Pre-Snap Read: Trevor Lawrence Trending Toward Elite Status

The Jacksonville Jaguars provided one of the most unlikely outcomes in Week 15, a 37-31 come-from-behind overtime victory against the 10-win Dallas Cowboys. A heck of an accomplishment in and of itself, but for Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars’ offense, there’s much more to it. 

Jacksonville has won two games in a row, four of their last six, and their quarterback is playing the best football of his two-year career. As a result, a couple of questions are being considered: Are the Jaguars a playoff team? Is Lawrence an elite quarterback?

Let’s spend time with the first, and build toward the second. 

First of all, remember when Jacksonville went winless in October? They played five games and lost all of them. In that sobering stretch, the heart of a season where first-year head coach Doug Pederson and his second-year QB were supposed to be gathering momentum. At the very least occasionally winning but Lawrence was stuck, if not plain regressing. His role in the losing skid was easy to see, with more interceptions than touchdowns, and a completion percentage hovering in the 50s.

Both are unacceptable for an NFL starting quarterback. 

October became November and boom, Lawrence was no longer a maddening mix of potential and inconsistency. In his team’s 4-2 run, he’s been a joy to watch, somehow blowing past the “let’s just reattach the wheels” portion of his season, and settling into the “I’ll just play like an All-Pro” section of it. 

In the Jaguars’ last six games, Lawrence’s production has been fantastic. His completion percentage of 70% is the NFL’s best since November, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is a glistening 14:1. It’s amazing efficiency for any stretch of the season; remarkable when it comes on the heels of such a dismal month.

Here they are at 6-8 – a team and a quarterback rapidly moving in the right direction, but still on the wrong side of the playoff bubble. Since the Jaguars likely need to win their final three games to make the playoffs, I stuck with that number and picked out the three things that stood out most about Lawrence and his team’s offense in Sunday’s win over Dallas. 

Diverse Game Plan

I realize this is more of a compliment for Doug Pederson than Trevor Lawrence, but considering how the Jaguars’ coach-quarterback tandem go hand-in-hand there is a thought that should be kept. I think it’s fair that in watching Lawrence, you can’t help but notice the variety, formation and play-calling provided by Pederson. 

It’s all there on film, Lawrence is under center, in shotgun, rollouts, and of course straight dropbacks. He dinks and dunks and he takes shots downfield. He works the middle of the field, fires lasers and throws touch passes to the sidelines. Pederson works in clever runs and screens in between for good measure. 

There’s a three-play sequence on Jacksonville’s first touchdown drive against the Cowboys that counts as my favorite combo example. First, Lawrence, from under center and in a run-heavy formation, fakes a pitch right, then rolls left and hits tight end Evan Engram with ease. He even manages to hit him in stride, crossing in front of him, for a nifty catch-and-run first down. 

Next play, more variety and creativity from Pederson, and deft ball-handling from Lawrence. Again from under center, Lawrence play-fakes the classic zone-reach run between the tackles, flash-fakes the jet sweep to a sprinting receiver, and fires a screen for a first down. Next play, he actually pitches the jet sweep for another first down.

Three plays, three formations, three different forms of play-action, three different players touching the ball and three first downs. Creative, effective, misdirecting playcalling from Pederson that has Lawrence firing on all cylinders.

The Jaguars checked so many high-level offensive boxes in a win over a top-10 defense. They accumulated 500 yards of total offense, with a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher and 67% conversion rate on third down. Topped off is their ability to tap into so many formations and concepts that paved the way. 

Quarterback Movement

Lawrence’s ability to throw the ball on the run to either side, both within Pederson’s play-calling structure and within his own instinctive reactions to the pass rush, expands Jacksonville’s offensive possibilities in a unique way. 

Of his 27 completions on Sunday, I would argue that the two most important came with him on the move. Fittingly, one was to the right, one was to the left, and both came while Lawrence was improvising. 

His 59-yard touchdown pass to Zay Jones in the third quarter was supposed to be thrown from the pocket after a play-action fake. But Lawrence sensed pressure off the edge and rolled out of the pocket to his right. Without breaking stride, he fired a 50-yard strike to Jones that hit him between the numbers, and allowed him to run for the score. 

Then in an even more crucial moment in the fourth quarter, Lawrence and the Jaguars found themselves down 34-31, on the Dallas 49-yard line. Time for just one more play, they needed at least 10 yards to get into legitimate field-goal range. The play called for Lawrence to throw from the pocket, but the pass rush demanded something different. Lawrence felt pressure and slid out to his left, all the while with eyes downfield. On the move, he spotted Jones, who had settled down on the left hash, turned his shoulders and fired across his body to the receiver, a perfect spiral and right on the money. Eighteen yards later, the Jaguars were in field-goal position, and the game-tying kick came on the next play. 

It reminded me that when I studied Lawrence after the Jaguars’ Week 2 win over Indy, one of my observations was about his effectiveness throwing while running to his left. “No offensive coordinator will design a game plan around moving a quarterback to his left, but knowing he has the athleticism to execute it is a bonus, and a skill that should be used to his advantage,” I wrote at the time. On Sunday, Lawrence used it to his advantage, with ease, when the game was on the line. 

‘Calm’ Feeling

After the Cowboys game, while Lawrence was at the post-game podium answering questions, he was asked to describe the feeling when Jacksonville was down 17 in the third quarter, his first word was “calm”. Thinking back to how the comeback came together, I can attach his descriptor to a couple of key moments. 

The first one is the instant he threw his first interception since October. An awful read and a poor decision, a pass that ended up floating right into the arms of cornerback DaRon Bland. At that moment, the third quarter was more than halfway over, Dallas had the ball and a commanding 27-10 lead. Calm isn’t an automatic reaction in that moment for many, but Lawrence appeared to have it walking off the field, and more importantly when he walked back on it. The aforementioned 59-yard touchdown pass to Jones happened early on his next drive, and that calm was serving its purpose. 

It was even more needed, if only for a split second, during the play that produced a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. 

Jacksonville faced third-and-goal from the three-yard line, with the ball on the right hash, and a pair of receivers lined up to the right. At the snap, the inside receiver broke out toward the front pylon, underneath the slant route that Marvin Jones ran from his outside position. Lawrence determined pre-snap that he wanted to throw the flat route to the pylon, and was well into his delivery when he decided it wasn’t open. He reloaded, quickly and calmly, and delivered a strike inside to Jones. 

But Is Lawrence Elite?

It all has Jacksonville ready to make a late-season run at a wild card, but is Lawrence ready to jump into the NFL’s elite quarterback tier?

To me, that “elite” label should be reserved for the top five or six quarterbacks, and I don’t consider Lawrence to be in that group. I do think in the last six weeks he’s closed the gap between himself and that tier more than any other quarterback in the league. 

If his current level of play continues through the end of Jacksonville’s season, I would rank him in the top 10 heading into next season. Not elite, but remarkable progress for Lawrence and the Jaguars. This type of progress looked to be miles away as recently as the start of November.

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