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How Ryan Nielsen Plans to Bring His Defensive Mentality to the Jaguars

What can the Jaguars expect from their new defensive coordinator?

In his introductory press conference, Jaguars’ defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen’s defensive mentality was clear. His unit will be one of aggression and disruption.

The Jaguars, under former DC Mike Caldwell, ran a zone-heavy scheme, implementing a bend, don’t break playstyle. Now, the team brings in an almost polar opposite philosophy, one highlighted by aggression, pressure, and press-man coverage.

“We want to be attacking and aggressive in everything we do. How we fit the run, how we attack blocks, how we play in coverage, we want to be a forward, leaning, forward running, going forward defense,” said Nielsen.

He added, “That’s what we are going to be about: tackling, takeaways, ball disruption. You have to be a good tackling defense to be a good defense. Takeaways are the number one way to limit points.”

The data from his time in Atlanta shows that Neilsen’s defenses back up that sentiment. Nielsen’s Falcons were among the most aggressive in 2023, running more man coverage (63.8%) than any other team according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

During his tenure, the Falcons’ sack total doubled from 2022 to 2023, finishing with 42 sacks last season. Nielsen’s first season as a defensive coordinator was quite the success and was a big reason why Jacksonville brought him in. He inherited one of the league’s worst defenses and turned them into a solid unit by year’s end.

The Falcons’ defense finished 9th in EPA/play and 1st in EPA/Rush. The group was exceptional at creating 3-and-outs as well, over 25% of the time. Jacksonville’s defensive analytics tell a story of two halves. Through the first half of the season, the Jags’ defense ranked among the league’s best, leading the league in takeaways for much of the year. The second half was the antithesis as blown assignments and missed tackles became increasingly abundant.

The keys to third down success is something Nielsen really focused on in his presser, “ Rush and coverage. We have to be multiple, the first thing we have to do is affect the quarterback in that we can’t allow the ball to come out of his hand quickly, then the rush doesn’t get there. If the coverage has holes in it or give an easy throw, it doesn’t matter who we’ve got coming off the edge.”

While Nielsen may run predominantly man coverage, he believes it’s crucial to stay flexible and keep offenses off guard with multiple looks. The more looks, the more opportunity for confusion and second-guesses from the opposing quarterback and company.

At the end of his answer Nielsen reiterated, “That’s what we’ve got to keep it multiple and keep changing up the looks.”

It’s clear Nielsen is bringing a new message, a new identity to Jacksonville. The once zone-dominated scheme, featuring predominantly a bend, don't break defense is now antique thinking. Nielsen plans to bring in an aggressive identity with a deep pocket, filled with as many different looks as any other defense in the league.

The talent is certainly there as he inherits the league’s most successful pass-rushing duo and a talented linebacking corps. There’s pieces in the secondary as well to be excited about if you are the incoming defensive coordinator. Tyson Campbell, Andre Cisco, and Antonio Johnson are all still very young and certainly talented. They’ll have a new opportunity to show off their skills in Nielsen’s novel defense, especially Campbell as he comes off of a disappointing 2023.

Many fans were displeased with how the defense seemingly fell apart in the second half of the season, and ultimately the Jaguars’ were as well. Watching the defensive play in the Super Bowl, it was clear just how far off the Jaguars were at seasons’ end from that caliber of play. Every defense player in that game played with such quickness, such ferocity, and such energy. That’s the hope the Jaguars have for Nielsen coming to Jacksonville, to elevate a young, talented, yet inconsistent defense into one of the league’s most dangerous.