The 49ers are traveling down south to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars after a complete domination of the Rams on Monday Night Football. Sure, they’re a lowly 2-7 at the moment, but they’ve looked pesky as of late, especially against the Buffalo Bills.
To help provide us with some insights only an insider can, we reached out to Ryan O’Bleness from Big Cat Country to answer some questions about everything Duval. I happily returned the favor, and if you want to read my answers, they’re available on their side of things.
Without further introduction, here are Ryan’s thoughts.
1. The Jaguars and the 49ers both took quarterbacks in the top three this year. So far, Trey Lance notched only one start and some scattered playing time, while Trevor Lawrence was named the starter from Week 1. How do you feel about the progress that Lawrence has shown over the course of the season? Do you think playing him from the jump was beneficial to his development, or do you think he could’ve stood to learn by holding a clipboard on the sideline?
Ryan: Lawrence has certainly had his struggles to start the season, but he’s also shown flashes of brilliance that highlight why he was such a coveted prospect. He still has a lot of learning to do and will get better as the season moves along but has a lot to improve upon.
With that said, the struggles aren’t all his fault. Lawrence doesn’t have a lot of talent around him on the offense or on the team in general. His coaching staff hasn’t done a great job of calling plays to put Lawrence in a position to utilize his best traits — his ability to use his feet to move the pocket and make throws on the run or to pick up yardage on the ground on designed runs or option reads.
Granted, Jacksonville often finds itself on negative game scripts, so those opportunities aren’t always there as the team is often playing catch-up. Overall this season, Lawrence has completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,983 yards with eight touchdowns compared to nine interceptions and also has two rushing touchdowns.
To answer your questions, though, I do think having Lawrence start right away is beneficial for experience and his progression moving forward. There is no better teacher than live game reps. The coaching staff did play games during training camp, having Lawrence split first-team reps with Gardner Minshew and calling it a “quarterback competition” before turning around and trading Minshew to the Philadelphia Eagles.
It may have been better for Lawrence to get all of the practice reps during the summer, but now he’s 11 weeks deep into the regular season and getting more used to the ebbs and flows of the NFL. He struggled this past week against the Indianapolis Colts, got banged up a bit the week prior to that in the victory over the Buffalo Bills, and had a pretty lousy performance the week before the Bills game against the Seattle Seahawks.
So it hasn’t been a great three-week stretch, but he had a very strong three-week stretch before that. So it’s been hit or miss with Lawrence, but all of the talent is there. It’s just a matter of continuing to get better.
2. The biggest storyline revolving around the Jaguars this season for non-Jaguar fans was the Urban Meyer bar incident in Ohio. We are now about a month and a half out from the viral news cycle and his infamous apology. As a close observer, does it feel like the first-year head coach has regained the trust of the team? In general, how would you rate the Urban Meyer experience?
Ryan: Meyer has clearly made a lot of poor decisions — both on the field and off — to begin his tenure in Jacksonville. Before that incident, there were reports that some of the players and coaches didn’t like Meyer’s “college like ways” in the NFL, and then there were more reports after the bar fiasco that people in the locker room didn’t respect him or trust him. I’m sure there were differing opinions depending on each person, but I don’t think Meyer truly lost the full locker room.
At this point, I think the majority of the players and those within the organization have moved past that incident and are just focusing on trying to win games. At 2-7, the Jaguars can’t afford to have any more distractions, especially from the head coach, as the constant losing itself is enough to make a team unravel.
Meyer continues to say that the locker room is a tight-knit group, though, and that this team has stuck together through all of the issues. Meyer’s behavior in Ohio was inexcusable, and he’s made several other bone-headed decisions, but as he gets more used to the NFL, the hope is that he will begin to learn what it takes to build a winning team and lead grown men, not just young college students. We’ll see what happens in the future, but he has time to turn things around.
3. The Jaguars have gone 2-7, including a truly odd win against the Bills and showing signs of life and ineptitude in equal measure. What do you see as the best-case/worst-case scenarios for the rest of the way?
Ryan: Even in the best-case scenario, I don’t think the Jaguars will win too many games, but I could see maybe three or four more wins on the schedule and finishing out the season around 5-12 or 6-11. Anything more than that would be a pleasant surprise for an extremely young team with a rookie quarterback and first-year head coach. Also, seeing Lawrence continuing to develop throughout the season and gaining some momentum by the end of the year to carry into 2022 is crucial.
Worst case scenario, outside of losing the rest of the games along the way, would be if some sort of injury happened to Lawrence where his season ends early, and his development is stopped. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
4. Defensively, the Jaguars have had their issues but played absolutely lights out, allowing only six points against one of the league’s best quarterbacks, and by extension, offenses in the Buffalo Bills just a couple of weeks ago. What do you think was responsible for the sudden flash of stoutness, and do you think it’s replicable down the stretch?
Ryan: Before that Buffalo game, the Jaguars were often getting shredded through the air against opposing quarterbacks and allowing far too many points for a young and struggling offense to keep up with. Jacksonville certainly turned a corner against Buffalo, as the Bills were the No. 1 scoring offense entering the game, and the Jaguars held Josh Allen and company to just six points.
A major reason for the defense’s dominance in that game was because of...Josh Allen, the Jaguars’ version. The defensive end/outside linebacker made history in that contest by becoming the first player to sack a quarterback with the same name, intercept a quarterback of the same name and recover a fumble from a player of the same name. He also had eight tackles and two tackles for loss and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
Additionally, Rudy Ford, who was primarily signed to play special teams, had an outstanding game starting at nickel back with three passes defended and an interception, while defensive lineman Taven Bryan — who has struggled to live up to his first-round draft hype — had arguably his best game in his career with two sacks.
Outside of Allen, I also think the defense as a whole is playing with a lot more confidence. The unit actually played really well against the Colts last week, too, outside of the first quarter. After allowing 17 points in the first quarter, the Jaguars allowed just six points the rest of the way and held Carson Wentz to just 180 passing yards.
Jacksonville ultimately came up short in a six-point loss, and while there will definitely still be struggles along the way, I think the Jaguars will play much better on that side of the ball moving forward this season. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Rayshawn Jenkins were both signed as free agents this offseason and have played pretty well in the secondary while also providing veteran leadership.
5. What players have been the biggest surprises for you this season? Anyone that Niner fans should be aware of before watching this matchup?
Ryan: Offensively, Jamal Agnew has been the biggest surprise of the season for the Jaguars and is somebody who 49ers fans may see a lot of on Sunday. Agnew was signed this offseason to be a return specialist — and he’s been very good at that, returning a kickoff for a touchdown and a missed field goal for a touchdown this season — but his usage on offense continues to impress.
With D.J. Chark Jr. out for the season, Agnew has had to step up as a wide receiver and has 21 catches for 211 yards and a receiving touchdown on the season. Last week against the Colts, Agnew had a 66-yard rushing touchdown, so he is used in a variety of ways. Of course, if fully healthy, James Robinson remains the bell-cow running back and should see a lot of touches, while recently-acquired tight end Dan Arnold seems to be a continuingly growing part of the offense.
On defense, I mentioned Ford, and he has probably been the biggest surprise on that side of the ball, but it’s been a pretty small sample size. Rookie cornerback Tyson Campbell continues to play a large role on the outside, and it will be interesting to watch his continued development. Allen, Griffin, Jenkins, and Myles Jack aren’t surprises but will make plays all over the field.
6. What’s your prediction for this Sunday’s game?
Ryan: I’m glad this game is in Jacksonville, as the Jaguars have historically played awful on the West Coast. With that said, I still give the upper hand to the 49ers. While San Francisco has been inconsistent, after watching the team dominate a much more talented Los Angeles Rams team (compared to the Jaguars),
I think the 49ers have a lot of matchup advantages and should win this game. The Jaguars will fight and hang tough for a while, but ultimately San Francisco pulls away as its top-10 defense forces a couple of turnovers that Jacksonville can’t recover from. I am thinking of a final score around 49ers 34, Jaguars 23.