Obviously, our defense performed poorly last year. Luckily for the team, there are three steps that the team can easily take (especially with our incredible amount of cap room) to fix the major problems and make a defense that will be good enough to let the offense win games for us. The team needs to fix the safety situation, add a coverage linebacker, and evolve the Elephant end position.
Sorting Out the Safety Room
For all the blame that the secondary takes for our poor defense, the corners actually played fairly well once the team settled on its three main starters (Davon House, Aaron Colvin, and Nick Marshall). While adding a corner will be necessary to take this defense to the next level, the team could field a good defense without adding a big name at that position. Safety is much more important.
The corners looked so poor at times because the safety play was absolutely atrocious. Sergio Brown, who the team signed last offseason to start at free safety, was one of the worst safeties in the NFL and was usually on the wrong end of highlight reels. Strong safety, Jonathan Cyprien, showed flashes this year (see his forced fumble against Buffalo to save a touchdown) but has absolutely no idea how to play in coverage. The backups weren’t much better. James Sample, a career strong safety who the team drafted to play free safety, was injured last season and was unable to convert to free safety well. Josh Evans is a tough player who can play both safety positions but shouldn’t be starting on a good defense. This horrible group is the primary reason that our defense played so poorly last season.
The third change to the safety group is to add a starting caliber free safety. There are many good choices on the free agent market, including Eric Berry, Tashaun Gipson and Eric Weddle, but also some underrated players like Walter Thurmond III, Rodney McLeod, Reggie Nelson and Husain Abdullah. All of these players have shown the ability to play center field in an NFL defense at a high level. The addition of one of these players would help the play of the entire secondary. The team could also look to the NFL Draft to add a free safety. Jalen Ramsey from Florida State has been the most obvious draft pick mocked to the team, but there are several other good options on Day 2. Tyvis Powell from Ohio State, Darian Thompson from Boise State, and Jalen Mills from LSU would be viable second or third round picks for the team who could start right away if the team doesn’t sign a free agent.
Rearranging the safety group is the easiest way to help this defense succeed in the pass-heavy AFC South.
Adding a Coverage Linebacker
The team needs a coverage linebacker who can work the middle of the field and hurt opponents’ intermediate passing game. Tight ends tore our defense up this year by working over the middle of the field. Tight ends against the Jaguars had 81 catches for 965 yards and 9 touchdowns, which ranked near the bottom of the league. Fixing the safety problem will help to stop this, but the team should also add another linebacker who can cover and step in during sub-packages or replace Pozluszny as the starter in the middle. Poz, while a fan favorite, has been horrible in coverage for most of his career, even though he is able to secure interceptions. His slow feet and lack of man coverage skills lets tight ends work the seam as much as they want to. Telvin Smith was supposed to be a good coverage linebacker with his great speed and field awareness, but he doesn’t have a great feel for coverage and often looks out of place. If the team were to add a coverage-specialist linebacker, we can take Poz off the field in nickel situations and put this sub-package linebacker in his place. If Telvin improves in coverage and we add this nickel linebacker, tight ends will become a lot less of a problem next season, which will help on third downs and in the red zone.
I can see the team signing a player like Keenan Robinson or Dane Fletcher, who have shown they can cover well and will bring some speed to the defense. Fletcher in particular interests me, as he is a good player, but is coming off of a torn ACL and should be incredibly cheap as a result. Robinson is also incredibly fast for a linebacker and should be available as a mid-level free agent. In the draft, I can see the team drafting someone like Darron Lee from Ohio State or Scooby Wright from Arizona in the third (or even fourth, if they were to fall that far) round if the team really likes them. Someone like Terrance Smith from FSU could also be available in the 6th round if the team felt comfortable with a project player.
Adapting the Elephant End Position
As I noted last week in my article about the front seven in the Jacksonville defense, the Elephant end is designed to occupy space and open up gaps for the linebackers and the under tackle to make plays. This position is incredibly vital to the run defense and is one of the reasons that our run defense improved this year (thanks to Jared Odrick replacing Red Bryant). However, this position needs to have more of a consistent pass-rushing impact to play as many snaps as it does. The team sometimes employs sub-packages that move Jared Odrick inside (where he excelled) and replace him with a more traditional pass rusher, but in the team’s nickel package, they leave the Elephant out there to defend the run. With the way our division and the rest of the league is moving, rushing the passer is more important than stopping the run. I believe it is in the team’s best interest to replace the Elephant with a more traditional SDE with more pass rushing capability.
Basically, the team needs to replace the 300lb Elephant end with someone smaller and more agile, but who can still defend the edge. As opposed to putting a massive lineman on the edge, we should find a bigger pass rushing defensive end to put at that spot, at least for most of the snaps. I’m fine with having Odrick occasionally play the Elephant, like on third/fourth-and-short or goal-line situations. However, he played so well inside last season that I think he would improve by moving inside for more snaps and the pass rush will improve as a whole with the new SDE.
The only problem with this idea is that it would require an OTTO that can play more of a traditional 4-3 SLB role (as opposed to his current role, where he mostly plays at the LOS). The OTTO could still fulfill some of the responsibilities that he does now and could play snaps at the LOS, but it would be beneficial to have him off-ball as well for different coverages and run defense. However, I think that the OTTO is such an insignificant role that Gus will be willing to be flexible (for the first time in his career) and add this new SDE to help cure an awful pass rush.
So these are the easiest ways to fix the defense. I think all three are necessary if we want to field a defense that can win a division where the worst quarterback will probably be whatever talented rookie Houston decides to draft. Who knows, maybe Gus Bradley and Todd Wash will read this, follow it and give me a job when the defense makes astronomical leaps. These moves should at least make our defense respectable and give our offense more possessions to score points and control the flow of the game.
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