Jacksonville's Defense Experiencing Trials of Inevitable Change
Change is inevitable. It comes in waves and happens in the blink of an eye, transforming teams dramatically in a matter of only a few years. No team is safe from it, and the Jacksonville Jaguars have found themselves one of the largest victims to change in the entire NFL.
The change in this case is the Jaguars' once elite defense. In 2017, Jacksonville sent multiple players to the Pro Bowl in cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive lineman Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell. Ramsey and Campbell were First-Team All-Pro selections, while Smith and Bouye were Second-Team All-Pros.
Those six were the nucleus of a dominant Jaguars' defense, one that propelled the team to a 10-6 record and an AFC Championship appearance. Jacksonville ranked first in passing defense and turnovers and second in total defense, sacks and points per game.
Now, the Jaguars' defense is in a tailspin and is the primary culprit behind one of the worst three-game stretches in team history. Jacksonville sits at 4-7, and in each of the last three games they have allowed 200+ rushing yards. The defense sits at 18th in total defense, 10th in passing defense, fifth in sacks and 22nd in points allowed per game.
So why has the defense fallen so far in only two seasons? Even Jaguars players are asking that question.
The simple answer is personnel. There has been a massive overhaul of the defensive roster and sans a few spots, only a few of those new additions have been upgrades. And in 2019 alone, Jacksonville has had to make do with pieces they never initially expected to contribute in a major way.
"Of course, I definitely do that," Bouye said in the locker room at TIAA Bank Field this week when asked if he ever wonders what happened to the defense.
"There is a lot of things, man, but then you also have to look at it this way: coming in we expected a personnel that we didn't get. We had one who requested a trade, we had one who never showed up at linebacker, then you have Marcell [Dareus] who got hurt. So we are just trying to make it work with what we got."
Bouye is, of course, referring to Ramsey requesting a trade after Week 2 and Smith announcing before training camp ever began that he would not be playing football this season, for reasons he has still yet to disclose. Dareus has been on injured reserve with a core muscle injury since Week 7 ended.
Second-year cornerback Tre Herndon has replaced Ramsey in the lineup and has held his own, but he is clearly not the talent Ramsey is. Jacksonville's weakside linebacker position has been a complete mess since Smith left, as both veteran Najee Goode and rookie Quincy Williams have failed to provide the stability and playmaking ability that Smith had for the majority of his career.
And of course, the defense badly missed Dareus considering the run defense has fallen off of a cliff since he got injured. Backup nose tackle Abry Jones was on the 2017 squad, but he never had a role as large as Dareus.
Those aren't the only changes from 2017, either. Jackson has been replaced by Taven Bryan who has flashed at times but has never once produced at the level Jackson did in Jacksonville. Other starters, such as safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church, slot corner Aaron Colvin and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. are also gone.
Jacksonville has upgraded from Church with Ronnie Harrison, from Colvin with D.J, Hayden, and from Fowler with rookie defensive end Josh Allen, but the downgrades have been too severe.
Bryan has talent but has yet to make half of the impact of Jackson, and Jacksonville's defense badly misses his presence in the middle. While Smith had a down year in 2018, the level of play he had in 2017 was significantly better than what Jacksonville has gotten from linebacker in 2019. Herndon has played well, but he will never get mistaken for Ramsey.
At the end of the day, few holdovers remain from the elite 2017 defense. Ngakoue, Bouye, Campbell and linebacker Myles Jack all still start, while Jones is still on the roster as well. Aside from them, the significant contributors of the elite unit have packed up and gone their different ways.
Defensive coordinator Todd Wash still has the reins of the defense, but the scheme has not changed much, if at all. While the same scheme is getting run though, it is not filled to the brim with high-level talent that it once was.
"And it is tough sometimes, and sometimes we can't adapt to it and we try to just stay within the scheme," Bouye said.
Change comes for everyone. In the NFL, it is true that nothing really is for long. The 2017 Jaguars' defense is long gone, and even the 2019 defense has changed dramatically from what it was supposed to look like.
Moving forward, the Jaguars' roster will undergo more and more turnover. Eventually, even the few remnants left from 2017 will be gone themselves. When it comes to Jacksonville and the state of its defense today, it best to think about how to move forward instead of harping on the past. Because that is all it is; the past.