Jaguars' improved defense makes them competitive in AFC South
Behind a much-improved quarterback in Blake Bortles, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offense took major strides in 2015. The defense was another matter. The Jaguars finished second to last in points allowed per game, with Jacksonville’s defensive linemen recording a combined 54 knockdowns — just one more than J.J. Watt managed alone. Issues in the secondary exacerbated their pass-rushing deficiencies.
This has the potential to be a much-improved unit in 2016, however, following a major free-agent signing in former Denver DT Malik Jackson, and some big-time talents being acquired in the draft in Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey and UCLA LB Myles Jack. How much better have they gotten? Let’s take a look at the two big reasons why Jacksonville’s defense could now be good enough to keep the team competitive in the AFC South:
1. The defensive line is now both talented and versatile.
The Jaguars’ main defensive front under Gus Bradley is the 4-3 under alignment. The scheme requires a specific skill set from each of the different positions on the line. The nose tackle and strongside end are predominantly entrusted with defending the run. They are required to hold their ground at the line of scrimmage, and defend two gaps. Both players are aligned against the side of offensive strength, increasing the likelihood of double teams. Roy Miller is an ideal fit as the Jaguars’ nose tackle. He is far from spectacular, but has the anchor to hold up against double teams. Miller recorded a 79.5 grade against the run in 2015. Jared Odrick and Tyson Alualu, meanwhile, have displayed the discipline to man the strongside end spot.
The weakside defenders — the 3-technique defensive tackle and edge rusher in a wide alignment (LEO) — are subsequently freed up to face single blocks. These more dynamic positions have proved more difficult to fill. The 3-tech and LEO are entrusted with penetrating one gap en route to the quarterback or ball-carrier, and players with excellent quickness and explosiveness are required at the positions.
That’s why the Jaguars gave Jackson a six-year, $85 million contract with $42M guaranteed. That isn’t quite Ndamukong Suh money, but it’s close. But interior pass-rushers have never been more valuable, and Jackson (who recorded the seventh-best pass-rush grade in the NFL last season from the inside) represents a huge upgrade over Sen’Derrick Marks, who is a solid player but managed just 150 snaps for Jacksonville a year ago due to injury.
The Jags also nabbed Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day with the 103rd overall pick. Day is ideally suited to the 3-technique position, where he can use his quick first step to wreak havoc in the backfield. His +60.0 grade in 2015 was second among interior defenders in the FBS. Day’s +31.3 pass-rush grade was fourth in the nation.
The Jags’ front office also committed to investing in youth at the LEO position. Third-rounder Maryland defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is ideal for that alignment. He’s explosive off the ball, and is at his best when he can rush with abandon. Ngakoue ranked 20th in the FBS rushing the passer in 2015 (54 combined pressures), and improved to 11th against Power-5 opponents. In contrast, he recorded the 351st run-defense grade. Jacksonville’s scheme should maximize Ngakoue’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. When paired with 2015 No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler Jr., an explosive edge rusher who missed all of his rookie season due to injury, Ngakoue brings a lot of talent to that edge-rushing role.
2. Their pass coverage should be much-improved as well.
The Jaguars also have specific physical thresholds for their defensive backs. They ran a single-high coverage on 80 percent of their defensive plays in 2015. Only three other teams used Cover-3 more frequently than Jacksonville.
Gus Bradley’s tutelage in Seattle has given him a preference for long, physical corners. Davon House is entrenched as one starter on the perimeter. His height (6-foot-1) and length (32-inch arms) make him an ideal scheme fit. House can use his physicality to play press in Cover-1, or he can compete for the ball downfield when covering the deep third. He allowed a QB rating of only 78.6 in 2015, finishing with a 76.3 coverage grade. Prince Amukamara was also added in free agency. He lacks the typical length to play on the outside in Bradley’s scheme, but was likely a short-term stopgap considering he received only a one-year deal. Amukamara lacks experience in the slot, but might be shifted inside. Aaron Colvin was a dependable nickelback in 2015 (73.9 coverage grade), suggesting there’ll be a competition for the position.
The secondary’s configuration, however, depends significantly on where Jacksonville’s coaches decide to employ Ramsey. His versatility enables him to line up at any spot in the defensive backfield. Ramsey has the length to play on the perimeter, the quickness to man the slot, the physicality to drop into the box and the range to roam sideline to sideline from center field. He ranked second in the nation among corners in PFF grades, playing on the outside last season at FSU. The year before, he ranked seventh in the FBS, playing predominantly in a hybrid slot/box safety role.
Tashaun Gipson is certain to be the playmaking centerfielder after signing a five-year, $35 million contract, but the strong safety spot is up for grabs. Jonathan Cyprien’s starting berth is under threat after failing to grade positively in any of his three years in the league. Last year he ranked 52nd among safeties in tackling efficiency, missing 16 of 123 attempts. Cyprien also allowed a QB rating of 120.9, including six touchdowns. Ramsey’s versatility ensures the Jaguars’ coaches flexibility when searching for their best combination in the secondary.
Ramsey is not the only Jaguars rookie with positional versatility. Jack flashed the cover skills at UCLA to suggest he could hold his own against slot receivers in the NFL, in addition to backs and tight ends. The team’s relative weakness at linebacker makes it more likely Jack will line up inside to start his career, but in Ramsey and Jack, Bradley now has two defensive chess pieces with top-5-level talent on the back end of his defense. When paired with a much-improved interior and edge pass rush, that Jags’ coverage ability figures to be much better in 2016 than it was in 2015 (when it ranked 30th in PFF grades).
The Jaguars have added an abundance of quality throughout their defense. The arrival of five quality starters in Jackson, Amukamara, Cyprien, Ramsey and Jack, along with the return from injury of Fowler, should improve their major weaknesses and make them competitive in the AFC South. We’ll see if that provides the offense the support it needs to earn a playoff spot in 2016.