat the Bengals 30-27 on a walk-off field goal Sunday. They’re 5-4 behind rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.
“For us, we’re still trying to get there. I told the team again, we haven’t done anything here. We’re trying to be like that [good as the 49ers]. We’re trying to have that consistency and to me this will be in some ways good for our players,” coach Doug Pederson said. “A little bit of a wakeup call, quite honestly, myself included, coaches, players, we all have to think about what are we willing to give up these next eight games so we don’t do this again.”
Offense remains the problem
The biggest and most consistent problem this year has been Jacksonville’s offense. At its best, the Jaguars have had a slightly above average unit.
But coordinator Press Taylor’s side of the ball has been largely underwhelming and bailed out time and again by the defense. Against an elite defense like San Francisco’s, there was zero margin for error and Jacksonville had too many to count. Lawrence wasn’t sharp but got little help from the line or his teammates. He had a pass go off Tank Bigsby’s hands in the third quarter that was picked off by Talanoa Hufanga. On the ensuing drive, one of Jacksonville’s best of the day, Christian Kirk lost a fumble at the San Francisco 9. That led to a 23-yard Deebo Samuel touchdown run and a 27-3 San Francisco lead.
“I think you have got to feel the pain and embarrassment of today, and that’s what it is. It’s terrible. It’s one of the worst games I’ve probably played in my career,” Lawrence said. “So, I feel that and I take responsibility for that and, yeah, we couldn’t do anything right today, but you got to flush it too. That’s the thing, it sucks, but the reality is that a 31-point loss — and that’s crazy to even say, but 31-point loss is the same as a 3-point loss and we lost today.”
Receiver Calvin Ridley was thought to be the missing piece to give Jacksonville a true downfield threat but wasn’t targeted until the third quarter and remains a bit underwhelming. There’s been little to no consistency on that side of the ball and Sunday was the latest reminder of that. Lawrence was 17 of 29 passing for 185 yards before being pulled for backup CJ Beathard. Lawrence was sacked five times and had three giveaways in his worst showing of the season.
“They say any given Sunday for a reason, and we did not lift ourselves up against a really good football team and continue to just shoot ourselves in the foot,” Kirk said. “We did not match their intensity, and didn’t do anything that we planned to do.”
Where they stand now
The loss was a definite reality check for Jacksonville.
Fresh off a bye week, the Jaguars have steep challenges ahead. The second half of the season is tough. Other than games against Carolina and Tampa Bay, the schedule isn’t easy. The Titans come to EverBank Stadium next week followed by a trip to the Texans in a game that could ultimately determine the AFC South champ. Houston walloped Jacksonville 37-17 in Week 3 and is just one game back of the Jaguars.
Through nine games, the offense has yet to find a groove. Lawrence struggled for words when asked what the offense does well.
“I mean it’s tough to say after today. We didn’t do anything really well today honestly,” he said.
A full-strength offensive line — Walker Little returned at left guard after five weeks out — struggled to keep pressure off Lawrence. Sure, San Francisco’s line with the addition of Chase Young is arguably the league’s best, but Jacksonville couldn’t do much of anything to create space. Kirk said while the offense is struggling, players don’t feel like they’re in desperation mode.
“No, I wouldn’t say so. I think they came out, and they just simply beat us,” he said. “They beat us in all aspects in every single phase. And like I said, we didn’t help ourselves out with the turnovers.”
The defense still among the NFL’s best
Jacksonville’s first-half defense has been one of the league’s best stories. It wasn’t at its best against San Francisco, but the Jaguars played solid, all things considered. Coordinator Mike Caldwell’s unit dialed back in after giving up a touchdown and a field goal on the first two drives. Travon Walker played one of his better games of the season, forcing numerous pressures on quarterback Purdy, two of which led to Foye Oluokun sacks, and another that led to an intentional grounding call.
Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft, outplayed Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in 2021. He finished 19 fo 26 for 296 yards and three touchdowns. About the only notable for Jacksonville on Sunday was keeping Christian McCaffrey out of the end zone. McCaffrey had gone 17 consecutive games with a score, but Jacksonville denied him at the finish, stopping McCaffrey four consecutive plays with udner 4 minutes to go to deny him a shot at NFL history.
For Jaguars fans, it was a glimpse of what could have been, too. San Francisco made a trade at the deadline for Young, sending a third-round compensatory pick to Washington for the former No. 2 overall selection. Jacksonville’s most pressing need has been an edge to play opposite Josh Allen. But general manager Trent Baalke made just one deal at the deadline, trading for backup guard Ezra Cleveland.