Analysis

Quick Slants: Jaguars, Colts, Rams Falling Short of Preseason Hopes

We’re at the midway point of the season, and NFL teams are settling in to the realization that their records are who they are, with storylines hatched in the preseason that haven’t exactly come to fruition.

Here are three preseason storylines that have definitely not panned out:

Sky’s the Limit for Jaguars After Spending Spree

The Jacksonville Jaguars had an offseason of change. They hired a Super Bowl-winning head coach (Doug Pederson), propped up their second-year general manager (Trent Baalke), and were as aggressive in free agency as any team has ever been.

They filled holes on both sides of the ball, signing wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, TE Evan Engram and guard Brandon Scherff on offense, and LB Foyesode Oluokun, DT Folorunso Fatukasi and CB Darious Williams on defense.

Combining all of that with a weak AFC South, many believed the Jaguars could make a run. But through nine games, they are 3-6 after losing five of their last six games and are struggling to stay alive in the division. 

Their second-year quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is improving but not dramatically enough to make a big difference. Additionally, the Jaguars have used up many of the assets they had to completely rebuild their roster. 

Clearly, their massive spending in free agency is not panning out as they had hoped. And as we covered earlier in the week, the bill is coming due soon, limiting any ability to fix things quickly.

Colts Will Contend in AFC

Under GM Chris Ballard, the Indianapolis Colts have been building a strong roster for the past 4-5 years, but have also changed their starting quarterback in each season since Andrew Luck’s retirement in early 2019.

First it was Jacoby Brissett, followed by Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz. Coming into this season, many believed the Colts were just a quarterback away from being a team that could be a top contender in the AFC. Enter Matt Ryan.

Halfway through the season, hope has turned to disaster.

Ryan was benched for second-year pro Sam Ehlinger. Offensive coordinator Marcus Brady was fired, handing play-calling duties to head coach Frank Reich. One game later, Reich was gone, and replaced by Jeff Saturday, a guy who has never coached at any consequential level. 

Maybe most importantly, there is no quarterback currently on the roster who is a long-term answer. So the carousel will get spun in the offseason as the Colts most certainly tap into the QB market again.

Loaded Rams Will Run it Back

While the Los Angeles Rams have dropped four of their last five games, including two to the San Francisco 49ers, they have enough talent and are coached well enough to make a second-half comeback this season. However, the current nature of their greatest weakness makes that unlikely. 

Their offensive line, which was the foundation of their Super Bowl success a year ago, suffered losses in free agency and to retirement, and significant early season injuries have left them with a group that will struggle mightily when playing the better teams and defensive lines in the league.

To this point, their line has done a poor job in both pass protection and run blocking. The Rams are second-last in rushing in both yards per game (68.4) and yards per attempt (3.2), and Matthew Stafford, currently in concussion protocol, has been sacked 28 times; only five other quarterbacks have been sacked more.

The Rams are one of the few teams that had significant success in team building by prioritizing weapons over linemen, but at this point, the line has gotten so deficient that the failure to focus on it has completely negated the other strengths they have on offense.

Building Leads Through YPPA

It’s been interesting to watch the Cincinnati Bengals these past two weeks. In their Week 8 loss to a Cleveland Browns team that was on a four-game losing streak, they fell behind early by getting away from what’s worked for them best over the past two seasons in getting out to leads. In the first quarter, they averaged just 4.85 yards per pass attempt (YPPA) – a statistic I’ve long believed correlates most closely to winning.

On Sunday, granted against an inferior opponent in the Carolina Panthers, they succeeded in building a large lead by throwing for 8.82 YPPA. Despite WR Ja’Marr Chase being unavailable the past two weeks, the Bengals continue to throw the ball early in games. The difference between their 19-point defeat in Week 8 to their 42-point outburst in Week 9 was their ability to create longer plays early on in the passing game.

YPPA should play a larger role in team’s game plans, especially in a play-callers’ “scripted” first 15 plays or so in the first quarter when the goal is to get a lead so your opponent is forced to become one-dimensional playing from behind. Watching the contrast in the Bengals’ past two games is a clear example of the benefits of being more aggressive through the air.

Storylines Continuing to Fly Under the Radar

OBJ’s decision

The relatively imminent signing of Odell Beckham Jr. continues to not garner much media attention. A lot of teams are interested, but there is a shorter list of clubs willing to give him the longer-term deal he seeks. 

His recent health challenges make giving him a larger contract a high-risk move that carries with it a potentially high return – like the Rams enjoyed last season. There is no team with deep-playoff run aspirations that wouldn’t benefit significantly from adding OBJ, assuming he’s healthy enough to make a difference. 

This is the biggest personnel move remaining that could impact who wins Super Bowl LVII.

Run-First Quarterbacks

Mobile and fearless run-first quarterbacks with the ability to accurately throw on the run will completely change how the game is played over the next five years. 

The reason Jalen Hurts is doing so well in Philadelphia is that head coach Nick Sirianni and OC Shane Steichen were smart enough to realize that as traditional drop-back passer, Hurts has some deficiencies that can be consequential, but as a run-first QB, he creates a significant dilemma for defenses. He has also become a proficient passer, which is still a requirement to play the position well.

Likewise, the incredible improvement of Bears QB Justin Fields throughout the season is a reflection of his coaches being able to design an offense that matches his skills, which are most compelling. 

 

Finding a way to take advantage of Fields’ speed and ability to pass both from inside and outside of the pocket has paid dividends for an offense averaging more than 31 points per game over the past three weeks. Any defensive coordinator will tell you that trying to defend a running quarterback with solid passing skills is extremely difficult. 

These young quarterbacks like Hurts and Fields are proving that no one has yet to figure out how to defend them. It will lead to these types of players getting drafted higher and defenses being stretched thin to find creative ways to defend them. 

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