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5 questions with Big Cat Country: It’s strength versus strength on this side of the ball

Which side will prevail?

Jacksonville Jaguars v Buffalo Bills Photo by Vincent Mignott/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Gus Logue from Big Cat Country is today’s guest. He answered five questions ahead of this week’s 49ers matchup against the Jaguars.

Q1: Jacksonville has quietly put together the longest active winning streak, at five games. What has been the key to their success during this stretch, and how can they keep it going this weekend?

The story of Jacksonville’s offseason was its offense, as the addition of Calvin Ridley was widely expected to push Trevor Lawrence into MVP conversations. But the story of the actual season so far has been the defense.

The Jaguars rank third in EPA per play allowed and defensive DVOA, and while much of that is thanks to a league-leading 18 turnovers, Jacksonville has also forced the fifth-highest rate of three-and-outs. Defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell should be a head coach next year based on the product he’s put on the field.

The Jaguars have surrendered just 22 total points in the first half during their five-game winning stretch. The Niners had a 13-minute opening drive and held a 20-3 lead at halftime the last time these two teams faced. On Sunday, Jacksonville will continue to focus on shutting down the opposing run game and try to make Brock Purdy beat them in the second half.

Q2: It feels like Travis Etienne is having a break-out season, finding success on the ground and through the air, do you feel like the former first-rounder should be in the national conversation with the elite running backs?

Absolutely. Etienne is being used as a workhorse back (his 18.9 carries and 22.3 touches per game lead the league) but he’s the type of player who would benefit from lesser volume, especially between the tackles. Etienne averaged 5.1 yards per tote last year, fourth among qualifying running backs, but that number has dipped to 3.9 this season with a bigger workload. He’s like a better Tony Pollard.

If third-round rookie Tank Bigsby is able to emerge as a complementary back, and Jacksonville’s offensive line stays healthy, Etienne could rediscover elite efficiency in a still heavily involved role.

Etienne ranks seventh among all players in yards from scrimmage since his first NFL season in 2022. Only Tyreek Hill, Christian McCaffrey, Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Justin Jefferson have more. Decent company.

3) The Jags defense has been stingy against the run this year, who are some Jacksonville defenders that are flying under-the-radar through the first half of 2023?

Roy Robertson-Harris and Foley Fatukasi have been outstanding this season. Jacksonville’s interior hasn’t generated much of a pass rush, but they make up for it by winning on early downs to set up 3rd-and-longs. Angelo Blackson and Jeremiah Ledbetter have provided commendable depth, but Robertson-Harris and Fatukasi are the true unsung heroes of this unit, if not the entire team.

DaVon Hamilton would’ve been the first name I mentioned if you asked me six months ago. He was phenomenal against the run last year and signed a three-year extension in the offseason, but Hamilton missed the first seven games of 2023 due to a back injury.

4) Last year, Doug Pederson pushed this team to a division crown and playoff win for the first time in five years. What are the expectations for this organization this year and is the fans mindset Super-Bowl or bust?

The expectation for this organization is absolutely to win a Super Bowl. Players have been talking like it since last season ended, and 2023 always seemed like “the year” based on Jacksonville’s moves in recent offseasons. I think the Chiefs, Ravens, and Bengals are all a better bet to win the AFC, but the Jaguars absolutely think of themselves and should be nationally considered a title contender.

As for the fans — this team has hurt a lot of people, so it depends on who you ask. Many would say they’d just be happy to get another playoff win at home, but nobody in Jacksonville will truly be satisfied until the franchise captures its first Lombardi Trophy.

5) DraftKings Sportsbook sets the line for this game at 45.0, despite both teams giving up less than 20 points per game. Are you predicting the over or under, and do you believe this will be an offensive struggle or a shootout?

I’d lean struggle. It seems like San Francisco’s defense isn’t as dominant this year, but Chase Young is now in scarlet and Jacksonville has yet to figure out red zone offense. Could be famous last words, but Brock Purdy doesn’t scare me.

I’m predicting a 20-17 win for the Jaguars. I’d pick the Niners at a neutral site with both teams at full strength, but I think Josh Allen will be able to take advantage of the 49ers’ left tackle situation. More than anything, this contest should be close at the end, and I trust Doug Pederson more than Kyle Shanahan in tight ball games.