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Chiefs-Jaguars: 5 things to watch in an intriguing coaching battle

The intra-conference matchup has significance for both teams — despite the differences in their records.

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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After facing three consecutive opponents with a winning record, the Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) are playing the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-6), who snapped a five-game losing streak in Week 9. With the Arrowhead Stadium advantage, the Chiefs stand at nine-point favorites for Sunday’s Noon kickoff, per DraftKings SportsBook.

Jacksonville’s win-loss record can be deceiving, however. Whether it’s through the air or on the ground, Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson has built an offense around quarterback Trevor Lawrence that is one of the league’s 10 most efficient. The young defense is riddled with playmakers — especially in the front seven.

If they have postseason aspirations, the Jaguars’ let-down performances have backed them into a corner. That energy will make this a battle.

I have five things to watch in this matchup.

1. Signs of life from the Chiefs’ running game

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve talked over and over about what needs to be tweaked in Kansas City’s ground game. No matter what anyone thinks should be done, it needs to be more impactful.

Statistically, Jacksonville could hardly be a more favorable matchup: the team allows four yards per carry, which is the league’s third-lowest rate. Yet they aren’t as stout up the middle as the Tennessee Titans were on early downs.

For the Chiefs, this needs to be a bounce-back performance on the ground. On the offensive line, right guard Trey Smith must improve his engagement with blockers — and stay with them. In the backfield, the running backs have to be better at reading the defense’s flow — and understanding where seams will open.

I believe the running game has a better chance to make an impact against Jacksonville. In my opinion, player execution will be the deciding factor. On running downs, watch to see how locked-in the offense appears to be.

2. Trent McDuffie

Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

First-round rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie is garnering a lot of hype. He hasn’t allowed a catch in his 81 NFL snaps, denying completions on the two plays in which he was targeted in Week 9.

However, it’s important to understand that in his second career start, he faced a rookie quarterback — one that threw to wide receivers only five times. In Week 1, the Arizona Cardinals were without star wideout DeAndre Hopkins; since then, that offense has proven largely ineffective either way.

Jacksonville doesn’t have any star receivers — but they will push the ball downfield with deeper pass patterns, using play-action or maximum protections to give passing routes time to open and giving Lawrence windows to deeper throws.

This should be the biggest test McDuffie has yet faced as an NFL player. Look to see how he responds.

3. Three-receiver sets

Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The most notable situation to monitor on the Chiefs’ injury report is that of wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who has been held out of practice all week with an abdominal injury. He was officially ruled out on Friday afternoon.

Hardman has taken 53% of this season’s total offensive snaps while playing behind JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The Chiefs will need someone that can mirror Hardman’s playmaking as a slot receiver in their three-receiver formations (11 personnel).

Rookie Skyy Moore would have been Hardman’s natural replacement — except that in his Karadius Toney’s first game with the team, the Chiefs showed a lot of urgency in getting him involved. I took that as Kansas City wanting to quickly integrate Toney into its system. Sunday’s game should be a great opportunity for him to earn more than the nine snaps (two of which were negated by penalties) that he played against Tennessee.

On the other hand, it could still be too early to rely on Toney in a full game plan where he takes the majority of snaps. So this could turn into Moore’s shot to prove something — or even be an opportunity for veteran Justin Watson to get more work.

4. Linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr.

NFL: AUG 07 Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Jaguars’ offense will rely on its running game — but not in the same way the Titans and San Francisco 49ers did.

Jacksonville’s running plays will spread out more, running from one-back formations without a fullback. The team’s tendency to run from lighter personnel will put a lot of responsibility on Bolton and Gay; they’ll need to corral Jacksonville running back Travis Etienne when he tries to bounce outside and win to the sideline. He’ll also find yards in between the tackles, but his game-breaking plays happen in the open field.

At the same time, Lawrence might be at his best (and most comfortable) on play-action passes, taking advantage of linebackers biting on the run by easily throwing beyond them over the middle.

That’s where Gay will be most important. He will have to use his recovery speed to make Lawrence pay for testing tight windows in the second level. I believe we’ll see Gay get a shot at an interception at least once on Sunday.

5. The coaching battle

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chief Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This will be only the second time that Andy Reid and Doug Pederson — who was Reid’s offensive coordinator from 2013-2015 — will face each other as head coaches. Reid won the first matchup when the Chiefs handed the Philadelphia Eagles a 27-20 defeat in Week 2 of the 2017 season.

Pederson hasn’t been around the organization in a good chunk of years; the only offensive player that remembers him is tight end Travis Kelce. That said, the two coaches are cut from the same cloth — and in small ways, can use that to their individual advantage.

This could be a game in which either team could move away from its typical offensive strategy — knowing that on the opposite sideline, the opponent will be well-versed in what each play-caller likes to fall back on, what they like against certain looks — and so on.

I also think there’s a healthy competition between these two men. We should expect aggressive decision-making (and well-timed trick plays) from both — but especially from the first-year head coach who is fighting to stay in playoff contention.

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