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Film review: How the Chiefs can stop the Jaguars’ horizontal offense

During Saturday’s Divisional Round, Kansas City will need to force Jacksonville away from its offensive comfort zone.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs will host the Jacksonville Jaguars on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium for the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.

Since Kansas City dropped Jacksonville’s record to to 3-7 in Week 10, the Jaguars have won seven of their last eight games. In just one season, head coach Doug Pederson has transformed one of the worst NFL’s worst offenses. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is now playing much closer to his pre-draft evaluation — and with a well-designed scheme, the Jacksonville offense is humming.

Since Week 10, Jacksonville is among the top 12 in offensive success rate and expected points added per play — and is ranked in the top 8 in dropback success rate and EPA added per dropback. The running game has been the weak point, ranking 25th in success rate and 26th in rushing EPA. The Jaguars rank ninth in both yards per play and points scored.

Lawrence has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks all season, ranking 12th in EPA per play and fourth in success rate. He ranks 21st in yards per attempt and 11th in completion rate over expectation. Lawrence is among the league’s best at avoiding sacks, ranking fourth with just 4.46% of his dropbacks ending with a takedown. His time-to-throw is fourth-fastest at 2.59 seconds — while his average intended air yards rank 27th.

Countering the horizontal passing game

Pederson has largely built this offense to the skill sets of his playmakers, working to give them the ball in space and let them get yards after catch. The team ranks ninth in total YAC, which accounts for about 50% of their total passing yards.

Pederson sends speedy receivers like Zay Jones, Christian Kirk amd Jamal Agnew — and tight end Evan Ingram — horizontally into space, using their speed to generate YAC. None of them are particularly great downfield — or at beating man coverage individually — so Pederson schemes them open with a variety of motions and formations against different kinds of coverages.

In the last matchup, the Chiefs defended Jacksonville’s horizontal action well by using some man-match coverages that allowed safeties to cut crossing routes. Last Saturday, the Los Angeles Chargers did a good job by baiting Lawrence with some trap coverages where they presented man, but played zone. There are a lot of ways to defend these horizontal routes — but however it is done, Kansas City will need to take that space away from Jacksonville.

Forcing outside throws

Other ways to stop horizontal action include cutting routes from match coverages or playing spot drop-zone coverage, thereby condensing space and forcing throws along the sideline. Lawrence’s passing charts indicate that he’s not been very efficient outside the numbers.

Lawrence is a good athlete with a good arm, but I’m not sure he has the special physical talent to consistently rip opponents down the sidelines. Even if he does, the Jaguars’ pass-catchers lack the speed and contested-catch ability to scare the Chiefs’ cornerbacks. On sideline throws alone, Kansas City rookie corner Trent McDuffie broke up two passes in Week 10.

If Jacksonville can beat the Chiefs by throwing deep vertical shots to wide receivers like Marvin Jones Jr. and Zay Jones, then so be it. But with the Jaguars’ lack of elite wide receiver talent (and Lawrence’s own weaknesses), Kansas City would be smart to force throws down the sideline — while also playing with hard inside leverage to take away some crossing routes. This would force the Jaguars to build their offense around the deep throws for which they are not suited.

Interior pressure

Lawrence has been excellent at avoiding sacks. But in Week 10, Kansas City sacked him five times — even as he was getting the ball out at an insane average of 2.29 seconds.

Most of the pressure came from the interior. Defensive tackle Chris Jones was absolutely dominant with 1.5 sacks, but defensive tackle Khalen Saunders and linebacker Leo Chenal each had a sack from the interior.

Lawrence loves to stand still in the pocket and deliver throws in the middle of the field. But when he faces interior pressure, it’s harder for him to get rid of the ball quickly. The Chiefs dominated in this area the last time — and this Saturday, it will once again be a key factor.

Screen game

One of the hallmarks of Pederson’s horizontal scheme is what he does in the screen game. Jacksonville largely beat the Dallas Cowboys by utilizing its screen game — which helped slow down the Dallas pass rush — but in Week 10, Kansas City was able to consistently stop the screens. That forced Jacksonville into third-and-long situations.

Pederson won’t eliminate screens from his playbook — especially versus an aggressive front and a defensive coordinator who likes to blitz — so the Chiefs will have to be ready for these screen calls. Just as in the last matchup, they’ll need to read them and rally to the ball.

Christian Kirk

The Jaguars’ main vertical threats are Jones and Kirk. Jones is more of a traditional burner, but he doesn’t get many vertical targets schemed up for him. Most of those go to Kirk — who had a great game in the last matchup in Kansas City, collecting nine catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

Kirk was able to feast on some slot fade routes against Chiefs’ cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — like these shown here.

Kirk struggles with getting off the line in press coverage, so Pederson will help him by running pick routes — and putting him in a bunch of other receivers to get Kirk a free release. This is crucial to limiting him. When he’s in open space, Kirk’s a great route runner; teams can’t afford to let him run free.

The Chiefs will need to either play zone to limit that space — or be ready to pass those routes off with a Banjo call. Either way, the defense will need to account for Kirk on every snap — and will need a plan that keeps him from getting a free run to the corner of the end zone.

The bottom line

The Jaguars have improved their offense since they last played the Chiefs. Lawrence has matured as a quarterback, while Pederson has dialed in on his players’ strengths and weaknesses. He is able to use a variety of formations to help his guys — and simultaneously confuse defenses.

Still, Jacksonville isn’t a difficult scout for Kansas City. While there are a lot of formations, their goals are the same: attacking defenses horizontally to get yards after the catch. The Jaguars want to avoid making throws along the sidelines or into tight windows. If defenses can force them into those uncomfortable areas, Jacksonville’s offense isn’t very efficient.

Providing strong interior pressure, emphasizing zone coverages and forcing sideline throws should limit the Jaguars’ offense. While Lawrence is good enough to burn you once in a while, taking away the easy part of his offense should limit him enough for Kansas City to win.

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