Ask any personnel evaluator to identify the most talented defense in the NFL, and the answer will almost certainly be the Jacksonville Jaguars. The amount of blue-chip players at every level of the defense is astounding. Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey — every single one would be the best defensive player on a handful of teams around the NFL.
Yet put together at the moment, their results are less than the sum of their parts. They’re allowing 21.0 points per game — ninth-best in the league — and have allowed 40 or more points in three of their last 11 contests dating back to last season.
How is it possible that the most talented defense in the league can completely fail on multiple occasions? Injuries aren’t the reason, as they’ve been without a major injury to a key contributor over that span.
The culprit is, without a doubt, a lack of discipline.
It starts with their run defense. They were infamously one of the worst run defenses in the league last season, ranking 26th in yards per attempt against. It’s once again not a talent issue. Marcell Dareus and Campbell have had seasons grading over 90.0 in run defense (on Pro Football Focus' 0 to 100 scale), while Malik Jackson has a career high of 84.8. It is up to the Jaguars defenders to execute.
Run defense on the surface is very simple. Everyone has a gap (or two, in some cases) and it’s each player’s responsibility to stay in it. You can only abandon that gap to make a play when you know for sure the ball won’t hit through it. Watching this Jaguars defense, they almost have too many playmakers. Campbell, Dareus and Jackson were all top performers at their last stops, while Telvin Smith and Myles Jack have similar tendencies behind them. The results are plays when each of them abandons responsibilities in hopes of making a play, and the offense is able to exploit it.
The top play here is a trap on which Joe Looney is back-blocking Dareus so that the ball can hit to the right of center. With the left guard pulling, the backside B-gap that Jack was occupying flows with it. Dareus is so quick to gain control of the block, however, that he peaks over the top before realizing he is abandoning his gap. Ezekiel Elliott sees the daylight and bursts through for an easy score.
The second play is yet again an easy 15 untouched yards due to a lack of discipline. Dante Fowler Jr., who is in charge of defending the edge, completely abandons any semblance of a run responsibility. Typically against this type of run action (the tight end is moving across from the side of the handoff), the edge player will fit inside the tight end’s block while the linebackers fill over the top. Neither happens on this play, and the result is a 21-yard gain with marginal run blocking.
The problems in run defense, however, pale in comparison to what happens when the Jaguars have freelanced in coverage — especially on play-action passes. Specifically, against the Jaguars' base Cover-3 and other zone coverages, play-action has turned the vaunted Jaguars defense into a sieve since the start of last year. Just take a look at their yards per attempt allowed on throws against man-to-man and zone coverages, on play-action and non-play-action throws.
|Coverage type||Play-action||No play-action|
That is a remarkable difference, and stands out as a glaring weakness on a defense that should be one of, if not the best defense in the NFL.
A play-action pass does two key things: 1.) It allows quarterbacks more time for receivers to get open, before defenders realize it’s a pass play. 2.) Against zone coverage, it keeps underneath defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, creating a chasm between underneath and deep zones.
While the Jaguars' linebackers and safeties are fantastic at matching underneath zones when they can backpedal from the snap, the same inability to read keys and the same callous playmaking attitude has taken them away from their assignments versus play-action. The Patriots game earlier this season was maybe the most drastic example. Brady had 133 yards on 10 play-action dropbacks versus zone coverage, compared to 101 yards on his 25 other dropbacks.
Star cornerback Jalen Ramsey seemed to acknowledge this in an offseason interview with the NFL Network. The outspoken Ramsey said of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who led an offense that scored 44 points against Jacksonville last season, “I think he’ll be a good player but, my experience playing him, it was a lot of scheme stuff. It wasn’t like he was just dicing us up.”
Ramsey wasn’t wrong. On one play, the Jaguars defense completely turns a fullback free because of their lack of discipline versus the run fake. And on another, defensive back Tashaun Gipson charges downhill to fill the backside of a run, only to let a pass catcher leak outside into the flat, where Gipson’s zone is supposed to be.
The long-term fix obviously rests with the coaching staff getting the defense to play more disciplined, but the quick fix could be to play more man coverage. It’s much harder to “scheme” big plays against man coverage. That’s why the Jaguars' yards per attempt allowed in man coverage is nearly identical with and without play action. The assignment is purely to find your man, and given Jacksonville’s talent level on defense, it should win most of those matchups. That could be the fastest way to get the Jaguars back in control of the AFC South, starting with this Sunday’s home game against the Texans.
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