In a hard-fought 20-10 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the pouring rain, the Jacksonville Jaguars were able to keep a chippy Steelers defense at bay, continuing their five-game win streak (the current league-best after Kansas City’s loss to Denver on Sunday afternoon).
While a couple of Jags rookies had less-than-stellar performances, others held their own, including one particular Jags rookie who -- despite limited snaps -- made the most of his opportunity and earned my highest grade for the week. Let’s take a closer look.
Anton Harrison: Amidst a rough day for the Jags' offensive line, Anton Harrison was fairly average, finishing the day with 3 pressures allowed in pass protection and a couple of blown blocks in the run game, per PFF. While this may seem rough on paper, it’s worth noting that he was primarily matched up against T.J. Watt, one of the best pass-rushers in the league and a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer. Though Watt blew past him on a few snaps, including one on 3rd-and-long, Harrison otherwise managed to keep Watt in check relatively well for a rookie. His performance was certainly better than the Week 2 performance against Chris Jones. As Doug Pederson said in a presser earlier this week, Harrison is learning via “baptism by fire”, and while his improvement is encouraging, he will need to continue to improve his blocking against the TJ Watts and Chris Joneses of this league if the Jaguars hope to make a run in the playoffs.
Brenton Strange: With 29 snaps on Sunday, Strange was again out-snapped by fellow TEs Luke Farrell (33 snaps) and Evan Engram (56 snaps) and received 0 targets on 11 routes run. However, while his role in the passing game may leave more to be desired, Strange was deployed in run-blocking for 16 snaps and made some key blocks to open up running lanes for Etienne. Strange is establishing himself as a valuable blocking TE on the team.
What a block from Brenton Strange. My goodness, son. pic.twitter.com/imRcuc3Hw7— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) October 31, 2023
Tank Bigsby: After Travis Etienne exited the game due to injury at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, Bigsby entered the game in his stead. On his first drive, Bigsby offered a glimmer of hope with a nice 9-yard run, followed by a 1-yard push for first down. However, on his third rush of the game, Bigsby fumbled the ball, ending yet another Jags drive in Pittsburgh territory. Was it a questionable call? Absolutely. But Bigsby has now touched the ball 23 times this season and has been responsible for 3 turnovers. Not great.
Antonio Johnson: Perhaps more than anyone listed above, Johnson was a “notable performer” on Sunday. This may seem odd considering he received one snap on defense, however, Johnson’s degree of impact per play was remarkable. Late in the 4th quarter, as the Steelers were looking to lead a second touchdown drive en route to a comeback, Johnson made the best special teams play we’ve seen in weeks, agilely downing Logan Cooke’s punt at the Steelers’ 2-yard line. Johnson’s day was not over, however, as he made the game-sealing interception on a hail-mary throw by Mitch Trubisky. Will Johnson suddenly be propelled into a starting role? No. However, this was a great example of a rookie making the most of his given opportunities.
Elijah Cooks received 0 targets on 7 snaps. Tyler Lacy and Yasir Abdullah were both listed as inactive on Sunday. Parker Washington and Christian Braswell remained out with injuries.
As the Jags enter their bye week sitting pretty at 6-2, their best record through the first eight games in over two decades, things are looking good. The offense is clicking thanks to the dominant tandem of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, and the defense is performing far better than anyone expected, currently leading the league in takeaways despite not having their full arsenal of starters in any game thus far.
If you had to identify the greatest shortcoming of the Jags’ season so far, it would probably be a relatively lackluster rookie class despite a league-leading 13 picks in the 2023 NFL draft. However, while the content of this column may lead you to believe otherwise, in the grander scheme of things, there is far more reason for excitement and optimism than there is for complaint. The Jags are tied for 1st in the AFC, have the longest win streak in the NFL, and are entering the bye week soon hoping to field an entirely healthy squad of starters for the first time this season. All is not lost for the rookies either: Anton Harrison is steadily improving, Strange is helping to establish an excellent run game, Johnson is making game-sealing interceptions, and Bigsby.... well, hopefully, Etienne can teach him a thing or two.
So keep your heads up, Duval; Jags are back.
Who do you think will be the rookie MVP in the second half of the season?