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Examining how a potential Jaguars offense will look in 2021

What kind of offense will the Jaguars run in 2021? We can take a guess with some deep diving

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Now that the first NFL Draft for Jaguars Head Coach Urban Meyer and his staff are in the books, how do the players drafted fit in not only with the offensive system, but the other players on the team? Well, we can take a guess on how the 2021 Jaguars offense could potentially look, based on how Urban Meyer’s offenses looked while he was at Florida in 2008 and at Ohio State in 2016, as well as offenses run under Jaguars Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell and Passing Game Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Before we get into the nitty gritty, however, we have to understand what Meyer’s philosophies are, especially concerning the OTHER Clemson first round pick, Travis Etienne.

What is a “Slash Player”?

Meyer described Etienne at the post-draft presser as a “slash player”, and mentioned that the former Clemson RB would be “dual trained.”

I think a “slash player” is a running back SLASH wide receiver, someone who can line up in the slot or in the backfield, and catch passes or carry the ball out of the backfield—and take any touch to the endzone. A “slash player” could also be kind of like a slasher in basketball; someone who uses their speed and athleticism to penetrate the defense-think Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat.

Now how will this slash player be used in Jacksonville’s offense? You can think Percy Harvin or Curtis Samuel, both players Meyer coached at Florida and Ohio State, respectively. Samuel was recruited as a RB out of New York by Meyer, but flip-flopped between RB and WR until his junior year in 2016, when he exploded onto the scene. That year, Samuel led all RBs in pass targets from the slot and at the RB position, with 97 targets(according to Sports Info Solutions). Meyer put Samuel in motion from the slot position into the backfield sometimes, in order to create mismatches in the run game.

Then on passing plays, Samuel was used to create mismatches on linebackers, and ran routes that would use Samuel’s speed to literally just run away from defenders. In 2016, Samuel was second among listed RBs who ran drag routes from the slot. A drag route is designed for slot players to get isolation against some poor linebacker or safety, and putting the slot player’s athleticism in the spotlight. Samuel was also second among listed RBs who ran screen routes from the slot. Obviously, this was designed to get Samuel into space where he could use his speed and balance to get upfield in space. What really stands out, however, is that Samuel was first among RBs in the slot who ran fly routes and curl routes. Of course, the fly is the homerun ball, that Samuel would use to just fly by defenders. The curl is interesting because he could run the route and give QB JT Barrett a quick pass option who can create Yards After the Catch(YAC).

While Etienne might not have been used as much as Samuel from the slot, he was still the primary target on 57 occasions either in the slot or as the RB(according to Sports Info Solutions). The most important stat, however, is 619. That’s how many Yards After the Catch Etienne had in 2020. He is a legit homerun threat every time he touches the ball.

In 2021, I think the Jaguars will have a lot of plays where Etienne and James Robinson are on the field at the same time. Getting Etienne’s speed in the open field, especially from the slot where he can exploit LB mismatches, creates advantages in the run game, opening holes for Robinson. If you have the guys who can attract attention with their motion or just by their position on the field, then have the speed to score from anywhere on the field, it takes more defenders out of the box. In 2020 James Robinson had the fifth-most carries with six or more defenders in the box. Despite how good Robinson is, running against a loaded box seems like banging your head against a wall. Etienne will take some numbers out of the box.

Darrell Bevell also coached Harvin from 2010-2012 in Minnesota and 2013-2014 in Seattle. What stands out to me is how he used Harvin, and I think he can find the same usage for Etienne in Jacksonville.

Harvin would often line up in the backfield and Bevell would draw up running plays for him from that position, getting him into creases and allowing Harvin to be an athlete.

When Bevell had Harvin in Seattle, the objective was getting Harvin in space, whether that be as a receiver or as a running back.

Now that we’ve figured out what role Etienne and the other backs will play, let’s examine what kind of plays Meyer and Co. might be running on the ground.

Run Game

Meyer said in his post-draft press conference that he expects the Jaguars to run the ball, and to run the ball well. “The best thing you can do for a young quarterback is being able to run the ball,” Meyer said. To an extent I believe that’s true, especially when you have a running back such as rookie sensation James Robinson. Having the ability to take pressure off of rookie QB Trevor Lawrence is paramount, especially as he gets acclimated to an NFL offense, and NFL speed on the other side of the ball.

Meyer’s football teams have always been able to run the ball, and have been able to use multiple guys in their run game. At Florida in 2008, there were times where RBs Jeff Demps, Brandon James, and Percy Harvin were on the field at the same time, accompanied by QB Tim Tebow, who was always a running threat.

This Gator team gashed defenses on the ground for 231.1 yards per game. That same success was replicated at Ohio State when Meyer was there, but specifically in 2016. Now, how does this translate to Etienne and the Jaguars RB room?

A fundamental of Urban Meyer’s run game is the inside and outside zone. He outlined it in a video for Fox Sports when he was an analyst, but the gist of it is that the inside zone is an “on-to-on” philosophy. This means that if there’s a DL in the designated OL’s gap, he blocks them. If there’s no DL, the player works up and on to the next level. The play is designed to get vertical and give the RB an alley. Outside zone works the same way, with the OL blocking whoever is in their gap. The RB has to be patient and press the hole, then make his move.

The Buckeyes in 2016 ran inside and outside zone on 203 snaps in 2016, with both run schemes having at or over a 50% Positive Play Rate(PPR), meaning the play resulted in positive Expected Points Added(EPA). The Jaguars in 2020 ran a version of inside or outside zone on 140 plays, with inside zone having a much more Positive Play Rate of 44.9%. James Robinson had the eighth-most carries using inside or outside zone in 2020, and had the sixth highest EPA for players with over 100 carries in that run scheme.

Jaguars new Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell was the OC of the Seattle Seahawks when Russell Wilson first entered the league in 2013, but I could only begin tracking run schemes up to 2015. Adjusting to 2015, the Seahawks ran a variation of inside or outside zone 337 times, having just over a 40% PPR. Clemson’s entire offense is built upon the inside zone, and Travis Etienne ran the play to perfection, getting 76 snaps of inside zone resulting in nine TDs and a .242 EPA. Etienne has the explosiveness and patience to press the hole and find an opening, and from there it’s off to the races.

Another staple of the Meyer run game is the “stretch” play. On this play, the linemen turn their shoulders and are almost running horizontally to the line of scrimmage(in zone run schemes the OL’s shoulders stay square to the line of scrimmage). The running back patiently presses the hole, and the most successful stretch plays come from a cutback where a defensive player over-pursues. In 2016, Curtis Samuel of Ohio State ran this play 22 times, scoring two TDs and having an EPA of. 793 per attempt. Overall, Ohio State ran stretch 38 times, with an absurd PPR of 83.3%. To compare, the Jaguars ran stretch for 30 snaps in 2020, resulting in a 33.3% PPR.

This zone run scheme naturally leaves a player unblocked, however: the backside defensive end. So, to keep that end honest, Meyer threw in the zone read, giving the QB the option to hand the ball off or to keep it if the backside end crashes. In 2016, the Buckeyes ran the read option 225 times, with a PPR of 52%. J.T. Barrett wasn’t the best athlete, but he was quick enough to make defenses pay if they crashed on the RB. However, Russell Wilson is one of the better athletes at QB in the NFL, and in 2015, Bevell used that athleticism and ran the read option 82 times with almost a 60% PPR. Trevor Lawrence is a great athlete for his size, and has been known to make teams pay for not respecting his legs(see: 2019 CFP Semifinal vs. Ohio State). This is what a typical zone read would look like:

In 2021, expect the Jaguars run game to hold over some of the same principles from 2020, just with added wrinkles. Retaining offensive line coach George Warhop and barely tinkering with the offensive line makes me think that the run game will remain inside zone heavy, which was the Jaguars most successful run play. Outside zone was actually called more than inside zone, yet had a lower PPR. However, the amount of zone reads/read options will be a lot different. Jacksonville only ran 24 of them, and they had a PPR at 41.7%. With Meyer and Bevell adding in more zone and option wrinkles, and with Lawrence providing more of a rushing threat that any of the Jaguars QBs last year, the zone read usage should go up. In addition, we’ll see more speed on the field with Etienne, Robinson, and LaViska Shenault on the field possibly at the same time. With Etienne occupying most of the eyes in motions/quick passes, this will allow Shenault to attack vertically, which he was good at in a limited role. At times, I also think we’ll see all three RBs(Robinson, Etienne and Carlos Hyde) on the field at the same time, with Hyde being a power back.

Passing Principles/Pass Game

The passing game that Urban Meyer had at Florida and Ohio State might not translate to the NFL. It was heavy on short routes such as curls and drags, and he never had a QB like Trevor Lawrence. I would go as far as saying Lawrence is the most talented QB Urban Meyer has ever coached(Cam Newton was at UF for like 2 minutes).

In addition, I think Lawrence himself was hurt a little bit by the offense run at Clemson. It’s heavy laden with screens(Lawrence threw the third most screen passes in the nation last year) and RPOs(17th most in the nation). Lawrence is supremely talented, and I don’t think the transition will be a steep one, but the switch from that offense to a pro style one could hamper him a little bit.

So wait. A big armed, tall QB who can move, who was hampered by a Mickey Mouse, candy ass offense? That sounds a lot like former Oregon QB and reigning NFL Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. In fact, in 2019 Justin Herbert threw the sixth-most screen passes in the NCAA. Behind him at 17th? Lawrence. Herbert was helped in the NFL by a scheme that maximized his talents, while making the reads extremely easy for him in his first year using play action.

That’s where I think Bevell, and Passing Game Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer come in. I think the Jaguars will use a passing game very similar to the Seahawks in Russell Wilson’s early years, and combine that with an offense similar to Herbert’s in Los Angeles. In addition, the passing game will be catered to Lawrence’s many strengths.

The passing offenses in Seattle were anchored heavily on play action in 2013 and 2015. According to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks ran play action on 34% of their dropbacks, first in the NFL that year. When they threw it off of that play action, Football Outsiders charted them at having a 51.6 DVOA, fourth in the league. In 2015, the Seahawks ran play action 123 times, eighth-most in the league. Drawing defenders eyes toward the run and faking it is rather simple, but that split second between the defender’s eyes noticing the fake could be the difference between an incompletion and a touchdown. The Seahawks used this perfectly, leading to Russell Wilson leading the league in TDs off of play action with ten.

Play action helps a young QB so much because it limits the reads having to be made. When the defense is so keyed in on the run fake, it puts them out of position, making the passes and the passing windows a lot larger. Robert Mays wrote for The Ringer in 2017 that play action helps young QBs because it moves the defenders away from the zone or man they’re supposed to cover. Your eyes can only follow so much at one time, and the windows created by this are large enough for even the worst QBs to exploit(see: Mitch Trubisky).

This play action is what helped Josh Allen turn into a premier passer in the league, and helped Justin Herbert make waves his first year in the NFL. In 2020, the Bills were second in the NFL in dropbacks using play action, and the Chargers weren’t far behind, coming in at ninth. The Jaguars? 30th. Threats of play fakes cause linebackers who are supposed to be covering the middle of the field to take a “false step”, or move forward to play the run instead of dropping to his zone/covering his man.

Play action significantly helps young QBs negate making complex reads, and gives them a chance to use their natural talents.

So how does this fit with Trevor Lawrence? Well according to The Draft Network’s Contextualizing QBs(done by Benjamin Solak), Lawrence had a blistering 68.75% completion percentage on play action passes. However, the completion percentage only tells a part of the story. Lawrence is putting the ball in places only his receivers can get it, and is leading them to where they’re going to be, not just where they’re at.

In addition, Lawrence is very good at throwing off-platform and on the move. Lawrence had a 60% completion percentage on a moving platform, meaning his feet weren’t set when he threw the pass. However, about 80% of the time he throws a catchable ball, meaning he’s on target with his passes. Russell Wilson was also accurate with passes on the move, and has a strong arm to fire passes into tight windows, like Lawrence did at Clemson. Bevell and Co. used this in 2013 and 2015 to their advantage, eliminating Wilson’s height by moving him out of the pocket.

I think the Jaguars will take shots deep off of play action and get Lawrence on the move, where he’s very good throwing the ball off platform. Both DJ Chark and Marvin Jones are exceptional at tracking the ball and going up and getting the ball deep. Marvin Jones saw a lot of targets on posts, double moves deep and deep crossing routes (according to Sports Info Solutions) and Chark saw a lot of targets on corner routes(though only three were deemed catchable) and fade routes. Lawrence will have the ability to take shots, with Jones and Chark being able to reduce any chances of error with their large catch radii. Think of them as Justin Herbert’s Keenan Allen and Mike Williams-or Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, who Lawrence was throwing back shoulder fades to in 2018 and 2019.

Conclusion

Overall, I think this offense will be dominated by the ground game early. There will be a lot of runs out of shotgun, and more QB keeper/passing options attached to the inside and outside zone runs. The Jaguars weren’t one of the worst teams in the league last year in running the football, and adding that speed element with Etienne combined with Lawrence’s running ability will make the run game a lot more lethal. That will open up the play action pass game and Lawrence will be able to showcase his arm talent with passes attacking the intermediate and deeper levels of the field where the defense is displaced due to the play fake. Play action is every QBs best friend, especially a young QB coming from a bland offense. The Chargers with Justin Herbert provide what I think is a basic archetype of how the passing game will be run, but the ground game will be the brainchild of Meyer and Bevell, mixing zone with option, and having multiple threats on the field at the same time.