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2018 Opponent Scouting Report: Jaguars defense - probably much better than you think

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NFL: International Series-Philadelphia Eagles at Jacksonville Jaguars Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On November 11, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Jacksonville Jaguars. In this week ten match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our new-look Colts.

The last time these two teams faced off was December 3rd of last year. The game ended up being a 30 to 10 win for a Jaguars team who has won four of the last five against our Colts. Given that the Manning-era Colts owned the AFC South for the better part of a decade, that’s not good. Hopefully this Sunday we see our Colts get things going in the right direction and come away with a win against a crumbling Jags team.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in week ten.


Defense

The Colts have seen this style of defense many, many times over the past couple of years. It was made popular by Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks over the past decade (almost). It relies on a base 4-3 under hybrid set. The system, as created by Carroll et. al, relies on man to man and cover 3, almost exclusively. Carroll famously uses 3-4 players in 4-3 roles and uses both one and two gap principals along the front seven.

If I took the time to tell the story of how the Jags came to implement this style of defense, following the coaching trees back, I could write a book and it would involve current defensive coordinator Todd Wash, former head coach Gus Bradley, Monte Kiffin and of course Pete Carroll. The story would begin sometime in the early 2010’s with the scheme coming to Jacksonville sometime before the 2013 season and not really taking off as a unit until some serious investments had been made. Instead of writing you that book, I’ll leave it with this paragraph.

This scheme has spread out of Seattle and can be found in San Francisco, Miami and Atlanta based on my research. Each team is going to include it’s own wrinkles. Every coach is going to put their own stamp on their team and you will see subtle changes from team to team even if their base set is the same. Some of that is going to be due to the coach wanting to make the scheme his own, and a massive part of it is going to be fitting personnel to scheme.

With that said these Jags will see a lot of the same cover 3 looks that we have seen so many times before. This article from PFF on the coverage NFL teams ran in 2016, documents that well:

It won’t surprise anybody to see that the Seattle Seahawks led the league in snaps in a Cover-3 defense, at least from a percentage standpoint. Seattle ran Cover-3 on 54.0 percent of their snaps, with members of that coaching tree taking the system to Atlanta (51.5) and Jacksonville (46.4) making up the rest of the top three. The Falcons actually ran 45 more snaps overall in Cover-3 than the Seahawks, but that represents a lower percentage of their total snaps on defense last year. Cover-3 was the second-most common coverage deployed league-wide last season.

One thing that you may not know about me; a few years ago I began the PFF hiring process. The job entailed charting college football games and compiling data. I wasn’t going to be ranking or grading players, just watching and re-watching the same plays dozens of times to accurately chart players on the field, their position and likely assignment. I’ve said it a lot that PFF rankings aren’t the best metric, because I believe that. Any attempt to rate a players performance based on a rigid criteria is going to be flawed. PFF’s system is as good as it gets in that regard, but no system can ever be trusted to tell you 100% of the story.

The one thing I trust, probably to a fault, is the data they release like the information above. I understand that process, because I’ve done it. It’s very demanding work for very little personal benefit and when I took on their hiring process I just wasn’t in a place in my life I could take on the role. I bowed out after completing the first “test” and true to PFF form they congratulated me and I was informed that 86% of applicants didn’t make it past the first round, so I should feel good about myself. So I felt good about myself. Bottom line, I don’t put much stock in their ratings, some are good, others aren’t. I almost always trust the data they release similar to the sample above. Your mileage may vary, but it is something for you to consider.

Anyway back to this Jags defense. The following should look familiar but it’s no less relevant as these Jags run the same system:

A book could be written with the information that the guys over at Field Gulls have compiled. If you’re looking for a resource this is a fantastic place to start and I’m going to do my best to give you the basics in an easy to understand format. If you want to go deeper, you absolutely can, just click that link and have a good time.

The Seahawks run a base 4-3 Under defense. Danny Kelly of Field Gulls gives us this explanation:

The 4-3 Under, in it’s simplest terms, is a gap control system meant to stop the run and to pressure the passer. For the most part, each lineman and linebacker is responsible for one gap - this makes each player’s responsibility fairly cut and dry and eliminates a lot of the reads and thinking from the game.

In the late 1980’s, Monte Kiffin began coaching for the Minnesota Vikings with a coach named Floyd Peters and they further developed the 4-3 Under that emphasized rushing the passer. The 4-3 Under system uses almost exclusively a staggered alignment to the offense in this basic set.

As you can see, in a basic 4-3 Under, the SAM linebacker is lined up to the outside shoulder of the tight end off the line of scrimmage a yard or two and is responsible for the D gap (to the outside of the tight end). He’s also responsible for running in pass coverage from time to time. The strongside defensive end is lined up to the outside shoulder of the tackle, in a 5-technique alignment, and is responsible for the C gap (to the right of the tackle). The strongside defensive tackle is usually lined up shading the center in a 1-technique alignment and is responsible for the strongside A gap. The weakside defensive tackle is lined up in a 3-technique alignment off the weakside guard and is responsible for the weakside B gap in front of him. The weakside defensive end is lined up to the outside shoulder of the weakside offensive tackle and is responsible for the C gap on his side.

This leaves the strongside B gap and the weakside A gap open. These are the responsibilities of the MIKE and WILL linebackers.

Still with me? Good.

The defense that Pete Carroll now employs uses the basic tenets of the Monte Kiffin 4-3 Under defense and mixes in a variation originally pioneered by the legendary George Seifert in San Francisco. Seifert wanted to create mismatches against the opposing offensive line so he started using his weakside defensive end to rove around and rush the passer from a two-point stance (standing up position). This was the beginning of the “Elephant” position and one that Carroll uses today. We also see this position called the LEO, and in the Hawks’ defense can rush standing up or in a three-point stance.

It’s the same basic alignment but as you can see, the SAM linebacker comes up closer to the line to play hard contain and the weakside LEO is pushed out a bit, maybe a yard off of the weakside tackle. The LEO’s main job is to control the C gap while rushing the passer like a wild banshee and the SAM plays contain against the TE, runs in pass coverage with him, or rushes the passer in some situations.

Okay cool. So ole’ Pete likes his 4 man fronts and uses a DE in a 2 point stance. Danny Kelly goes on in part two to explain that the Seahawks will use more 2 gap responsibilities when their personnel allows.

Okay cool, these are the basics of their front seven. What about the Pete Carroll secondary? Danny Kelly talks about that too here:

Three main principles of secondary play:

#1 Eliminate the big play

#2 Out hit the opponent on all plays

#3 Get the ball -- either strip the ball or make the interception when in position.

These are Pete’s objectives for his DB’s. Got it.

”We play man-to-man or Cover-3, not much more than that. It’s not a secret.” - Kam Chancellor

Thanks for giving up your game plan, Kam. Danny wrote yet another piece that goes a little deeper into their coverage schemes:

Example 1: Three-down lineman nickel Cover-3 look

Again, this is a very general Cover-3, three deep, four under scheme I’ve drawn up.

Defensive line: In the illustration above, the Hawks have two defensive-end types rushing (No. 91 Chris Clemons and No. 56 Cliff Avril). Those players may go inside or outside the tackle/tight end to achieve pressure. Michael Bennett (No. 72) is aligned over the center (‘nose tackle’ ), and he’ll look to slice through and pressure the quarterback.

Linebackers: I’ve shown a look here where MLB Bobby Wagner (No. 54) would come in on a blitz, perhaps stunting or drafting off of Bennett. In any case, K.J. Wright could come with pressure here as well and alternate coverage responsibilities with Wagner. There’s flexibility. On the outside, you could see Bruce Irvin rush off the edge or stunt with Avril. Seattle has the athletes at the linebacker position to allow them to do both.

Safeties: Because Chancellor (No. 31) is almost a de facto linebacker, you’ll most often see him in the box, stopping the run and taking away short crossing patterns. He can drop into coverage, run in man-to-man or blitz. Earl Thomas (No. 29) would take the seam or post route into his area. If there are two, he splits the difference between the two.

Example 2: Four down lineman nickel Cover-3 look

In this case, I’ve replaced Bruce Irvin with NT Brandon Mebane. This could also be Clinton McDonald. In the case above, Thurmond could be playing man on the slot receiver, with everyone else in zone.

Example 3: Four down nickel look, mixed man/zone coverage

In this case, you see man on Sherman’s side, zone on Maxwell’s, nickel in man, and Chancellor lined up in man against Julius Thomas, for instance. This could easily be K.J. Wright switching with Chancellor, as well.

Kelly really gives us a great look into the basics of the Seahawks (in this case the Jags) defense and what we can expect. If you want more about the 4-3 Under and the Seahawks (and Jags and Falcons and 49ers and Dolphins) brand of it Mike Chan wrote a great piece with a ton of play breakdowns and plenty of X’s and O’s that you can find and enjoy here.

So that’s it. That’s the defense we’re facing, yet again. We should be used to seeing these looks and game planning will be similar but will vary when we look at individual match ups. With that said, you have to have players capable of executing, we’ll take a look at the talent at each position next.


Defensive Line

When I went into doing my research for this game I expected to find a bunch of unflattering numbers. After all the Jags are on a four game losing streak and their opponents have scored an average of 28.5 points per game in that span, that hardly screams “elite defense”. So I looked at their numbers against the run and what I found didn’t look great.

The Jaguars are giving up 4.2 yards per carry and they’re the 24th ranked run defense by yards allowed. So what’s going on up front?

Malik Jackson absolutely gets held on this play and Marcell Dareus isn’t able to beat his back side block. Both players are usually very good, but both players seem to struggle against zone run concepts in this defensive scheme. Teams have consistently been able to find yards with zone concepts and the Colts should look to test them in this way early.

Once again, the Jags are giving up a nice gain to a zone run concept. Based on what I’ve seen this is the Jags biggest issue on defense. A lot of teams who focus on getting up field, struggle to maintain gap responsibility against a zone run due to the difficulty of both getting up field and moving with offensive linemen to maintain gap control. It’s a common strategy that often works against more aggressive defenses and the Jags fit that bill.

The Jags are also in the bottom quarter of the league when it comes to sacking quarterbacks through eight games. The Jags have brought down the passer 19 times. The Patriots and Saints are both worse in this category but the point remains they haven’t consistently gotten to the passer as a team. Individually Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell both have five sacks on the season while first round rookie, Taven Bryan has as many sacks and tackles for loss as I do this year.


Linebackers

Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are the two names you need to know at linebacker. Part of the team’s issue in stopping the run falls at the feet of these two men. Neither guy is going to provide you with a downhill run stopping enforcing mentality and to be fair to them, it’s 2018, that’s probably okay.

Instead both men stand out in coverage in a big way. Both are very athletic for the position and possess enough speed to give any offense fits when covering backs or tight ends.

I don’t expect to see Myles Jack come away with a sack on Sunday but it never hurts to be insanely athletic and completely unblocked.

This play doesn’t look like much but if you watch Smith and Jack drop back into coverage and how quickly they backpedal to the proper depth, they’re absolutely taking the middle of the field away and that’s huge, especially when a quarterback is trying to make a throw out of his own endzone.

Smith and Jack are kind of the perfect allegory for the entire Jaguars defense; their pass coverage is so good, running the ball for 4.2 yards per carry almost always seems like the better option.


Defensive Backs

So you see, when I set out to look at the Jags defense, I thought they were falling apart at the seams. I mean maybe they still are. All of the reports out of Jacksonville have been that of a team imploding but the numbers don’t really indicate that.

The Jags DB’s have played well. So well in fact that teams are simply refusing to attempt to throw the ball against them. Teams have only attempted 246 passes against this defense so far this year. For context Andrew Luck threw 206 passes between weeks three and six. 246 attempts is the third lowest number in the league while teams have run the ball 233 times which is the fourth most.

The reason the Jags run defense looks so bad on paper; their pass defense is still really good.

This play is really interesting. I wanted you to see the talent that the Jags have in their defensive backfield, and you can clearly see that, but more than that is what they do to Carson Wentz.

Wentz reads cover three here. Because, best I can tell it’s absolutely cover three. So when Wentz sees the deep safety bite up on an underneath route, he thinks he has an easy six points. Instead Jalen Ramsey, (hate him or not) sees the play develop and times it perfectly to go make a play on the ball.

Now it’s possible this was absolutely blown coverage and a happy accident that Ramsey happened to be there, but I don’t believe that. I believe this was a designed play to make the quarterback believe he had an open receiver, only instead of six points he got Jalen Ramsey making the easy interception.

Testing the middle of the field in the end zone against the Jags is especially hazardous. This should have been a pick but the defender (Barry Church I believe) couldn’t come up with the catch. Once again a quarterback believed he had a throwing lane that just wasn’t there.

You know about Ramsey and you probably know about A.J. Bouye, who may miss another game due to injury and they’re missing UDFA stud Quenton Meeks, so we may see D.J. Hayden and Tyler Patmon on Sunday.

Barry Church is more of a box safety that we can expect to see trying to tackle Marlon Mack all day and he has the ability to impact the passing game but it isn’t where he is best used. The other safety spot will be held down by Tashaun Gipson who has played very well.


Final Thoughts:

The Jaguars have given up an average of 28.5 points per during their four game slide. At first that seems pretty bad for a defense I just spent 2000 words praising but consider this: During that span the Jaguars offense threw an interception returned for a touchdown and turned the ball over on their side of the fifty giving up points on four occasions. If you factor out all of the bad positions the offense put the defense in they’re only giving up 22 points per game.

That includes the aberration that was the Cowboys game where the ‘Boys managed to hang 40 on the Jags and the offense didn’t directly impact the defense at all, oddly enough.

This defense has their issues and they’re dealing with some injuries. There are ways the Colts can attack and have some success but the narrative the national media is selling us is wrong. This defense isn’t bad. It’s actually pretty good. The offense, however is awful. There are a lot of unknowns with this game. Both teams are coming off of their bye and the Jags have had turmoil in their locker room. Seemingly in response to that turmoil the Jags traded away defensive end Dante Fowler in a move that at least, Jalen Ramsey didn’t appreciate.

That move is either going to galvanize this Jags defense or it’s going to lead them further down the path of dysfunction, a path their offense knows all too well.