In 2020, Sacksonville was on hard times.
The Mayor of the unit was holding court in Baltimore, while the former face of the pass rush's future ended his relationship with the team and was traded before the season.
A unit that was once the lifeblood of the Jaguars' entire franchise and the biggest reason the team advanced to the AFC Championship in 2017 had eroded slowly over a few seasons before falling off a cliff completely in 2020. Now, first-year defensive coordinator Joe Cullen is here to remind Jacksonville exactly what a fearsome pass-rush looks like.
"I think collectively, we have to get the first sack before we can get to 50," Cullen said on Tuesday when asked about his expectations when it comes to the team's pass-rush.
"But we have a really good group of defensive linemen that were here, K’Lavon [Chaisson], Josh [Allen] had 10.5 sacks [in 2019]. Then the free agent acquisitions we were able to bring in, Roy Robertson Harris, Jihad Ward, those guys have gotten after the quarterback in this league. "=I’m excited to work with Taven [Bryan], bringing Malcom Brown here. We have a good group and the two young guys that we brought in via the draft."
The Jaguars finished with just 18 sacks in 2020, averaging barely over a sack a game. The only team to finish with fewer sacks were the Cincinnati Bengals at 17. Chaisson, the No. 20 overall pick a year ago, recorded just one sack, while Allen's sacks dipped from 10.5 as a rookie to 2.5.
The only player on the defense with more than 2.5 sacks was Dawuane Smoot, with 5.5. He was followed by starting linebacker Joe Schobert (2.5), Allen, and then seven other players who had just one sack.
To say that won't cut it is putting it lightly. The Jaguars were at a disadvantage week in and week out due to their inability to get after the quarterback, which was the result of a weakened depth chart, injuries and a leaky secondary.
To fix the issue of getting after quarterbacks, Cullen knows it will take more than Allen, Chaisson, Smoot and the rest of the defensive line. Instead, it will take all 11 players on the field at a time.
"We’re excited and I’ll tell you it’s going to come from a lot of different area. It’s going to come from the pressure that we bring in terms of blitzes, it’s going to come from a four-man rush, and really, it’s going to come from a collective unit defensively, our rush work, but also our coverage being able to make the quarterback hold the ball," Cullen said.
"It’s going to go hand in hand but I’m excited and really, we’ll find out in the fall.”
This fits what the Baltimore Ravens showed on defense during Cullen's time as the team's defensive line coach. According to Pro Football Reference, the Ravens led the NFL in blitz rate in 2020 at 44.1%. The Ravens asked the entire defense, from the line to the secondary, to get after the quarterback.
The Ravens found success, too. Baltimore finished fourth in the NFL in pressure rate and second in quarterback knockdown percentage according to Pro Football Reference. And so far, the Jaguars have shown similar trends this offseason.
“I’d say like 50 percent of the plays in spring we’ve been running blitzes, so I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure," Schobert said on June 8.
"Coach Cullen’s not afraid to get after it and put some guys in man coverage, get pressure on the quarterback, try to force him to make mistakes, so it’s going to be fun to see what he has dialed up in games actually in the fall.”
It will take the Jaguars' entire defense to finish with more than 18 sacks in 2020. But whether it comes from the changed scheme or the upgraded depth charts, Cullen believes it is a reachable goal to not only eclipse 18, but to double it.
“I absolutely do [think it is]. I absolutely feel like we could. Part of that is playing with leads, part of that is that you get out in front of people, but yeah, I absolutely do," Cullen said.
"I think we had 18 or 19 last year, but for the people that we have and the guys that we have, the depth that we have, yes, I believe that’s a realistic goal.”