For the first time since 2013, and even likely before that, the Jacksonville Jaguars are about to get a giant breath of fresh air on defense.
Long gone are the LEO, the OTTO, and the big end. Gone is the Seattle Seahawks coaching tree (well, at least on defense). In their place is new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, a transplant from the Baltimore Ravens who head coach Urban Meyer introduced as his first NFL defensive coordinator on Thursday.
What does the hiring of Cullen mean for the Jaguars' defense in the short- and long-term? We weigh in with a few observations here.
Expect a good amount of carryover from Baltimore's scheme
Joe Cullen did a good job of not showing his cards much during his initial press conference -- but not a perfect job. He didn't explicitly say what kind of scheme the Jaguars will run on defense, noting he and the staff are still going through the roster and will tailor the scheme to them. With that said, what Cullen said about the additions of assistant defensive line coach Sterling Lucas and outside linebackers coach Zach Orr, who each were in Baltimore with Cullen, was telling in terms of what kind of system the Jaguars will implement.
"Zach and Sterling, I was with for five years. They have great knowledge of the defense. Zach played in the system and then coached with me side-by-side for the last four years as well as Sterling," Cullen said when asked about the pair.
If Cullen wasn't going to bring a fair amount of things from Baltimore's scheme with him to Jacksonville, it is unlikely he would have played up how well each of them knows the defense and the fact that Orr played in the unit. He and the rest of the defensive staff will add their own wrinkles of course, but look for next year's Jaguars defense to appear much different both up front and in the back end.
The usage of only five defensive backs at one time is over in Jacksonville
We touched on this in yesterday's mailbag thanks to the help of Football Outsiders. For the last eight years, the Jaguars were rarely ever in a package past a nickel formation. Most of the time, the defensive consisted of just five defensive backs: two cornerbacks, two safeties, and a nickel cornerback for when the team operated out of the base formation. Because of this, it wasn't uncommon for only three cornerbacks to get reps in any particular game.
The Ravens, meanwhile, operated under the opposite ideology. In 2019, they were in base on 9% of defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. This ranked 31st in the NFL. By contrast, they were in nickel on 46% of snaps (26th in NFL), and in dime on 41% of their snaps (3rd in NFL). They frequently used more than five defensive backs last season as well, especially on passing downs. Look for the entire secondary to get a boost in playing time now that Cullen is in charge.
Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson will have expanded roles
It is hard to peg exactly what the most important position has been in Baltimore's defense. Middle linebackers, edge defenders, safeties, and cornerbacks have all played massive roles. But it is the edge defenders who are maybe asked to do more than anyone else on the unit. They are what helps drive Baltimore's pressure packages and post-snap movements, frequently dropping back into coverage or stunting across the line.
As a result, it is clear the Jaguars will have big plans for their own edge rushers. In this case it will be Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson who will play the Matt Judon and Tyus Bowser roles. For context, Bowser and Judon both finished in the top-eight among edge defenders last year in terms of snaps spent in coverage, per Pro Football Focus. The Jaguars will need their edge players to do a lot more than rush off the edge, so Allen and Chaisson will need to be prepared for that challenge.
“I have definitely evaluated those guys, not only coming out [of college], but obviously here. They could play in either scheme," Cullen said about Allen and Chaisson on Thursday.
"Both of those guys are versatile, they are athletic. They can put their hand down, they can stand up. They can do a lot of different things, and I’m excited.”
Finding interior defensive lineman who fits Cullen's vision is a major priority
It isn't hard to say that the Jaguars need to upgrade their interior defensive line group. This would be the case no matter who their defensive coordinator is, but it is now especially true with Cullen. Cullen's entire background as a coach is built in the trenches -- it is where he has made his bread and butter. He wouldn't be the Jaguars' defensive coordinator today if it wasn't for his work in identifying and developing defensive lineman.
He presently doesn't have much to work with, however, especially if he wants to be more multiple on defense. Adam Gotsis, DaVon Hamilton, and Doug Costin are all solid players, but a pass-rusher and overall penetrator is badly needed along the line. Cullen's defensive lines in Baltimore were stout against the run and helped set things up for the rest of the defense thanks to the attention they demanded. A top priority for the Jaguars should now be to find those defensive lineman who can do the same for Cullen in Jacksonville.
Cullen's hiring shows what Meyer wants the Jaguars' defense to be
Forget all of the talk about 3-4, 4-3, and nickel packages. Instead, know that the Jaguars and Urban Meyer hired Cullen because of what they want their defense to center their philosophy around. Baltimore's defenses thrived by keeping opposing offenses guessing, and Meyer said Thursday how much he respected their units.
Fast. Multiple. Adaptability. These were all traits of Baltimore's defense, with the Ravens able to switch up their entire scheme and personnel usage based upon who they were going up against that week. This was the case for specific units as well -- just look at how the Ravens defensive line defended Derrick Henry in this year's Wild Card as compared to their past games against the Titans.
Cullen will bring his own mix of ideas and principles, but it will be a collaborative effort to turn the Jaguars into the kind of defense Meyer wants the Jaguars to be. Bringing Cullen over from an organization Meyer respects is a giant piece toward getting to that end goal.