Sloppy football ahead.
If you’re the kind of person who looks forward to a 4-6 team fresh off two humiliating defeats rolling around in the mud with a 2-8 team coached by a coach bumbling at a high level, then this is your week. For the rest of us, hell, it’s Falcons football.
Both of these teams are struggling right now. The Jaguars stunned the Bills a few weeks back and can hang their hat on that win, but their only other victory came against Miami and they’re light years away from contending despite some intriguing pieces. Atlanta has a better record, but is fresh off two lopsided defeats in a row against an up-and-down Cowboys team and the dominant Patriots, and are suddenly dealing with injuries that are sapping their already thin depth.
It goes without saying that I both think the Falcons can win this and hope they do, no matter how poorly they’ve played of late. Let’s look at what you should know for the matchup ahead.
Falcons – Jaguars comparison
Must we? I guess we must.
Atlanta has a slight edge in several categories, but obviously the Jaguars run the ball more effectively and are a better defense overall. They’re even less adept at creating turnovers than the Falcons, but certainly these are both miserable teams on paper.
Jacksonville’s best player on offense is James Robinson, the do-it-all former undrafted free agent who is averaging over five yards per carry, has scored seven times on the ground and has over 700 combined yards on a middling offense. Their capable receiving corps features Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault and tight end Dan Arnold, though they’ll be down weapon and special teamer Jamal Agnew against the Falcons. When Trevor Lawrence is on, Robinson is rolling and the line is blocking pretty effectively, you can see the outline of a good offense in Jacksonville. It’s just not looking like it’ll come together in 2021, at least not entirely.
Defensively, there’s a solid pass rush here keyed by Josh Allen, and a solid run defense that will likely entirely stymie Atlanta’s awful ground attack. Unless Atlanta’s miraculously improved that aspect of their offense by Sunday, the best bet for the Falcons will passing their way through this one, as the Jaguars secondary is nothing spectacular.
Arthur Smith and company have a lot of work to do, because they’ve scored three points over the past two weeks combined, and they could not have looked worse against the Cowboys and Patriots. This Jaguars team is beatable, but as bad as they’ve been, they’re far from a pushover and have a good enough defense to put this listless Falcons team down.
How the Jaguars have changed
Trevor Lawrence! On a bad team, Lawrence has predictably struggled in his rookie season, but I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt his talent or long-term ability so long as the team around him improves. Jacksonville’s #1 pick is going to be the rock they build on or the one they dash their ship against, and my bet is definitely on the former.
In addition to Lawrence, the Jaguars added speedy back Travis Etienne, who is unfortunately on the shelf this year with a major injury, as well as defensive backs Tyson Campbell and Andre Cisco, who have bright futures and are growing on the job. Tackle Walker Little may eventually be called upon to be a full-time starter, as well, and if Jacksonville lands five starters in this class and Lawrence pans out it could be transformative for the franchise.
Predictably, Jacksonville also spent a lot of money this offseason. Marvin Jones has been the team’s leading receiver and an impactful signing, and Shaquill Griffin has been a badly needed quality starter at cornerback for the team as well. Free agent tight end James O’Shaughnessy landed on injured reserve and has missed all but two weeks of the season, but defensive lineman Dawaune Smoot has been a quality addition and most of the team’s re-signings have at least been solid. Jamal Agnew, who recently went on injured reserve, has been a quality returner and receiver for the team as well. It was, overall, at least a solid offseason for Jacksonville, even if they obviously need another solid offseason or two to contend.
Unfortunately, the most impactful decision for the Jaguars might’ve been the coaching hire. I was not a fan of the Urban Meyer addition, to put it mildly, but the folks at Big Cat Country and Jags fans mostly seemed on board and I bit my tongue. After all, some coaches have jumped from the college ranks to the NFL and had success, and perhaps Meyer would be one of them despite his multiple retirements and awful handling of an assistant coach’s spousal abuse allegations. That hasn’t happened, to put it mildly, and Meyer’s first year in Jacksonville is going to be wracked by scandal and ineffectiveness, not to mention some magical sound bites.
Jacksonville’s future depends on Lawrence’s development, Meyer’s growth or removal, and steadily building on what I really do think is a quality foundation for the roster. The arrow is at least pointing up for the Jaguars.
What to know
This is one of two games left on the schedule that the Falcons absolutely should win, the Lions being the other. I fully recognize that by point differential, DVOA and perhaps even overall talent, the Jaguars are a better football team. They just also happen to be a bad team, one that is poorly coached and deeply dysfunctional despite their bright-seeming future, and the Falcons have had an uncanny knack for preying on teams down in the muck with them.
They’ll need to be a lot sharper. Jacksonville is capable of quality defensive performances even if they’re not forcing many turnovers, and their offense just needs James Robinson to get rolling to at least be a pain for this defense, which needs to string together more than one solid effort before I’m convinced they’ve turned any kind of corner. On offense, Atlanta’s completely one-dimensional in terms of offensive success but stubbornly two-dimensional in terms of play calling, and they can’t afford to keep frittering away downs running the ball when none of those plays are going anywhere. On defense, they need to impact Lawrence and hopefully force a turnover or two, as Lawrence is tied for the 6th-highest interception total in the league with nine (one behind Matt Ryan, unfortunately) and has fumbled five times.
Atlanta’s run defense will have to be extremely sharp against Robinson and hope the strides the secondary seems to be making hold up against Jacksonville, because harrying Lawrence seems like a dicey proposition given his ability to move in the pocket and this pass rush’s supreme inconsistency. I think this defense can, if they are able to build on their effort against New England, prove to be instrumental to the outcome of this one, and help the Falcons overcome any shakiness on offense that is still present with no Calvin Ridley, no Hayden Hurst and awful line play. They just can’t overcome another supreme dud from the offense, and if the Falcons can’t get that side of the ball going against Jacksonville, we’re going to talk not just about packing it in for the year but about what that says about this coaching staff and roster’s ability to adapt to hard times.
If Atlanta plays well, this is a winnable game, and one they’d badly like to take. If they’re going to look at crummy and slow as they did the past two weeks, their latest defeat will be another humiliation, this time at the hands of another one of the worst teams in the NFL.