We’ve had two weeks to stew over Los Angeles’ tough loss in New England but now they have the chance to bounce back. Chargers head East to challenge the Jacksonville Jaguars, who sport a 5-3 record, tied at the top of the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans.
The Jaguars have been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year. Their offense has been led by their rookie running back, Leonard Fournette, and their defense has been dominant at every level. Last week, they convincingly beat Cincinnati 23-7, and that was without Fournette, who served a one-game team suspension.
The Chargers Bye-Week
Before we get into a few keys of the game, a small word on Anthony Lynn’s first bye week as a Head Coach. Lynn decided to let the team have a full week-off from football – I’m sure that’s something the players would have been very thankful for.
As for Lynn and the coaches? They spent the week watching film of their own team, deciding against getting in extra preparation for the upcoming game in Jacksonville. Right now, Lynn stands at 0-0 after bye weeks, so it’s not for me to say whether this is right or wrong, but it’s an interesting choice for certain. Come Sunday we’ll find out whether these decisions were the right ones to make.
Now, back to Sunday, and a look of some of the key matchups.
Chargers WRs vs Jags CBs
On paper, you probably give this matchup to the Jaguars. A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey have a pair of picks on the year and are very hard to beat. They have managed to contain the likes of T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green in the past few weeks and helped Jacksonville to the best pass defense in the NFL.
Overall, the Chargers wide receivers have struggled to gain separation from cornerbacks this year. Keenan Allen leads the team with 40 receptions but it feels like Allen hasn’t quite hit his stride yet. He only has the one touchdown this season, which came back in week one. Tyrell Williams has been the next best option, however, he has just over half (22) of Allen’s receptions. Williams struggled in the last game against the Patriots, so he’ll be looking for a bounce-back game this week which will be difficult going against the Jaguars’ CB duo.
Surprisingly, Travis Benjamin leads the receivers in TDs, with three. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has done a nice job of getting Benjamin a free-release at the line, and that is when he can really utilize the speed.
Whisenhunt has a huge job trying to scheme to get the receivers open against a team who have given up just the 7 points in their last two games.
QBs/OL and pass rushes
Historically, Philip Rivers has crushed the past Jags’ defense, leading the team to six wins in as many seasons. Five of those wins, the Chargers posted at least 30 points on the board. The 2017 Jacksonville defense is a whole different ballgame. They have playmakers at every level. 27 sacks between the starting front four, led by offseason acquisition Calais Campbell, who leads the league with 11.
As I’ve discussed, it’s probably not going to be a game that allows Rivers to throw for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns, especially to his wideouts. Because of the pass rush that Jacksonville possess, it’s likely that the Chargers will keep Hunter Henry in a lot to help out the offensive line. Something the team has struggled to do this year is keeping the balance of Henry blocking vs his ability to help in the passing game. The tight end only had two targets in his previous outing. The OLine has played well, given Rivers time this year. They are tied for 6th in sacks along with Jacksonville, giving up 11.
The Bolts, of course, have their own pass rush ability. Melvin Ingram and Josa Bosa have 8.5 each on the year and they’re supported by Chris McCain, with 5. The Jaguars have some injury concerns this week. Three of their starting offensive line is questionable to play on Sunday. Even if one can’t dress, then the Chargers will have a big advantage.
They have to be able to put Blake Bortles under pressure and force him into mistakes. That’s something that Bortles has avoided this year, only giving away 5 interceptions.
Leonard Fornette is the spearhead of this Jaguar’s team. 596 rushing yards, averaging 4.6 yards a carry with 6 TDs in his six games. His suspension last week means he hasn’t played for 3 weeks because of an ankle injury in week 7, and a team bye the following week.
Therefore, he should be fresh to face one of the worst running defenses in the league. 28th to be precise in yards given up, and yards per carry. The front four of Los Angeles has shown some improvement in recent weeks. The interior duo of Brandon Mebane and Darius Philon have been bright spots. The linebackers, on the other hand, have not. Hayes Pullard, PFF’s 2nd worst ranked ‘backer, has struggled. Pullard is a game-time decision on Sunday. Luckily for the Chargers, they have, former 2nd round pick, Denzel Perryman back for his ‘season opener’. Perryman could make a big difference in the Chargers front 7 if he can hit the ground running.
If there’s a weakness the Chargers offense can exploit, that would be the Jags run defense.
Melvin Gordon has had his ups and downs this year. He’s struggled with injuries throughout most of the year so with this game coming after a week’s rest, could prove vital.
Jacksonville rank 24th against the run, giving up an average of 125 yards per game. Their focus on rushing the passer may have compromised this ranking.
The Chargers should look to give Austin Ekeler early carries to keep Gordon fresh. The rookie has looked promising in both the passing and running game and deserves more opportunities.
If the Chargers are going to be able to come through with the win, it’s going to be close and it’s going to be ugly. That usually means it isn’t going in the Chargers’ direction. They will have to get their fundamentals right this week, especially focusing on reducing the missed tackles.
A win is a must if they want to stay in the hunt for a playoff run. Regrettably, I don’t think they do, and the Jags edge the Bolts, 17-13.
–Thomas Herd is a Staff Writer and covers the Los Angeles Chargers for cover32.com/Chargers. Follow him on Twitter @chargers_uk