Lions vs. Jaguars preview: 5 Qs with Big Cat Country

This is a big game for the Detroit Lions. It might not feel that way on the onset, but this is sort of a “prove to me that it’s real” game for the Lions. Things went so well for the Lions in November. They won three games and took a Super Bowl contender to the wire. It’s safe to say that hope is at a high for Lions fans again as their team is about to play a meaningful football game in December with the playoffs still a real possibility. A loss here would really just crush everything.

The good news is that the Jaguars have been a bad team this season. The bad news is that they had themselves a decent November too. They went 2-1 during the month and capped it off with a big win against the Ravens. They could wind up causing some problems for the Lions.

How many problems? I do not know. So I reached out to my friend and fellow Sparty guy Ryan O’Bleness of Big Cat Country to get some answers. Here’s what he had to say:

1. The Jags and Lions are both heating up right now. What’s the secret behind the Jags’ last three game stretch?

“I would say the biggest difference has been the ascending play of quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The team goes as Lawrence goes, and while talent has never been an issue with him, it’s taken Lawrence some time to develop (thanks, Urban Meyer). Over the past three games, Lawrence has completed 83 of 108 passes (76.8 percent) for 815 yards (271.6 passing yards per game) with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s also averaging 7.5 yards per passing attempt over that span.

“Lawrence still had some fumbling issues in the win against the Baltimore Ravens last week, but in terms of his throwing, decision-making and poise, he’s played incredibly well over the past three games. The game-winning drive he led against the Ravens with just over two minutes left on the clock was a thing of beauty. Consistency has eluded Lawrence thus far throughout his young career, but he is seemingly turning a corner and getting closer to delivering on the promise of his potential.

“Elsewhere, the defense played somewhat of a bend-don’t-break defense against the Ravens, allowing Baltimore to gain 415 yards, but holding the team out of the end zone for the most part (the Jaguars allowed just two touchdowns on the day, and one was due to a short field after a Lawrence fumble). The rushing defense has regressed a bit over the past couple of games, but last week, the unit played tough and came up with big stops when needed.

“Head coach Doug Pederson is also an aggressive play-caller and decision-maker (see the two-point conversion play to win the game last week). He is very gifted at drawing up mismatches and creating schematic advantages. It hasn’t been perfect with Pederson—his aggressiveness on fourth-down and tendency to abandon the run game has cost the Jaguars a few times this season—but he is proving to be the right guy to lead the Jaguars’ rebuild. The players seem to love playing for Pederson.”

2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Jags?

“Offensively, the Jaguars have been strong in keeping Lawrence upright. Jacksonville’s offensive line has played pretty well this season, especially in pass protection, as the team has allowed just 21 sacks on the year (sixth-fewest in the NFL). The team has been fairly strong on third downs, converting a clip of 41 percent, which ranks 12th in the league. The Jaguars also rank ninth in the NFL in total offense (359.5 yards per game), 13th in passing yards per game (229.1) and ninth in rushing yards per game (130.4), so the team has shown it can be balanced.

“As for weaknesses of the offense, the Jaguars have to hold onto the ball better. Jacksonville has 14 giveaways on the year, and its eight fumbles lost are tied for the fourth-most in the league. Additionally, the team has struggled in the red zone a bit this season. The Jaguars have a touchdown percentage of 53.66 percent, according to Teamrankings.com, which ranks 18th in the league. Jacksonville has seemed to improve inside the 20-yard line over the past few games, however.

“Defensively, the team was strong in the early season against the run, but as I mentioned, Jacksonville has regressed a bit in that area. The Jaguars have allowed 317 rushing yards combined in the past two games (158.5 yards per game), and have fallen toward the middle of the pack in rushing defense (114.8 yards allowed per game). In the passing game, the Jaguars have been vulnerable in the middle of the field and have been hurt on short and intermediate crossing routes. Jacksonville has also only recorded 17 sacks, which ranks towards the bottom of the league.

“What the defense does well is generate turnovers. The Jaguars have 16 takeaways so far this season, tied for the seventh-most in the league.”

3. Who’s the under the radar player everyone should be watching for?

“In my chat with Baltimore Beatdown last week, I identified wide receiver Zay Jones as an under-the-radar player who could make an impact against the Ravens. He ended up leading the Jaguars in receiving with 11 catches for 145 yards and had the game-winning two-point conversion reception. I don’t think Jones will duplicate that level of production against the Lions, but I do expect him to be heavily targeted again.

“Another player to watch is running back JaMycal Hasty. Fellow running back Travis Etienne Jr. left the game against the Ravens with a foot injury last week. While Etienne should be available to play against the Lions, Hasty—who had a 28-yard touchdown reception last week—could see an increased role to try to keep Etienne healthy. The Jaguars also recently claimed running back Darrell Henderson Jr. from the Rams. He was inactive against Baltimore, but should be active for the game in Detroit. As long as Etienne doesn’t have a setback, he will continue to be the bell-cow back, but if he isn’t 100 percent, it’s worth keeping an eye on the rotation in the backfield.

“On defense, rookie linebacker Chad Muma drew his first career start last week against the Ravens. He played on 100 percent of the defensive snaps and recorded nine tackles. He definitely comes to mind a lesser-known name who could make a lot of plays on Sunday.”

4. The Lions are a one-point favorite. Are you taking that bet?

“If I were to bet on games this weekend, I would stay far away from this one. There are a lot of similarities with these two teams. The Jaguars and Lions have two of the youngest rosters in the NFL, both teams are currently 4-7, both went through long losing streaks this season and are seeming to turn it around as of late, and both fan bases have been suffering for a long time. There are a lot of interesting parallels here, and as a metro Detroiter who roots for the Jaguars, but follows the Lions closely, I am very intrigued by this matchup.

“I can see this game going about a million different ways, so no, I wouldn’t be comfortable betting this one either way.”

5. Who’s winning this thing?

“Again, I am having a hard time determining this one. Both teams seem to have a lot of talent, but are so young and don’t know how to consistently win yet. I think Pederson holds a bit of an edge over Dan Campbell in the coaching department, and that could make a difference, but Campbell’s players are gritty and play hard for him. With the Lions playing at home in front of a raucous crowd at Ford Field (I’ll be there to watch), that gives them a slight advantage.

“I think this is a close one throughout and comes down to the final play. The Jaguars have had issues hanging onto fourth-quarter leads this season. Call it a gut feeling, but I could see this one ending the same way. Final score; Lions 31, Jaguars 30.”

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