Thursday night's game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets is almost sure to be billed as a battle between the Nos. 1 and 2 overall picks in the 2021 NFL Draft: Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. But that's really not the case, and not just because those two players will never actually be on the field at the same time.
Lawrence has so outperformed Wilson to date that they are barely worth mentioning in the same category. That's been especially true in recent weeks, when Lawrence has looked like the NFL's next superstar quarterback and Wilson was benched in favor of Mike White before being reinserted into the lineup last week when White sat out with an injury.
No, the real battle in this game is Lawrence against the Jets defense, which promises to be one of the best matchups of these final few weeks of the regular season. Before we break down said matchup, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Thursday, Dec. 22 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, New Jersey)
Stream: Amazon Prime Video
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Jets -1.5, O/U 36
Jaguars offense vs. Jets defense
Over his last six games, Lawrence has completed 157 of 223 passes (70.4%) for 1,680 yards (7.5 per attempt), 14 touchdowns, and just one interception. He's third in the NFL in TruMedia's version of expected points added (EPA) per dropback during that span, and while he's faced a few pass-funnel defenses (Ravens, Lions, Titans), he just got done tearing through the vaunted Cowboys defense for 318 yards and four touchdowns last week.
Lawrence repeatedly picked on Dallas' No. 5 cornerback, Kelvin Joseph, who has been pressed into duty with both Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown out for the year due to injuries. Pro Football Focus credited Joseph as being on the receiving end of two of Lawrence's four touchdown tosses, while a third was the result of a miscommunication between Joseph and No. 4 corner DaRon Bland (who also had the lone interception against Lawrence) near the goal line.
There are, unfortunately, no such weak spots among the Jets cornerbacks. Sauce Gardner is deservingly the heavy favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, and has emerged as one of the small handful of best cornerbacks in the NFL already. The Jets have another stud perimeter corner in D.J. Reed as well, with the duo ranking first (Gardner) and 10th (Reed) in PFF's coverage grades among the 118 cornerbacks who have played 250-plus snaps so far this season. They also rank second (Gardner) and 21st (Reed) in completion percentage allowed; first (Gardner) and 20th (Reed) in coverage snaps per reception allowed; and third (Gardner) and 17th (Reed) in passer rating allowed in coverage. Nickel corner Michael Carter II, meanwhile, has allowed just a 77.5 passer rating on throws in his direction in the slot.
The Jets almost always align with Gardner at left corner (84% of snaps), Reed at right corner (89%), and Carter in the slot (93%). Jacksonville uses Christian Kirk as its primary slot man (78%), with Zay Jones (67% outside) and Marvin Jones Jr. (85%) working on the perimeter. That means the Joneses will see a lot of Gardner and Reed, while Kirk will work mostly against Carter. Kirk and tight end Evan Engram might be best-position to operate as Lawrence's top targets here, given the relative strength of Gardner and Reed compared with the rest of New York's coverage group. Still, the Jets' ancillary cover men are no slouches -- there's a reason just two quarterbacks all season have topped 250 passing yards against them. (Jared Goff last week and Joe Burrow in Week 3.)
Another important aspect of this matchup will be the absence of left tackle Cam Robinson, who tore his meniscus last week. Robinson checks in 31st in PFF's pass-blocking grades out of the 81 tackles who have played at least 250 snaps. The Jags will likely turn to 2021 second-round pick Walker Little in his absence, and Little yielded four pressures on just 19 pass-blocking snaps a week ago. He fared somewhat better in limited action last season, but it's still less than ideal to have to use him against a Jets defense that ranks 10th in the NFL in pressure rate, per TruMedia, and does most of its best work getting after the passer while sending only four rushers. Between Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff, the likely returning Quinnen Williams, and rookies Jermaine Johnson and Michael Clemons, New York has guys who can get after it in multiple ways from multiple alignments.
Luckily for Jacksonville, Lawrence's super power is avoiding sacks. Despite working behind what most would agree is a subpar offensive line, he's been dropped on only 4.6% of his dropbacks, and in recent weeks he has been much more effective at scrambling away from opponent pressure. According to TruMedia, he took off downfield 9.6% of the time when pressured in Weeks 1 through 8, averaging 7.9 yards per scramble. Since Week 9, he's taken off 16.4% of the time and averaging 9.4 yards per scamper. Couple his escapability with the fact that he has been getting rid of the ball increasingly quickly (55.6% of his throws have been released within 2.5 seconds of the snap since Week 9, up from 49.1% prior to that), and it's extremely difficult to get him to the ground unless you hit him as soon as he gets to the top of his drop.
|< 2.5 Sec||49.1%||55.6%|
|Time to Throw||2.59||2.47|
The Jets likely represent the most significant defensive test Lawrence has faced to date. They come into this game third in yards allowed, fifth in points allowed, second in yards per play, first in yards per drive, fourth in points per drive, and third in the share of opponent drives that end in a touchdown or field goal despite their opponents having started drives with the fourth-best average field position in the league (the 29.7 yard line). New York has forced three-and-outs on the league's sixth-greatest share of drives, and punts on the seventh-greatest share. The Jets do not allow big plays (third-lowest share of plays resulting in 10-plus-yard gains) and frequently create negative plays (sixth-largest share of plays resulting in a gain of 0 yards or a loss).
He'll have to navigate this challenge without his blindside protector, and do so while traveling to an expectedly frigid North Jersey in what could be rainy conditions. If he passes yet another test despite all that's working against him, the rest of the league should be very, very worried about the type of quarterback he's about to become.
Score: Jaguars 17-13