Film Room

Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Jacksonville Defense

by Derrik Klassen

The Jacksonville Jaguars defense is not ready to give up its throne as the best in the league. With Pro Bowl talent across the board, all it takes for the Jaguars defense to remain elite is reasonable health, an ounce of creativity, and keeping players in a position to succeed. That sounds like an obvious, benign mission statement, but let's not forget about Gregg Williams' free safety playing 90 yards off the ball or Justin Houston being regularly dropped into coverage last season.

In a match versus the New England Patriots this past weekend, the Jaguars had a chance to prove they are still a top-tier unit. The Patriots may have been lacking in wide receiver talent versus a loaded Jaguars secondary, but if anyone can find a way to make an offense work under those circumstances, it is Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Foxborough's infamous duo fell short, though, and were outclassed by Jacksonville's defense until it was too late.

For starters, Jacksonville bullied New England in the ground game. No matter the concept, personnel, misdirection, or any other run-related factor, the Patriots could not get anything going with their rushing attack. Defensive tackles Abry Jones and Malik Jackson were absolute terrors in creating disruption, while the linebackers and secondary flew around with their hair on fire cleaning up tackles and securing the perimeter.

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Here is just one example of Jackson (97) mauling New England's offensive line as he is lined up over the center. On this third-and-5 play, the Patriots try to run a one-back power play out of shotgun against the Jaguars' two-high defense. In theory, the Patriots have the numbers to execute a successful run, but Jackson destroys the center as soon as the ball is snapped. Jackson forces the center a step or two into the backfield and disrupts the left guard's pulling path, and the dominoes continue to fall afterward. The pulling left guard is unable to get to his target area on time and the running back is stuck muddling around behind him. With both the puller and the runner scrambling to find a way to fix the play, Jacksonville's linebackers and safeties swarm toward the running back and corral him before he can cross the line to gain.

More important, however, was the Jaguars pass defense holding Brady to fewer than 7 yards per attempt. Brady was not bad in his own right, but the Jaguars defense did well to minimize his impact and force the game into the hands of mediocre skill players. Though the Jaguars did not intercept Brady and only sacked him twice, they did their job in taking away any playmaking potential from New England's skill players and forcing Brady to regularly take low-reward throws.

One of the things Jacksonville did was concede yards to New England's running backs, fullbacks, and other low-impact skill players. Almost any time a running back or fullback was flexed out to a wide receiver position, the Jaguars played 5 to 7 yards off of them and essentially gifted Brady a completion.

Circled in red are third-string tight end Jacob Hollister (top) and running back Sony Michel (bottom). In this screenshot, cornerback Jalen Ramsey (20) is aligned 5 yards off the ball with little intention to aggressively play anything in front of him. Ramsey would go on to backpedal a few yards once the ball was snapped and give up a 7-yard reception to Michel. It may seem counterintuitive to "give up" completions, but forcing Brady to constantly take low-reward plays would eventually run the Patriots into a wall. Offenses need explosive plays, and the Jaguars just did not allow the Patriots many opportunities to get them.

Jacksonville could get away with this because they trusted their secondary and linebackers to rally to the ball and minimize yards-after-catch opportunities. We all know Ramsey to be aggressive in all facets of his game, but everyone from Tashaun Gipson to linebacker Telvin Smith was aggressively trying to bring down Patriots skill players as soon as possible. Only on a handful of occasions did the Patriots gain more than a yard or two after the catch.

When the Patriots split their wide receivers out in more traditional formations, the Jaguars defense often took the opposite approach than they did versus backfield players. Jacksonville's cornerbacks were regularly asked to press wide receivers Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson. All three receivers were shut down by the tight coverage and unable to generate any sort of real separation beyond 10 yards. On the one occasion that Dorsett got a half-step on reserve cornerback Tyler Patmon down the field, Brady slightly overthrew the pass. In 35 attempts, Brady only attempted two throws beyond 20 yards (including the Dorsett attempt) and seven throws beyond 10 yards.

In addition to the rest of their performance, the Jaguars' most noteworthy feat was how well they neutralized tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was far and away New England's best available pass-catcher, and defensive coordinator Todd Wash made it a point to wash him out of the game. Normally someone like Julian Edelman can take pressure off of Gronkowski or punish teams for prioritizing the tight end, but that was not the case in this game as Edelman was serving a suspension.

One of the smaller adjustments made to keep Gronkowski at bay was adjusting zone coverage assignments to focus on Gronkowski. In traditional zone drops, linebackers would often play further down the field and shadow Gronkowski instead of flowing down to match running backs out of the backfield. As mentioned before, this meant the Jaguars conceded a number of receptions in the underneath area, but it served its purpose in taking Gronkowski out of the equation.

The Jaguars also had success matching up Gronkowski one-on-one with a few different defenders. Jacksonville's linebackers did fine in their few solo matchups versus Gronkowski, but the real dominance came from Ramsey and Gipson. Ramsey, as was hyped up all week, followed Gronkowski a number of times both out wide and in the slot. Gronkowski did not beat Ramsey even once, and Brady did not feel comfortable giving Gronkowski a jump ball with Ramsey in coverage.

That level of dominance could have been predicted from a player like Ramsey, but Gipson's success came as a bit of a shock. Gipson matched up on Gronkowski a few times in the slot and had no trouble keeping up with him, even in press coverage.

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Gronkowski is on the right side of the offense in this example, in a tight slot alignment with Gipson lined up directly over him. Gronkowski initially tries to set up Gipson to bite hard to the outside so he can work back inside, but Gipson does not go for it. Gipson uses Gronkowski as a balance tool by keeping a hand on him and is able to mirror Gronkowski's movements throughout the entire route. By the time Gronkowski's route turns into just a vertical track, Gipson is able to latch onto Gronkowski's inside hip and run with him step for step.

On a less shocking note, the Jaguars used good ol' double-coverage on Gronkowski as well. Gronkowski was bracketed a few times during the game, primarily when the Patriots got within striking distance of the end zone. Bracket coverage requires one defender to cover the outside half of a player while another defender covers the inside half, essentially allowing any type of route to be collapsed on. Considering Gronkowski was the Patriots' only threat to make a dominant play in or near the red zone, it made perfect sense to take him out of the mix and dare the other skill players to do something.

Wash opted for an interesting bracket coverage on this game-changing play early in the fourth quarter. Rather than use linebacker Myles Jack to undercut Gronkowski (circled in red), Wash asks safety Barry Church to roll down from his single-high safety position to play inside and over the top of Gronkowski. Jack then trots backwards to replace Church on the back end and act as a last resort.

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Gronkowski is not Brady's first look on this play, but Brady does move his eyes toward Gronkowski once he hitches up in the pocket. With defensive end Dante Fowler screaming around the right side of the pocket, Brady would have had to throw immediately following his hitch in order to get the ball out before a potential sack. Brady did not pull the trigger on the throw to Gronkowski and instead was strip-sacked by Fowler. Had Brady gotten rid of the ball, it is unlikely it would have been completed. Church was already flying downhill to pop Gronkowski at the catch point or get a hand on the ball.

Through scheme and individual talent, the Jaguars defense put Brady in a lose-lose situation with the game on the line. Fowler's strip-sack ended a Patriots drive that should have resulted in at least three points, which would have put the Patriots at just an eight-point deficit with 12 or so minutes remaining the fourth quarter. For Belichick and Brady, that is more than enough time to orchestrate a game-tying or winning effort. Instead, the game remained 13-24 after that drive, and after each offense scored a touchdown later in the quarter, the game ended 20-31 in favor of the Jaguars.

While the Jaguars defense trounced the Patriots offense, things could be different next time around. If the Jaguars face the Patriots again in the AFC playoffs, they will potentially have to account for both Edelman and Josh Gordon. Gordon will give the Patriots a wide receiver who can actually threaten the likes of Ramsey and A.J. Bouye down the field, while Edelman will be far more of a menace from the slot than either Patterson or Hollister. In turn, Gronkowski will be given more room to breathe and presumably draw less double-coverage. It could be an entirely different game than last Sunday.

That being said, the Jaguars do have a top-notch defense. The Patriots may not have been at full capacity in this game, but the raw talent and creativity the Jaguars defense displayed should be able to carry on throughout the season. Assuming the rookies come along as planned and key veterans continue to perform, there is little reason to believe the Jaguars defense can not find a way to stack up with the "new" Patriots offense if they meet again in January.

Comments

1 comment, Last at 20 Sep 2018, 1:36pm

1 Re: Film Room: Jacksonville Defense

by Aaron Brooks Good Twin // Sep 20, 2018 - 1:36pm

Jacksonville will defend Gordon by legalizing marijuana in Florida.

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