258 days ago, Mike Caldwell was in a similar position to the one he is now.
Last January, the current Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator was coaching a Florida NFL team's defense, preparing for its biggest game of the season, a high-stakes bout with Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Then, Caldwell was gearing up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team's inside linebackers coach. Now, he is gearing up the entire Jaguars' defense as they travel to play the 3-0 Eagles and potentially win their third game in a row.
The goal? For Caldwell to feel just as good after Sunday as he felt after last January, when the Buccaneers laid out the blueprint for how to defeat the Eagles and their young and dynamic starting quarterback.
Tampa Bay trounced the Eagles 31-15, but the Eagles had 0 points entering the fourth quarter. The game was the Eagles' worst single game in terms of offensive DVOA in 2021, while Hurts has had just three games in his entire career with a lower passer rating. Hurts ran 8 times for 39 yards, but the Buccaneers flew to the pall, picking him off twice and forcing one fumble.
The question now: can Caldwell replicate the same success he saw Tampa Bay have against Hurts and the Eagles last year?
"As coaches, you go back and you want as much information as you can," Caldwell said on Thursday when asked about going back to that game to look for a model for the Jaguars on Sunday.
"You go back, and you watch games from last year, teams that have similar defenses or similar structures that we have and just go back and try to see any similarities with what they’re doing this year and have the guys aware that they could do this, could do that."
There are obvious similarities between the Tampa Bay defense last season and the Jaguars' defense this season. Caldwell displays similar pressure packages and largely uses his front seven in the same way as Tampa Bay's Todd Bowles, who he coached with at various stops.
There are differences, too. There is no Lavonte David in Jacksonville, though Devin Lloyd has been one of the best linebackers in football during the first month of the season. The Buccaneers also have a much differently-built secondary that allows them to play a certain brand of football.
But through three games, Caldwell has seen his first-ever coordinated defense thrive. They have forced eight takeaways through three games, tied for the most in the NFL and just one fewer than they produced in nine games last season. The Jaguars are No. 4 in points allowed, with all but 10 of those points coming in a Week 1 game that looks flukier and flukier. In terms of the advanced stats, the defense continues to grade out well.
- DVOA: No. 4
- EPA/Play: No. 3
- Success rate: No. 2
- Dropback EPA: No.
- Dropback success rate: No. 7
- Rushing EPA: No. 2
- Rushing success rate: No. 1
“Not really. We kind of expected it," Caldwell said when asked if the early success was a surprise.
"The coaching staff, they’ve done a great job of teaching and letting the players understand what we’re going to be about, and the players have done a great job of accepting it and being eager to learn it. Once you get that and get the players on the same page, coaches on the same page, you go out there and let their talent take over. We have some players here that are playing at a good level, and we just have to keep it going.”
There are differences even with this Eagles team and Hurts. Hurts was a good quarterback in 2021, but he has been great in 2022. The Eagles have also added A.J. Brown to a team that already had DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert and arguably the best offensive line in football.
"It’s really just being able to prepare for the unknown, because so much is unknown. Weekly, they change plays and change different ways that they attack defenses, so we just have to make sure that we have our guys prepared the best we can," Caldwell said.
"We go back, we game plan, we see what we have, and we see what we need to take away, and we put our guys in positions to go out there and perform the best they can, and that’s the recipe for us. It could change week to week, we could do it with other people, but we just have to do whatever we need to do to get our guys in the best position to make a play, we’ll try to do that.”