Duval, you've been begging the Jaguars to run a different defensive scheme for the last five-plus years. And when training camp and the preseason begin, you'll get your first chance to see the Jaguars' new look defense.
Former defensive coordinator Todd Wash's 4-3 Cover-3 scheme got stale quickly. Instead of being the aggressor or dictating game flow, it basically sat back and waited for the offense to make a mistake. This scheme can work, to an extent, but it requires elite talent in the secondary and on the edge. Even when it functioned well, there were still obvious chinks in the armor that smart offensive play-callers could take advantage of.
But the days of Todd Wash are gone.
Joe Cullen, the Ravens' defensive line coach of the last five seasons, is now leading the Jaguars' defense into a new era. He made previous stops in Tampa, Jacksonville, Cleveland, and Detroit as an NFL D-Line coach. Now, Cullen will get his chance to coordinate a defense at the highest level. And make no mistake about it: this will be a slightly modified clone of Baltimore's defensive scheme under Wink Martindale.
What does that mean?
On the surface level, you'll see an attacking-style defense. There will be a ton of manufactured pressure, aka blitzes. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert told the media this summer that about half their play calls have been blitzes so far. Off-ball linebackers, EDGE players, safeties, even cornerbacks will blitz and blitz often.
How does this scheme make up for having fewer coverage players?
They run a ton of nickel and dime. Meaning there will be 5-6 defensive backs on the field for the majority of the snaps. Theoretically, these 5-6 defensive backs will be able to lock down opposing receivers in man coverage long enough for the blitzers or down linemen to get home, or at least get the QB off his mark.
You'll also see plenty of Cover-1. It's a coverage scheme that generally has everyone that's not trying to get to the QB in man coverage, except for one single-high defender. The player aligned in single-high coverage plays a zone in the intermediate to deep middle third. This player needs speed, instincts and must play the ball in the air and bring down ball carriers. That's why the selection of Andre Cisco in the 2021 NFL Draft, who has the speed and ball skills to potentially lock down that spot, makes sense.
While these are some of the basic principles of what the Jaguars will try to do, it's crucial to remember that they will run multiple fronts. That doesn't just mean you'll see some odd fronts and some even. No, what we'll witness this year goes far beyond that. Joe Cullen is going to try to create confusion and chaos with his looks. There will be stunts; there will be four defensive linemen lined up on one half of the field or two linebackers in a two-point stance directly over the center. You'll see linebackers showing blitz and dropping back into shallow zones. Chaos is key.
The Jaguars' coaching staff has hammered home the idea that this will be a multi-front defense. So while the basic idea might usually be Cover-1, there will be many, many variations of what that will look like.
What type of personnel does this defense need to function?
A nose tackle that can free up linebackers by taking on multiple blockers is vital. The Ravens have had various players fill this role over the years, and the Jaguars traded for Malcom Brown this offseason to be their version of this. Brown has been a key cog for the Saints' run defense the last couple of seasons, and at 6'2" and a thick 320-pounds, it's easy to understand why. If Brown can take on multiple interior linemen, it'll create one-on-one and even unblocked situations for linebackers and other defensive linemen, allowing them to have an advantage, whether it be against the run or the pass. Over the past two seasons, no team has had more unblocked pressures than the Ravens.
Aside from Malcom Brown in the middle, defensive linemen like newly signed Roy Robertson-Harris, rookie Jay Tufele, second-year players DaVon Hamilton and Doug Costin, Adam Gotsis, and Taven Bryan, will all need to play stout against the run and, at times take on multiple blockers.
The EDGE players, who will usually be Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson, will also be vital. They'll need to set the edge against the run, and wreak havoc when given chances to go one-on-one with offensive lineman.
Having two playmaking off-ball linebackers, Myles Jack and Joe Schobert, should lead to advantageous situations in this attacking-style defense. Because Jack and Schobert have both proven to be quality blitzers that have a penchant for creating turnovers and big plays in a 4-3, they should be able to produce even more in this new-look defense. With the big boys up front eating up blockers, Jack and Schobert should be able to move more freely around the field than they have in the past.
If the three-down linemen in a 3-4 can't eat up five blockers against the run, there can be some serious issues. That's why the Jaguars will run the 4-3 and other concepts as well. Instead of sticking with the same alignments that continuously fail, Joe Cullen should be able to adjust on the fly from drive to drive and game to game.
Perhaps most importantly in this defense, especially in the pass-happy modern game, the defensive backs need to be able to play sticky man coverage. That's why the Jaguars signed Shaquill Griffin, a dominant man coverage defender, drafted Tyson Campbell at 33 overall, and re-signed both Sidney Jones and Tre Herndon. Those four cover corners, plus 2020 first-round pick CJ Henderson and newly signed hybrid safety Rayshawn Jenkins will need to lock down opposing receivers long enough for the pass rush to get home. And again, I think Andre Cisco (who should be close to fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered last September) will get his chance early on to prove he can be the rangy Cover-1 safety.
I know this is a lot to take in. But the basics principles of the Jaguars' new defense are reasonably simple. You'll see multiple fronts, which are designed to confuse opposing offenses. You'll see many, many different blitz packages. And you'll see a lot of man coverage and Cover-1.
Will it all work in year one? Theoretically, it could. But they'll need Malcom Brown to plug up holes and take on multiple blockers, especially on early downs. Against the pass and on third down, they'll need Josh Allen, K'Lavon Chaisson, and the off-ball linebackers to win one-on-one battles and get home when they come unblocked, and they'll need their corners to lock down receivers.
I don't think there's a question of talent here. But the talent needs to come together and coalesce in a way we haven't seen in Jacksonville since the back half of 2017. And while I greatly respect Joe Cullen, he has yet to prove that he can call a defense and make in-game adjustments.
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