Here are my three matchups to watch out for:
Travon Walker/Josh Allen vs Benhard Raimann/Braden Smith
My first matchup highlights two units that have come under fire from their respective fanbases. The Jaguars recorded just 35 sacks in 2022, finishing 25th in the league in that category. So it’s no surprise that getting pressure was a focus of this coaching staff throughout the offseason. Fans were delighted to see a lot more push from their pass rush in the preseason games, even if the first-team unit didn’t necessarily rack up the stats. With first-overall draft pick Travon Walker going into his second season and Josh Allen entering a contract year, there is an expectation this team spends more time in the opponents’ backfield in 2023.
Allen and Walker will be going up against bookend tackles Bernhard Raimann and Braden Smith. The Colts’ offensive line was the highest-paid unit in all of the NFL last year, but failed to live up to that price tag. PFF generously ranked them 18th, a position that belied the eyeball test - and it’s assumed that rookie QB Anthony Richardson will be making good use of his athleticism this upcoming season. For their parts, Smith has been a serviceable right tackle, and Indianapolis is hopeful Raimann will develop into a Pro Bowl blindside protector. How the Jags fare getting after the quarterback in Week 1 could set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
Calvin Ridley vs Darrell Baker
This one could get ugly.
Whilst the rest of the world is unsure what they will see when Calvin Ridley steps out at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, the Jaguars are confident that the former All-Pro is ready to resume his place amongst the league’s elite at wide receiver. Considered one of the best route-runners in football, Ridley has had a strong camp, earned the praise of his coaches and teammates, and shown in the preseason games that he hasn’t lost his touch. The former Falcon is hungry, and ready to eat.
That does not bode well for a Colts secondary that, on paper, looks inexperienced to say the least. After a significant overhaul at cornerback, Indy seems set to start Darrell Baker and Dallis Flowers on the outside - two second-year guys, both of whom entered the league as undrafted free agents. Baker played on defense in three games last year, whilst Flowers was primarily a special teams contributor.
Baker looks set to line up opposite Ridley in what would be a brutal first assignment of the year. Rookies JuJu Brents and Jaylon Jones have impressed and could alter the depth chart before Sunday, but whoever is tasked with keeping Ridley quiet is in for a long afternoon.
Tre Herndon vs Isaiah McKenzie
#Jaguars HC Doug Pederson asked if CB Tre Herndon was his starting nickel: "Yes."— Demetrius Harvey (@Demetrius82) August 31, 2023
With a raw rookie quarterback under center, the Colts will be looking for skill players to act as security blankets whilst Anthony Richardson adjusts to full-speed NFL football. Sure, head coach Shane Steichen will have schemed some things up to relieve the pressure in spots, but ultimately it comes down to pass catchers being open when needed.
Isaiah McKenzie is a man who knows how to get open. His four years in Buffalo show that he’s a tricky customer to keep a lid on, and (the other) Josh Allen benefitted time and again from having McKenzie as his third or fourth option in an aggressive offense. 2022 was McKenzie’s best-ever season, with 423 yards and 4 TDs through the air. An average yards per catch of 10.1 was also eyebrow-raising. Whilst understanding that diminutive rookie receiver Josh Downs will also command a role on this offense, McKenzie looks set to start in the slot for Indianapolis and be that checkdown target for the Colts - much like he was in Upstate New York.
That makes McKenzie the responsibility of Tre Herndon. Herndon is a valued veteran in the Jaguars locker room, and respected for how he has carved a career out in Jacksonville after arriving as a UDFA in 2018. He has, however, only started four of the 26 games he has played in the last two seasons, and endured something of a demotion to nickel duties after starting life on the outside. McKenzie is the kind of slippery customer that can give DB serious headaches - especially with the ball in his hands…
The pressure on Herndon doesn’t only come from Isaiah McKenzie; second-year corner Gregory Junior has been a revelation this summer. After making a handful of big plays in the preseason games, he’ll be chomping at the bit to take some snaps away from his teammate and make the slot corner role his own. Herndon will need to be on his game from the kickoff, both to shut down this wildcard Colts offense AND keep his job.
Which matchups are you most looking forward to watching on Sunday?