There were 109 combined pass plays called in Monday night’s epic game between the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs.
That looks like the future of the NFL – at least for the handful of teams that have elite offensive talent.
Sunday’s game in New Era Field will not be a peek into the future of the NFL. It shapes up as a throwback to caveman football.
The Jaguars’ formula for winning is straight out of 1985, partly because they have an elite defense and a great running back and partly because they want to hide their untrustworthy franchise quarterback, Blake Bortles.
The Bills, meanwhile, might not want rookie quarterback Josh Allen throwing the ball all over the field in his first game back from injury. Jacksonville’s defense ranks No. 3 against the pass, boasts a quality front four and has the top shutdown cornerback in the NFL in All-Pro Jalen Ramsey.
It might be a compelling game. But it should turn the clock back.
For example: The Buffalo defense actually will be forced into its base front.
The Bills are a 4-3 front in name only.
The Bills’ defense has used four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs – a k a regular or base personnel – on a mere 17 percent of snaps this season.
“That shows you how much the game has changed,” said Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “There are teams now that don’t even carry a fullback. The game has changed a lot.”
With star running back Leonard Fournette back from a hamstring injury the past two games, the Jaguars have tried hard to get back to their ground-oriented formula of last season.
(Here is Fournette with a power run in the Steelers game. The key block is the center handling the Pittsburgh nose tackle one on one.)
In the playoff game against the Bills last January, the Jaguars’ offense used “heavy” personnel – with a fullback in the game or with two tight ends in a tight formation – on half the plays.
Look for Lorenzo Alexander to line up in a strong-side linebacker position -- with fellow backers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano on the field – a lot more than normal.
Alexander is fortunate he’s versatile enough to be an edge rusher and an interior rusher on passing downs. It has allowed him to play 54 percent of the snaps this year. If he were solely a strong-side linebacker, he’d be playing less than half that amount.
In fact, none of the Bills’ backup linebackers fits the “strong-side linebacker” mold. They’re all run-and-chase, weak-side linebackers.
“That’s how much the game has changed,” Frazier said. “Those backups have to be so flexible and almost have to play all three positions. There was a time you could just be a strong-side linebacker. You’re going to play to the tight end side. That’s your role, end of story. Not anymore. Because of how much they spread you out now, these guys have to almost be Matt Milano, linebacker-slash-defensive back.”
The Jaguars’ smash-mouth style almost worked against the Steelers last Sunday. Jacksonville called 41 runs and 26 passes. But it’s a hard formula to pull off against a great quarterback. The Steelers called 11 runs and 49 passes.
The 30,000-foot view: Jacksonville benefited from last year’s success by adding 12,500 new season-ticket holders, bringing the total to more than the 50,000 mark. The Jags removed the tarps covering upper-deck seats this season and have played to 98 percent capacity. (The only NFL teams playing to less than 90 percent capacity are Tampa Bays, the L.A. Rams, Cincinnati and Washington.) So the market is strong enough for owner Shahid Khan to make a lot of money.
Nevertheless, none of the Florida teams inspires the kind of loyalty the NFL gets in the Northeast and Midwest. The Jacksonville market TV rating for an entertaining Week 11 loss to Indianapolis was 22.3, good for Florida. (That’s the percentage of households tuned to the game.) The Buffalo TV rating for that week’s Bills win against the New York Jets was 37.8.
The Jaguars have played in London for six consecutive years and are signed up to play there through 2020. The Jaguars make twice as much for a game in London than they make for home games, just as the Bills did for their games in Toronto. Khan also owns London-based Premier League team Fulham and considered buying Wembley Stadium this year, which prompted speculation he might move the Jaguars overseas. That’s not happening. Khan has demonstrated his loyalty to Jacksonville. But it’s clear that continuing to play one game in London per year is part of his long-term financial plan.
“The stronger the Jaguars are in London, the more stable and promising the Jaguars’ future will be in Jacksonville,” Khan said in March.
Weak link: Blake Bortles. It’s obvious the Jaguars don’t trust their fifth-year QB. In the loss at Pittsburgh, the Jaguars ran on third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 36 in the second quarter to settle for a field goal. They ran on third-and-5 with 1:54 left, a failure that set up Pittsburgh’s winning drive. Bortles threw for 376 yards and four TDs in a Week 2 win at New England. But those days have been rare. He’s still not accurate enough and doesn’t win enough from the pocket.
(Here is Bortles missing a wide open receiver on a slant on a second-and-9 play early in the fourth quarter against the Steelers. Instead he took a sack to take the Jaguars out of field-goal range.)
Jalen Ramsey vs. Kelvin Benjamin. The Jaguars’ star cornerback held Benjamin to one catch for 9 yards in last year’s playoff game. Ramsey did a superb job on Antonio Brown last week, making two interceptions. Brown’s 78-yard TD catch was the fault of safety Tashaun Gipson, not Ramsey. Of course, one could argue the Bills might be better of throwing away from Benjamin anyway.
Bills OTs vs. Jaguars DEs. Last year Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue combined for 26.5 sacks. They only have 12 this year, but they’re still a formidable pair of power rushers. Campbell, who will play over Jordan Mills, is a monster against the run. Mills and Dion Dawkins did a decent job against the Jags’ edgemen in last year’s playoffs. Josh Allen will need them to be good Sunday.
Chris Ivory vs. Jaguars’ LBs. Linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are so talented and fast, it’s very hard to run outside on the Jaguars. The better bet is to attack between the tackles. Jacksonville ranks 15th in rushing yards allowed. LeSean McCoy needs to get his touches. But the Bills would be wise to pound Ivory as a compelement.
Stat for the road: The Jaguars have fumbled 18 times and lost a league-high 11 of them.