Understanding the Jacksonville Front Seven
There’s been a lot of talk about Gus Bradley’s defense this offseason, as it clearly underperformed in the 2015 season. Bradley’s scheme specifically requires stellar play from the front seven (linebackers and defensive linemen) to succeed. This article will go through every position in the front seven and examine their size profiles, roles in the defense and level of importance. I’ll also touch on the current occupants of each position and how they fit.
Quick Terminology Check
Before we dive into the positions, I want to set up a reference for readers who don’t know what some of the terminology I’ll be using means. Here’s some vocabulary and concepts you’ll need to understand this article:
Now that the busy work is done, let’s jump right in. There are seven positions in the front seven of Gus Bradley’s defense (in level of schematic importance): the LEO, the Under Tackle, the Middle Linebacker, the Nose Tackle, the Weak-side Linebacker, the Elephant End, and the OTTO.
The LEO Pass Rusher
The LEO is the most important position in the Jacksonville defense. Bradley’s scheme is primarily designed to free the LEO up to make plays. Without it, it’s extremely difficult for the team to generate pass rush. He lines up as the weak side defensive end, helping to free him up from any blocking by a tight end in most cases. In the run game, the LEO is asked to clean up counters and seal the edge on the backside to force the run back into the interior line. He’s not expected to have a lot of run stops and tackles for loss, but he just has to stay in position to bottle up the run game and keep runs inside. On passing downs, his only job is to get to the quarterback. A good LEO would hopefully rack up at least 8 sacks in a season, preferably closer to 12 or even higher.
The LEO is usually a smaller player, as they rely more on speed and bend than being a good run defender. A perfect LEO would be at least 6’2, possibly up to 6’4, and no more than 270 pounds. They can be smaller than this if they have the right skillset (Chris Clemons was probably 250 pounds or less in 2015). They need good bend, speed, and burst off the LOS.
Right now, there are two LEO’s on the roster, but only one of them, Dante Fowler Jr., is likely to be on the team when the season starts, as Chris Clemons has a good chance of being cut. the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015 who was injured in minicamps and missed the entire 2015 season. He has the potential to be a great LEO, even though he’s heavier than most (high 260’s). Last season, Andre Branch and Chris Clemons played most of the snaps at LEO and performed poorly outside of a few splash plays from Branch. Their poor play goes a long way in explaining why the pass rush underperformed last season.
The Middle Linebacker (Mike)
The Mike Linebacker is referred to in most schemes as “the quarterback of the defense”. He receives play calls from the sideline and gets the defense lined up (including determining strong/weak sides of the offense for the defensive linemen). In the run game, the Mike uses lanes that his defensive line opens up for him to make tackles and keep runs to a short gain. In coverage, he can do anything from man-coverage on a tight end or running back, to a blitz through the A-gap, to zone coverage in the middle of the field. He is the leader of the front seven and integral to both the run and pass defense.
A Mike should be 6’1 to 6’4 and around 240 pounds. Gus doesn’t like short Mike’s, with the two on the roster being 6’2, 246lbs and 6’4, 235lbs. He needs to be strong enough to take on blockers that get to the second level, but quick enough to shoot through gaps when asked. Speed is always a good trait to have, but it isn’t as important as having short-area quickness and good instincts.
The current Mike for the Jaguars is fan-favorite Paul Posluszny, who is one of the better Mike’s in the NFL in the run game. However, he’s shown to be inadequate in coverage, but Gus won’t take him off the field due to his importance as a leader. His backup, Jordan Tripp, played nicely but didn’t show enough in the run game to compete for the starting job. With the level of importance this position has, the Jags should probably consider adding talent to the group.
The Nose Tackle (NT)
The Nose Tackle is the premier run-defender in this defense. He plays a 1-technique, who lines up on the outside shoulder of the center, or a 0-technique, who lines up directly in front of the center. His job is to occupy space and blockers while the other players (like the 3T and LEO) get the numbers (sacks). He won’t put up stats outside of a rare TFL, but he frees up the other defensive linemen by forcing double teams and ruining blocking schemes. He won’t be much help as a pass rusher, but can still cause trouble in that regard by overpowering linemen to free up the 3T.
The NT should be a very large man. No NT should be below 300 pounds. The starting NT and his backup from last year are 310 and 320 pounds respectively. They also should be between 6’1 and 6’4. Most players taller than this have trouble getting leverage in the run game and get blocked easier. The best way to find a good NT is to watch the games, look for the biggest guy on the field, and watch how much he affects the opposing game-plan. The stat sheet won’t help you here.
Roy Miller, the best defensive lineman for the team last year, locks down our NT position. He’s backed up (probably) by Abry Jones, a restricted free agent this offseason, who will probably return to the team. These two have played incredibly well the past two seasons, with Jones even showing some push as a pass rusher.
The Elephant End
This is the most unique part of the Jaguars defense. While most teams have a strong-side defensive end and a weak-side end, the Jags have the LEO for the weak-side and the Elephant for the strong-side. The Elephant’s job is to occupy blockers in the run game and create more space for the 3T. His position isn’t designed to be a pass rusher, but a good Elephant can get a few sacks and help to collapse the pocket.
He is really closer to the size of a defensive tackle than a defensive end, usually in the 300-pound range and 6’3 to 6’6. He needs to be strong at the point of attack and able to penetrate or occupy a double team.
Jared Odrick is the current starter at Elephant for the team and had a very solid first season with the Jaguars. He was able to rack up 5.5 sacks (leading the team) from a position that isn’t designed to pass rush. He’s a reason why the team was able to improve the run defense so significantly from last season. He’s backed up by career Jaguar Tyson Alualu.
The OTTO Linebacker
The least important, but most difficult position to fill in this defense, the OTTO linebacker is Gus Bradley’s replacement for the traditional Sam linebacker. Unlike the Sam, the OTTO constantly plays at the LOS and can play standing up or with his hand in the dirt. He’s much more similar to a 3-4 outside linebacker in this regard. He primarily has two duties: stop the run and rush the passer. He’ll be asked to cover some, but he shouldn’t and doesn’t very often. This position doesn’t play a significant amount of snaps, as it is the first to be replaced in sub-packages.
The OTTO should be around 6’3 and in the 240-260lb range. He’s thicker and more stout than a LEO or a Will, but not near the size of an Elephant or a 3T. He looks like a Mike physically, but needs more strength at the point of attack and better pass rushing moves. He also needs to be physical enough to set the edge in the run game.
Our current OTTO is Dan Skuta, the recent free agent acquisition who underwhelmed in his first season with the team. However, due to the limited role that the position plays, Skuta will probably start again next season. We do need to acquire a young depth player, as the current back (Thurston Armbrister) isn’t a true OTTO.
Now you know the different pieces of the front seven and how they work as a unit to stop opposing offenses. In my opinion, the team needs depth at Will, OTTO, and LEO, along with acquiring some sub-package pass rushers. This will go a long way in helping to improve the total defense next season.
Also, don’t miss my article next week, Three Simple Steps to Curing the Jaguar Defense. Also, leave your thoughts on the article in the comment section below and follow me on Twitter @twjohns97. Thanks for reading, and go Jags!