The Jacksonville Jaguars have played their best defensive football in the second half of the season. In a five-game stretch at the end of the regular season, they have 11 forced turnovers, three defensive scores, they lead the league in pressures (114) and they have the ninth best defensive DVOA (-8.9%), allowing only 315.4 yards and 15.6 points per game.
The Jaguars are now back into the postseason for the first time since their 2017 season, and their defense is a big reason for that.
“We’re just more dialed in and more focused than ever,” Jaguars outside linebacker Arden Key said Saturday night, via 1010XL. “We knew — the first game of the three-game [stretch] in two weeks — we knew what was up. We knew we lose we go home, we win we in the dance. I think everybody across the board just dialed in and focused more on the process.”
Safety Rayshawn Jenkins grabbed two interceptions and one pick-six to beat the Dallas Cowboys in overtime in week 15 and in week 18’s win-or-go-home game against the Tennessee Titans, his forced fumble in the fourth quarter allowed Josh Allen’s scoop and score.
It’s time to look at how this Jaguars defense has been able to put pressure on quarterbacks over these last five weeks; and what they need to do in the wildcard matchup against Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers offense.
Versatility with edge rushers.
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Over the past last five weeks pass rusher Arden Key has lead the NFL in pressure percentage with 21.7% (min. of 10 pressures), and he’s sitting fourth in total number of pressures with 23. Last week against the Tennessee Titans, he had a season high nine pressures.
Defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell has done a great job rotating alignments in order to find the best matchups. Key has lined up in several different techniques along the line of scrimmage creating one-on-one matchups for himself and his teammates.
In obvious passing situations, Key has often lined up across from the offensive tackle with another edge rusher to the outside.
Later in the third quarter, on a first-and-10, the Jaguars defensive line came out in a 3-5-3 defense against the Ravens’ heavy personnel. If the offense decided to run the ball, the Jaguars had extra linebackers to crashing the line of scrimmage.
In this case, a tight end motioned to Key’s side running a wheel-route up the sideline. Key is long enough and fast enough to keep up and he did a great job staying in his face forcing an incompletion.
Key’s long stature and high motor gives the Jaguars high versatility up front keeping offensive lines on their toes.
Another player on the Jaguars defensive line who has been generating a lot of pressure is AFC’s Week 18 defensive player of the week, Josh Allen.
In last week’s matchup against the Titans, he had two quarterback hits, one tackle for loss, one force fumble and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.
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Jacksonville’s defense has several different blitz packages that have helped elevate production. The safety blitz has been the most successful so far.
Over the last five games the safety group has two sacks, a force fumble, nine tackles for loss and five pressures.
In week 16 against the New York Jets, on a third-and-five, Andre Cisco came off the edge putting Zach Wilson on his back, ending their drive.
Not only has the blitz helped them add pressure to the quarterback, but it’s also helped clog the backfield when the offense decides to run the ball.
In the overtime game against the Dallas Cowboys, Key crashes to the inside and Jenkins wraps around the edge to bring down Tony Pollard, preventing the conversion on second-and-short.
On the very next play, the Jaguars forced a turnover to win the game. Jenkins ended the day with two interceptions, a pick-six, 18 tackles and the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after a career day.
“That’s what you are supposed to do when you get brought into a team and supposed to change the culture. You’ve got to be one of those guys, especially when you come in. You know, if they went to go hand-pick you, you have to be one of the guys that help change the culture.” Jenkins after his performance against the Cowboys.
The wild-card matchup against the Chargers.
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Even with the recent Jaguars defensive hot streak, it’s really just their production against the run and their pass rush that have kept them afloat. They are sitting 30th in defensive DVOA against the pass (19.7%) and have given up the sixth most passing yards in the league, 4,279.
The Jaguars defense will have their hands full this weekend against Herbert, as the Chargers have the second most passing attempts per game, with 41.8, giving them the second most passing yards in the league, 4,739. So, if Herbert can get the ball out, this game won’t be a walk in the park for the Jaguars.
Both Herbert and Trevor Lawrence have their issues when facing pressure, so that will be the gameplan on both sides. Herbert plays his best when his pocket is kept clean. He has 20 passing touchdowns and only four interceptions. But when he faces pressure, he only has five touchdowns, he’s thrown five interceptions and his completion percentage drops from a 73.8% to 56.3%, per PFF.
Herbert currently leads the league in drop backs with pressures (213) and 13.3% of those pressures, he creates himself, per PFF.
Earlier in the season against the Kansas City Chiefs, Kansas City’s defense showed a blitz, but then only brought four. Which may have rattled Herbert and forced him to get it out quickly, resulting in an interception.
The perceived pressure should be a game plan for the Jaguars defense, as Herbert has a -20.97 EPA when facing a box with 6+ defenders.
Here is what Caldwell had to say when asked about the game plan for stopping Herbert. “These guys have stepped up…. stopping the run and pushing the pocket. Up front, I think the guys understand what we need to do as a team, and they’re doing it.”
Both sides of the ball share a +5-turnover differential, so it will be up to either defense to make a play in order to take the win. In the end, Caldwell knows it will be a tough game for the defense,
“It’s a challenge. They have a bunch of weapons, but we look at it as, we got 11 guys out there, pass rush, plays just as much of an important part in covering a deep pass as the DBs do. It all goes hand in hand. We’ll throw 11 out there and see what happens.”