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Sacksonville No More?—Why the Jaguars Haven’t Been Themselves in 2018

The team is 3-3, and the defense hasn’t been the historic force it was last season. But there’s still hope for Jacksonville to reclaim the NFL’s defensive throne.

Frustrated Jacksonville Jaguars players Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a tough time for cleverly named defensive units in the NFL. The vaunted Legion of Boom is dead, the No Fly Zone is in decline, and the Jaguars’ top-tier unit hasn’t exactly been living up to its Sacksonville nickname.

The Jaguars’ typically fearsome, suffocating unit looked like a shell of itself for the second week in a row last Sunday, surrendering 40 points to a Cowboys team that’d come into the game with one of the league’s most dysfunctional offensive groups. On paper, Dallas’s bewildering offense looked like an easy matchup for Jacksonville’s talent-packed group, but embattled Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had his best game of the year, Ezekiel Elliott ran roughshod over the team’s front, and Cole Beasley racked up nine catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns against a porous pass defense. The Jags struggled to create pressure, often looked confused in coverage, and had no answer to what the Cowboys threw at them on the ground and through the air. Pass rusher Malik Jackson wasn’t far off when he said after the game that it was “an old-fashioned ass-kicking.” It wasn’t just a one-off performance for this 3-3 Jaguars team, either, which lost in a 30-14 blowout to the Chiefs the week prior.

So, what’s going on with the Jaguars defense? There’s no easy answer to that, but let’s take a deeper look to the tape and numbers to shed some light on Jacksonville’s biggest defensive issues—and whether that unit’s struggles are here to stay.

Catching the Negative Side of Variance

There’s isn’t one culprit behind Jacksonville’s recent collapse, but three statistical markers paint a pretty good picture as to why they’ve failed to dominate at the same level as last season. The Jags finished second in the NFL in takeaways last year, snagging 21 interceptions (second) and 12 fumble recoveries (tied for fourth). The team’s elite pass-rush group gift-wrapped more than a few of those turnovers, with Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, and Calais Campbell combining to force five fumble turnovers (three of which were returned for touchdowns)—and racking up a total of 55 drive-killing sacks on the year (second). Even when teams did manage to march down the field, Jacksonville was one of the NFL’s top red zone defending teams, too, finishing second in touchdowns allowed per opponent red zone trip.

But those three key stats—takeaways, sacks, and red zone defense—typically come with plenty of variance year to year, and Jacksonville has regressed dramatically in all three despite keeping most of their top defensive stars from last year. They’ve notched just five takeaways this year—tied for second-fewest—including three picks and two fumble recoveries, and haven’t generated quite as many sacks, with 14 through six games (tied for 18th; on pace for 37). They rank 10th in red zone defense. The confluence of these factors means Jacksonville’s giving up more points per drive and more yards per drive and creating fewer three-and-outs per drive this year than in 2017. That’s hurt their bottom line: After allowing 16.8 points per game last year (second), Jacksonville is giving up 21.0 points per game in 2018 (ninth).

The Butterfly Effect

So why the regression? Think of an NFL team or unit as a fragile and complex ecosystem: In nature, one small change―like a new predator or a change in the weather―can create massive shifts in the balance of an environment. It was always going to be damn near impossible for the Jaguars defense to recreate what they did last year. Human beings are inconsistent, performance varies, health is a factor, and the quality and variety of opponents change―and that’s without getting into non-measurable and unpredictable concepts like chemistry, confidence, or, say, swagger, which last year’s Jags defense had in excess. And while Jacksonville still has one of the most talented defensive groups in the NFL—and they’re still talking trash—a few small performance shifts have chipped away at the stability of the whole unit.

Take Campbell as one example: He’s an elite and unique player, but hasn’t been as completely dominant as he was last year. Through six games in 2017, the 6-foot-8 pass rusher had racked up 32 pressures (third among all edge players and interior linemen), per Pro Football Focus, with 10 sacks, four hits, and 18 quarterback hurries. Through the first six weeks of this season, he’s registered 17 pressures (tied for 42nd), with four sacks, three hits, and 10 hurries. He’s still good, and Ngakoue (26 pressures) has picked up some slack, but Campbell hasn’t been the gamewrecker we saw last year. Jacksonville’s defense ranks ninth in pressure rate so far this year (31.4 percent, per Football Outsiders game-charting) after finishing third last season (34.3 percent).

That’s affected the ball-hawking secondary, which hasn’t been quite as strong either. Through six games last year, A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey had combined for four picks, with Bouye’s opponent passer rating sitting at 34.3 (second) and Ramsey’s at 35.2 (third), per PFF. This year, Ramsey has yet to pick off a pass and has allowed an opponent passer rating of 75.5 (29th), and Bouye (one pick) is allowing a passer rating of 70.1 (tied for 21st). Again, those numbers are still strong, but even a marginal drop-off in one crucial area can throw the Jags’ defensive ecosystem out of whack.

A Wrench in the Gears

A simplified summation of the Jaguars’ strategy last season was to jump out to an early lead and give its pass-rush group the green light to pin its ears back and get after opposing quarterbacks, forcing QBs to throw ill-advised passes or cough the ball up on sacks. From there, the offense could coast, deploy its smashmouth run game, and mostly take Blake Bortles out of the equation. That worked really well: According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Jags scored first in 12 games last season, going 10-2 in those games and just 2-5 the rest of the time. They ranked first in the NFL in offensive DVOA in the first quarter, and 21st in the other three.

This year, we’re seeing a similar pattern. The Jaguars are 3-0 in games when they’ve scored first, and 0-3 in games they haven’t. The team’s first-quarter performance hasn’t been quite as strong: Jacksonville ranks 28th in first-quarter points (3.3) and 11th in opponent first-quarter points (3.8) after scoring an average of 5.3 first-quarter points (tied for fifth) and giving up 2.7 first-quarter points (first) last year. Bortles has been wildly inconsistent—that’s not really anything new—but he’s not getting as much support from the players around him. Injuries have been a factor: Just about the whole tight end group is hurt, Leonard Fournette’s battled a hamstring injury that kept him out four games, and season-ending injuries to tackle Cam Robinson and receiver Marqise Lee were crushing. Jacksonville’s offseason moves aren’t paying off much, either, and Donte Moncrief hasn’t been the difference-maker the team apparently thought he’d be. The Jags offense was never built to make big comebacks, but this season it’s a mess—and the drop-off in first-quarter efficiency has changed the dynamic for how the defense plays, too.

Zone vs. Man

A common complaint from Jags fans this week was the team’s overreliance on zone and off-man coverage schemes against Dallas. And that’s something we’ve heard from players in the past, too.

The Cowboys picked Jacksonville’s undisciplined coverage looks apart, with the microcosm for the loss coming just before the half with Dallas already leading 17-0. On third-and-7, defensive coordinator Todd Wash dropped nine players into coverage, rushing only two. Prescott still managed to find a wide-open Beasley in the end zone.

Those kind of communication breakdowns were way too common. Wash’s preference for so many zone looks seemed to contribute to issues with communication in the backend, and might’ve played a part in the slowdown of the team’s pass rush, too. Prescott had too many quick-and-easy dump-off throws that helped avoid quick sacks or pressure. Playing more press-man on the outside and in the slot could eliminate some of the pressure-beating throws and help create more turnovers.

Of course, a switch to more man coverage is not the magic solution, either. Playing man on the outside comes with downsides: Teams can use pick plays and crossing routes to get players open, and it makes it easier for mobile quarterbacks to pick up chunk yards on the ground. We saw that Sunday when Prescott spun away from trouble and picked up a huge chunk of yards.

But the Jags need to find a better balance, mixing press-man schemes in to disrupt quick routes and help the pass rush do its job. Wash may need to get a little more aggressive with blitzing as well; early in the game, five-man rushes were effective in making Prescott uncomfortable.

Righting the Ship

Offensively, Jacksonville needs to figure out how to get back to the ground-and-pound offense that carried them for most of 2017, and more importantly, they must recapture their first-quarter magic to build early leads. Obviously, Bortles, who’s tied for an NFL-high eight interceptions, needs to cut down on back-breaking turnovers, too.

The sky is not yet falling for this Jacksonville defense. Perspective is important: Giving up 70 points in two games is anything but ideal, but Jacksonville’s problems are the same as just about every other defense in the league; many teams have struggled to adjust to the bevy of rules changes and points of emphasis the NFL instituted this year to protect both quarterbacks and receivers. Offense is exploding around the league, so despite the clear drop-off from last year’s performance, the Jags are still ranked fifth in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA. This group has a ton of talent at every level and has plenty of time to get back on track and reclaim their place as the league’s top defense. They just need to create a few more turnovers, draw on a better mix of zone and press-man schemes, and get a little bit more out of their pass rush group.

This week’s matchup with the Texans’ league-worst offensive line gives the Jags’ defense the perfect opportunity to get their swagger back. Last year, Jacksonville coined its Sacksonville moniker with a ten-sack performance against Houston’s sieve-like unit. On Sunday, they’ll have the chance to earn it back.