If Joe Cullen Is the Next Jaguars DC, What Could We Expect From His Defense?

Joe Cullen is reportedly expected to be the Jacksonville Jaguars next defensive coordinator. What have his past defenses looked like and what does it mean for the defense moving forward?
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The Jacksonville Jaguars have undergone serious turnover on the defensive side on the ball in recent years, and that will continue this offseason with a new defensive staff. According to ESPN, longtime NFL defensive line coach Joe Cullen is expected to be hired by Urban Meyer as the Jaguars defensive coordinator.

Cullen coached collegiate football from 1990-2005, along with a short stint at Idaho State between NFL jobs in 2009, including defensive coordinator positions at Richmond (1997-1998, 2000) and Indiana (2004). He’s never coordinated at the NFL level, but he’s been an impactful defensive line coach for several franchises for nearly two decades. Here’s a closer look at his teams’ defensive efficiency rankings over the years (statistics from Football Outsiders).

In short, Cullen was a part of underwhelming defensive teams in his first seven years in the NFL (save for Jacksonville’s 2011 season), had a solid unit in Tampa Bay for two years, and then found success in Baltimore. Before he joined John Harbaugh’s staff, Gerald McCoy was the only defensive lineman to make a Pro Bowl or record more than 8.0 sacks in a single season under Cullen (McCoy accomplished each in both 2014 and 2015).

Cullen was the Ravens defensive line coach for the past five seasons, which was his longest consecutive stay with a team since he was Richmond’s defensive line coach from 1992-1996. Baltimore’s defense was excellent in Cullen’s time there: it ranked top-10 in DVOA each season and multiple defensive linemen reached the Pro Bowl (Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon, Calais Campbell) or generated over 8.0 sacks (Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, Judon).

While Cullen has been an important piece of the puzzle and also helped develop interior studs like Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Michael Pierce, and Justin Madubuike, Baltimore’s defensive performance obviously haven’t just relied on a single position coach. Its roster is among the best in the league, and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has been a major influence.

Since Martindale was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in 2018, the Ravens have annually led the league in blitz rate. In that span, Baltimore ranks 13th in cumulative sacks but third in quarterback knockdowns, second in NFL passer rating allowed and first in completion percentage allowed.

USA Today’s Steven Ruiz wrote a piece last summer on league-wide pass protection concepts and how Martindale manipulates opposing pass protections with the alignment of his players and gets his players home with designed stunts and mismatches.

“Before the 2019 season, the lack of an elite pass-rushing talent on the edge was seen as a major concern for Baltimore. It didn’t turn out to be an issue, as the numbers show,” Ruiz wrote. “The Ravens know they don’t need a star edge rusher to put pressure on the quarterback. They have Martindale, a human skeleton key that can unlock any pass protection.”

As the addition of Cullen to the coaching staff hasn’t even been made official by the team yet, it’s unknown at this point whether Cullen will mold his defense to be like that of Martindale’s or any of his other former bosses. One detail that does seem likely, though, is the transition to a 3-4 base defense, which would be a necessary schematic change considering both Jacksonville’s past disappointments using the Seattle Cover 3 system and the strengths/weaknesses of its current defensive players, especially 2020 first-round selection K’Lavon Chaisson.

Jacksonville’s performance from the defensive line last season was pretty atrocious- it ranked bottom-10 in yards per carry allowed, rush defense DVOA and tackles for loss as well as bottom-3 in sacks and pressure rate. Injuries certainly had an impact, as Josh Allen, Abry Jones and Davon Hamilton combined to miss 24 games last season and all three ultimately ended the season on injured reserve, but the unit is clearly desperate for better talent and coaching.

Fortunately for Jacksonville, both areas should significantly improve in 2021. A disruptive interior defensive lineman is arguably the team’s biggest roster need and is likely to be addressed either in free agency or the draft, and the return of injured players plus progression from young players will help.

Cullen will need to prove himself as a coach who can maximize the potential of his available personnel as opposed to one who is reliant on skilled players and favorable environments, but with three years’ experience under one of the league’s best defensive coordinators in Martindale, a staff that will reportedly include former collegiate head coaches in Charlie Strong and Chris Ash, and a potential influx of talent throughout the offseason, there’s a strong chance that the Jaguars defense will make significant strides in the near future.