JAGUARS // BILLS OVERVIEW
It is likely that everyone besides Bills fans themselves knew that last year’s playoff appearance was fluky (and I even know a couple Bills fans who were fully aware of this), but I’m sure when the NFL set this game on the schedule they figured it would be a more important bout than it is. The Bills are sitting in the basement of the league at 3-7, and the Jags (losers of six straight) are surprisingly right there with them. “Lack of offense” is the name of this game, as these teams rank 29th (Jacksonville) and 32nd (Buffalo) in points per game, while each defense ranks top four in fewest yards allowed per game.
Frustratingly for Jaguars fans, their team has been able to move the ball all right (21st in yards per game — one spot behind Seattle; more than enough yards per game with a strong defense on the other side), but with this team giving away the ball the fifth most times in the league and ranking 27th in red zone touchdown rate, the points have simply not been there for wins. Buffalo ranks second in the league in giveaways, which obviously pulls both defenses in play, but it should also create some short-field scoring opportunities for the offenses. Buffalo surprisingly ranks 25th in red zone touchdown defense (the Jags rank 14th), and I can think of at least one player who is likely to stand out to me in this game…
Vegas has generously awarded this game an Over/Under of 37.5 — which is the lowest mark on the slate, but is still high considering that the Bills are averaging 13.7 points per game and the Jags are averaging 17.6. In order for this game to get there, some defensive touchdowns and/or short-field points will almost certainly have to pile up. Each team ranks bottom eight in drive success rate on offense, and each team ranks top eight in lowest drive success rate allowed.
The Bills’ pass defense is shaving almost 13% off the league-average aDOT — the fourth best mark in the league — while also holding opponents to a league-average catch rate and knocking more than 10% off the league-average YAC/R rate. Add it all up, and only the Ravens are allowing fewer yards per pass attempt this year, with only three teams allowing fewer passing touchdowns and with no team allowing fewer passing yards per game.
Further complicating issues for the Jags’ passing attack is the return of Leonard Fournette and the reestablishment of this team’s run-heavy ways. Over the last two weeks, the Jags have run the ball 75 times and thrown it only 56 — an unheard of split, and exactly what the Jags entered this season hoping they would be able to do. Ultimately, this spot gives us one of the worst passing offenses in football (25th in yards per pass attempt // 23rd in passing touchdowns) against one of the top two or three pass defenses in the league — with everything pointing toward this team ignoring the pass right now as much as they can.
Since Fournette returned, targets per game among the Jags’ wide receivers look like this:
Keelan Cole has zero targets across the last two weeks, on 38 snaps. The running backs have piled up 8.0 targets per game in this stretch.
If betting on wide receivers in this spot, Moncrief (who plays in the slot only 5% of the time) is likeliest to see a healthy dose of Tre’Davious White — who probably won’t bother shadowing, but who will stick to the Jags’ nominal number one if the situation gets hot. Chark has topped five targets in a game only once this year, and most of his targets are coming within five or six yards of the line of scrimmage. The best matchup bet is Westbrook, who saw only four targets last week in Bortles’ 18 pass attempt game, and who has not cracked 40 yards in nearly two months, but who does have a couple double-digit target games on the year, and whose 92% slot rate gives him the best bet of doing more than nothing.
James O’Shaughnessy played more snaps last week than any wide receiver and ran 19 of a possible 26 pass routes — seeing two targets, including a downfield look on which he and Bortles failed to connect. He had seen target counts of 6 // 4 // 6 in his previous three games, and he will return to “salary unlock status” the next time the Jags play a game in which they are expected to have to pass; but with volume a concern across the board in this run-heavy offense against the low-scoring Bills, his chances of piling up his typical 25 to 40 yards are slimmer than normal…
All of which brings us to Fournette, who touched the ball 29 times on only 39 snaps in his first game back from his lengthy layoff, and who touched the ball 30 times last week in a game in which he played only 35 snaps. This team is dead set on riding Fournette (truly, this season would almost certainly have turned out very differently for Jacksonville if Fournette had been healthy), and he has the skills to be a game-breaker when the usage is there. Last week, the Jags ran the ball on 60% of their first downs (the league leader in this category is Seattle, at 39.9%), and against a Buffalo defense that will be nearly impossible for the Jags to move the ball on through the air, we should expect a similar approach yet again. The matchup is not great for Fournette (the Bills rank ninth in yards allowed per carry and 10th in rushing yards allowed per game), but the Bills have allowed 13 touchdowns to backs (only five teams have allowed more), and 25+ touches is a strong bet for Fournette in this spot (with two to four targets mixed in), creating solid opportunity for a 100-yard game and one or two scores.
Because the ability to throw the ball a long way is the only thing that matters in the NFL (*sarcasm*), Josh Allen was the number seven overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — and he has carried over his accuracy issues from college with a completion rate on the year of 54%. To be fair to Allen: he was not exactly put in the best position to succeed, with draft busts Zay Jones and Kelvin Benjamin as his top two weapons — as attested to by his expected completion rate of 62.2% (which is still the fourth worst mark in the league, but is at least better than what his raw numbers show). This week, Allen will return to the field to take on a Jaguars defense that allows the second lowest catch rate in the NFL, and that further limits upside by allowing the sixth lowest YAC/R rate. Only four teams have allowed a lower yards per pass attempt than the Jags, and this team is tied with the Bills for the fourth fewest passing touchdowns allowed. On the season, Allen has cracked 200 passing yards only once, and he has thrown only two touchdowns (to five interceptions).
With Matt Barkley under center in Week 10—(as noted on the site a couple weeks ago: for all of Barkley’s flaws, the guy is able to support wide receiver stat lines)—Zay popped off for an 8-93-1 line on 11 targets in a tremendous wide receiver matchup against the Jets. Outside of that game, Zay’s best yardage lines on the year were 2-63-0 on three targets in Week 2 against the struggling-at-the-time Chargers and 6-55-0 on eight targets against the Patriots (who shut down Benjamin in that game with Stephon Gilmore).
Benjamin has been even more nondescript this season, topping 45 yards only once (4-71-0 against a Colts team that allows the second highest catch rate in football), in spite of averaging 5.6 targets per game.
The only other wide receiver to top 50 yards this year is also the only wide receiver on this team to top 100 yards in a game: Robert Foster, who has five catches in his career on 13 targets, and who went 3-105-0 on four targets from Barkley in Week 10. Foster played 34 snaps in that game to only 37 for Benjamin (in a game in which the Bills ran 73 plays in all). There is a slim chance he sees more playing time than Benjamin this week.
Buffalo has also failed to produce more than 40 yards in a game from the tight end position. With Charles Clay looking likely to miss another game, the Bills will rotate Logan Thomas (31 snaps in Week 10) and Jason Croom (44 snaps). Across Allen’s five starts, he fed three or fewer targets to tight ends three times.
The matchup isn’t much better on the ground for the Bills against a Jags team that continues to stamp out enemy rushing attacks. In order to provide a clear picture of what this run defense can do, we have spent all year removing the spectacular “only Saquon could do it” run that Saquon had against this team in Week 1 — which leaves this team allowing 3.59 yards per carry to running backs, which would rank in the top five in football. LeSean McCoy has topped 12 rush attempts only three times on the season, and he has only one game with more than 30 receiving yards. The Bills’ offensive line ranks 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, while the Jags’ defense ranks sixth.
On a whole, the Bills’ offense is averaging 268.6 yards per game (which is, incredibly, not the worst mark in the league, as Arizona has been even worse). As noted above, the Jags’ defense is allowing the fourth fewest yards per game in the league.
I like Fournette a little less than expected after diving into the research, as the Bills don’t give up many yards (in spite of this team constantly playing from behind, they are one of only 10 teams in the NFL allowing under 100 rushing yards per game), and the likely low passing volume in this game could turn him into more of a yardage-and-touchdown back than I would love. (The Jags’ plan coming into the season was for Fournette to be a five- to seven-target guy each week, but it will probably be tough for him to get there in this spot.) But to be clear: I expected Fournette to be a pop-and-lock option; instead, this spot sets him up more as “a guy to strongly consider.” He should clear 25 touches, no problem, and he’s the strongest bet on this team to score (with multiple touchdowns in his range). But Buffalo has been solid against the run, and they can dedicate extra defenders to the run and force Blake Bortles to beat them. Fournette will likely join Chubb as a Tier 3 play — carrying a lower floor than I would love at his price, but with as much point-per-dollar upside as anyone.
If Fournette is “a guy to strongly consider,” that’s more than can be said for any other player in this game for me. Outside of Fournette (and the defenses, of course), I’ll be glad to stay away.