Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen made a major scheme adjustment halfway through the season: after his Baltimore-style scheme flopped in the beginning of the season, Cullen adapted more zone coverage and two-high safety shells. The entire defense has improved as a result, but perhaps no individual player has benefited more than rookie cornerback Tyson Campbell.
The 33rd overall selection had a rough start to his professional career. Playmaking in the passing game was a known weakness coming out of the University of Georgia for Campbell, and it showed up throughout the first month of the season as he struggled to force incompletions despite staying tight with receivers in coverage.
On this Cover 3 call (specifically Sky Right), Campbell is essentially manned up on fellow rookie Ja’Marr Chase in isolation even though it’s technically a zone coverage. Campbell stays on Chase’s hip following his release from the line of scrimmage, but he gets tripped up looking back for the ball and Chase separates enough for a 44-yard gain.
This play was a constant theme early in the year, as Campbell consistently failed to locate the ball and get in position to make plays downfield. He was playing poorly before a toe injury caused him to miss weeks 5 and 6 and remain on the injury report through week 9.
Since being removed from the injury report, and thus signifying that the toe injury is behind him, Campbell has been a different beast. He improved his Pro Football Focus grade from 42.8 (102nd among 110 corners) in the first month of the season to 74.5 (25th among 114 corners) in the past three weeks. He was one of the worst corners in the league in terms of completion percentage, passer rating and yards per coverage snap allowed to start the season, but he ranks in the top half of the league in those metrics from weeks 10-12 according to Sports Info Solutions.
Campbell fully broke out last week as he recorded his first career interception plus two additional pass breakups. His interception came on a Cover 2 call (specifically Tampa 2) in a two-minute situation before halftime. Matt Ryan’s throw was rushed due to incoming pressure and the ticking clock, but he made the right read on the “smash” concept.
Smash features a short hitch route from the perimeter receiver and a corner route from the slot receiver. The quarterback is supposed to read the perimeter corner: if he stays with the hitch route, then the corner route should be open assuming the safety isn’t lurking nearby; if the corner backpedals to respect the deeper corner route, then the hitch route should be open for an easy completion.
Ryan quickly saw that the Jaguars were in Cover 2 and that Campbell was respecting his assignment of guarding the flats. But Ryan double-checked that the safety wasn’t on top of the corner route before releasing the ball, and that tiny window of time was enough for Campbell to read Ryan’s eyes and jump the throw for an interception.
By facing the quarterback and being able to read what was happening in front of him, Campbell showcased his athleticism and made a great football play. Now that he isn’t asked to continually play man coverage or guard a third of the field, Campbell is making serious strides that will hopefully make those responsibilities easier for him in the future. Cullen’s defensive shift didn’t just slow down opposing offenses -- it’s helped the development of young players on his roster as well.
Cornerback seemed to be a major positional need following the C.J. Henderson trade and Campbell’s underwhelming performance in the first month of the season. Outside depth and a starting nickel are still firm roster needs, but Campbell’s progress will allow the front office to focus on other positions at the top of the first round next April. He and Shaquill Griffin look like true building blocks on the perimeter as the defensive roster continues to be rebuilt.
- The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz wrote about Los Angeles’ recent offensive struggles, which are largely due to opposing defenses being able to key in on Rams shotgun pass play tendencies. Cullen has been one of the few bright spots for Jacksonville this season, but this week will be a good test of his legitimacy as a coordinator. The Buffalo game was an incredible win for Cullen, and he has a chance to leave no doubt of his coaching abilities against Los Angeles.
- Ben Bartch got taken to school by Grady Jarrett last week... now he gets the pleasure of facing Aaron Donald. #thoughtsandprayers
- Laviska Shenault earned two more backfield snaps in Week 12, and more importantly, he lined up in the slot for the most snaps since the season opener. He’ll have a brutal matchup this week against Jalen Ramsey but more slot snaps is generally a good thing for Shenault.
- I’m not sure if it’ll be this week against a strong Rams defense, but I smell a big Laquon Treadwell game coming up. He and Trevor Lawrence have been building more chemistry over the past few games as Treadwell is seemingly the only Jaguars receiver with any sort of juice downfield. His snap share has increased from 35% to 72% to 86% in the past three weeks.
- FNL prop bets are now 1-1 after Robinson rushed for over 68.5 yards last week! This week I’m going with Marvin Jones under 50.5 receiving yards, a number he’s cleared just once since the bye. Los Angeles’ defense is built to limit explosive passing plays, so I’d expect most of Jacksonville’s passing success to come on underneath routes where the Rams allow short receptions. I’m expecting Jones’ opportunities to be limited this week since he’s more of an intermediate-to-deep receiver.