The Jacksonville Jaguars return to the gridiron for the first time in ten days on Sunday as they take on the San Francisco 49ers. With the team looking to continue their fine form into the second half of the season, here are three key matchups to look out for:
Walker Little vs Javon Hargrave
#Jaguars HC Doug Pederson said he wants to be as clear as he can: “Walker Little is the left guard”— Demetrius Harvey (@Demetrius82) November 6, 2023
Ezra Cleveland will be the team’s backup. Recently acquired.
That’s what I always expected.
Earlier this week, Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson seemed optimistic that a host of names on the injury list would be fit to return to the field on Sunday. That included offensive lineman Walker Little, who had been struggling ever since hurting his knee against the Buffalo Bills in London in Week 5. Little, who had moonlighted as the team’s left tackle in Cam Robinson’s absence earlier this year, was confirmed by Pederson as the team’s left guard going forward - despite the addition of Ezra Cleveland just before the trade deadline.
The Jaguars’ offensive line has been much improved in 2023, despite a litany of injuries at various positions. O-Line guru Brandon Thorn has the unit 12th in his latest rankings, a testament to the work Phil Rauscher is doing with the hog mollies up front. With Cleveland coming in to provide extra depth to a group that seems to finally have settled on a starting lineup, Trevor Lawrence can operate confident in his protection’s abilities.
They’ll need to be on their game on Sunday - none more so than Little, who will be up against one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league. Javon Hargave has earned every cent of his $84m contract so far after signing with the 49ers this offseason. Despite operating inside, he has matched star edge rusher Nick Bosa in every stat category - particularly in the backfield, racking up three sacks and five TFL’s this season. A true game wrecker, Hargrave will give Walker his biggest test yet at his new position.
Darious Williams vs Brandon Aiyuk
Brock Purdy escaping pressure, and hitting Brandon Aiyuk for the 31-yard gainpic.twitter.com/HFym1ZRRtk— Coach Yac (@Coach_Yac) October 29, 2023
Talk about two elite talents going head to head; Sunday’s tilt at EverBank Stadium delivers one of the matchups of the season so far. Darious Williams has been a legitimate lockdown corner in the NFL this year - perhaps even the best of the lot. That’s what PFF thinks, giving Williams a league-leading grade of 85.5 earlier this month. Williams leads the league in pass breakups (14), and has three interceptions to his name as well. WIth Tyson Campbell returning to action this weekend, opposing offenses won’t be able to shy away from the 6th year corner who is having a career year in Jacksonville.
That means that the 49ers may be inclined to pit big play threat Brandon Aiyuk against Williams. Ayuk leads his team with 620 receiving yards - nearly 180 more than the next pass catcher on the team. That’s quite some feat in an offense that loves to spread the ball around. More importantly, Aiyuk offers a rare downfield threat that only a few receivers possess; his 14 receptions for 20 yards or more put him joint-fifth in the league for big plays. With Deebo returning to form and likely occupying the attention of Campbell, expect Williams to offer Aiyuk one of his toughest battles of the season to date.
Doug Pederson vs Kyle Shanahan
Doug Pederson is 1-0 coming off the bye as the Jaguars head coach.— Jordan de Lugo (@jordandelugo) November 6, 2023
His Philly teams were 1-4 coming off the bye week.
Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers are 3-3 coming off the bye week.
Sunday sees two of the most respected head coaches in the NFL go up against one another - and it would be remiss of me not to consider the mental game of chess between Doug Pederson and Kyle Shanahan as one of the keys to victory. Shanahan has been considered at the forefront of offensive innovation since his days as a coordinator with the Houston Texans, Washington (then) Redskins, Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons. His ability to create gameplans saw the Falcons come within a whisker of a Super Bowl - and he has continued that momentum since arriving in San Francisco. Since taking the reins at Levi Stadium, the 49ers have been to the Super Bowl, and two further NFC Championship Games.
Doug Pederson may have handed play-calling duties over to Press Taylor this year, but his impact as a head coach is probably even more impressive. Similarly considered something of an offensive Guru, Pederson does not have the coaching tree that Shanahan has cultivated - but did hoist a Lombardi during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. Maybe more of a traditional head coach, Pederson is no less effective, and the way he has transformed the fortunes of the Jaguars in just over a year is a testament to his coaching acumen.
Some contests simply come down to in-game coaching, and adjusting to what your opposite number is doing on the other sideline. Shanahan will have spent the bye week licking his wounds and making changes following a three-game skid from the 49ers, and Pederson - riding the crest of a five-game winning streak - better be prepared for the backlash.
Which matchups are you looking forward to watching this Sunday?