To fans and media, this is the 2017 Jaguars in a nutshell: bad quarterback, strong rookie tailback, great defense. Can the Jaguars win the underwhelming AFC South?
But tell the story from back to front, the way head coach Doug Marrone and front office czar Tom Coughlin see it: Great defense, strong rookie tailback, bad quarterback. From their perspective, the question is: Can the Jaguars reach Super Bowl 52? Seriously.
Any examination of the Jaguars must start on defense; that’s what Marrone’s gameplans are built around. It’s a great defense. And not just great in the way that your mother-in-law’s homemade yams that you expected to hate but actually ended up liking are great—genuinely great. The more you study their film, the more reminiscent these Jaguars are of the 2013 Seahawks.
Jacksonville runs the same scheme as those Seahawks ran—a true Cover 3, with zone defenders inside and matchup corners outside. And, like with Seattle, this defense is star-studded. It starts at cornerback. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are two of the league’s lankiest and most athletic cover men. They have ball skills and shutdown level physicality. Their coverage is the main reason Jacksonville leads the league with 40 sacks and ranks first in points allowed.
Inside and on the back end, safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church have fantastic spatial reasoning and play recognition, which allows them to play faster than their raw speed suggests. At linebacker, Telvin Smith and Myles Jack have too much raw speed to play anything but fast, and their awareness is also impressive. What made the 2013 Seahawks special was that their linebackers and safeties were so acute in their Cover 3 reads, and so fast in executing them, that Seattle could wrinkle parts of the scheme to uniquely combat each week’s opposing offense. There was nuanced malleability to the Cover 3, and everyone was on the same page, making the defense collectively faster. We’re starting to see that in Jacksonville.
Every great zone defense has a destructive pass rush. The Jags are no different. Coverage fueled a lot of their gaudy statistical production early in the season, but that will no longer hold true by season’s end if this front four continues to play like it has in November. On Sunday, it dominated the Browns, particularly on the offense’s left side, where second year defensive end Yannick Ngakoue ate fill-in left tackle Spencer Drango alive. (And it should be noted: Drango had been decent since stepping in for Joe Thomas.)
Along with Dallas’s Demarcus Lawrence, Ngakoue is the NFL’s most improved edge rusher. While Lawrence has done it with sharpened mechanics, the lanky Ngakoue has done it with good old-fashioned speed and quickness (which tends to blossom when a young player becomes more comfortable with the mental side of the pro game). At left defensive end, 2015 third overall pick Dante Fowler is starting to show his promise as well, but there’s no debate: Ngakoue is Jacksonville’s best edge rusher.
A defining trait of an advanced Cover 3 scheme is a gap exchange game along the four-man front. In other words, pressuring quarterbacks with stunts and twists. Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell (the team’s most productive all-around pass rusher) became rich as free agents because of their fortitude here. Jackson was a monster on stunts in Denver, both as the set-up man who attacked and occupied blockers, and as the closer who looped around them. In Arizona, Campbell was whatever you consider to be a level above monster (Demon? Assassin? Destroyer?). Both have continued that here, giving the Jags a dynamic, schematically challenging pass rush.
When you fill a defense with stars, the surrounding role players often play better. Aaron Colvin, for example, has been arguably the NFL’s best all-around slot corner. Marcell Dareus, a star early in his career who plummeted to role player status under the new Bills regime before being traded to Jacksonville, has boosted the run defense as hoped. Starting nose shade tackle Abry Jones has become a playmaker.
It’s a defense that’s capable of winning games on its own, which it did Sunday at Cleveland, forcing five turnovers and scoring a touchdown. Of course, it’s one thing to do that against the Browns, it’s another to do it against a contender (or even just a team that, you know, has a win). There’s no question that Jacksonville often (but not always) plays “not to lose” on offense. They did Sunday, running the ball on 20 of 32 second-half snaps (those runs amassed 59 yards).
Interestingly, the previous week, Jacksonville took the opposite approach against the Chargers, throwing on all but nine second half snaps, including on 15 of 18 first down plays. Their meat-and-potatoes running game had been grounded into mush in the first half and Marrone felt they had no choice but to ask more of Blake Bortles. Bortles made a few plays but also had some of the awful snaps that quickly lose games, including an end zone interception to safety Tre Boston and, prior to that, a would-be pick-six that Boston dropped. We could dive 2,000 words deep on Bortles’ flaws and how to fix (or play around) them. Suffice it to say, he doesn’t have the pocket poise or quick, flexible release to consistently move the chains as a down-to-down dropback passer. The Jags must hide him.
That means a heavy dose of Fournette. He’s the best run-finisher in the game, eager to endure and deliver contact. But being a rookie, he’s never played in a season this long before. Can he hold up? Jacksonville has two other former starting running backs who can share the load: Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon. That will soon become more critical.
Even if the rushing attack erupts, the Jaguars are dependent on their defense to not just force turnovers, but either score or drastically swing field position with takeaways. For most teams, that’s an unrealistic and unsustainable, formula. But these Jaguars can be an outlier. They’re 7-3 thanks to a playmaking defense, and that defense is only getting better.
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.