How Travon Walker, Devin Lloyd Have Changed Jaguars Defense

Jacksonville Jaguars ER Travon Walker
Jacksonville Jaguars ER Travon Walker
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 4 - The Jaguars defense isn't an embarrassment anymore. After three consecutive bottom-five finishes in DVOA, including back-to-back finishes at 31st, the Jaguars sit at fourth in defensive DVOA through three weeks. The three teams ahead of them are the usual suspects: Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and San Francisco, a group not even the Jaguars staff would have imagined they would be in at any point this year. While that elite status probably won't hold over the next 14 games, it's clear how much talent has been injected into this team and how much faster they are playing under new defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell.

Jacksonville's defensive revolution starts up front with the first overall pick, Travon Walker. While he is still figuring out how to rush the passer at an NFL level, Walker's run defense has been every bit as nightmarish as it was at Georgia. Walker has the length and head-to-toe strength to control blockers at will, as well as far more speed and fluidity in space than his 6-foot-5, 272-pound frame should be capable of. Walker is a one-of-a-kind athlete wired to seek and destroy in the run game, and he did just that against the Chargers on Sunday.

Gerald Everett isn't the world's best run-blocking tight end, but Walker (44) still handles this play exceptionally well. Not only does Walker snap to Everett as soon as he sees run action his way, not allowing himself to get blindsided, but he makes sure to play through Everett's midpoint for as long as possible. He wants to knock Everett back while still being in position to play the inside gap if the runner cuts back. The moment the runner crosses Walker's face, Walker uses the tree trunks he has for arms to toss the blocker aside and help corral the running back before he gets to the sticks. A display of recognition, power, and athleticism that seamless is outrageous for a player in his third NFL game.

The Jaguars front around Walker has stepped up, too. Walker may be a force multiplier, but it's more than that. The interior trio of Roy Robertson-Harris, Folorunso Futukasi, and Davon Hamilton has played a huge role in the Jaguars ranking first in run defense DVOA through three weeks. Robertson-Harris and Hamilton were around last season, but both have taken a step forward under Caldwell, while Futukasi has looked like a home-run free-agent signing.

The Chargers offensive line was all sorts of banged up by the end of Sunday's game, but their guards were healthy. At no point was that a problem for the Jaguars interior. In the clip above, the Chargers are trying to run split zone, but Futukasi (94, right) and Robertson-Harris (95, left) give the runner nowhere to go. Both Futukasi and Robertson-Harris get a couple yards of knockback while still getting a free arm into the play-side gap. With Josh Allen (41) also immediately setting the edge, the runner had no choice but to cut the play back instantly into Robertson-Harris' mess, eventually allowing the rest of the Jaguars front to clean things up.

Los Angeles finished the day with 26 yards on 12 carries. What's worse is that 7 of those yards were on Justin Herbert's lone carry of the day, leaving the Chargers at less than 2 yards per handoff. The Chargers never got their run game going, and thus often struggled to get into favorable down-and-distances. With the Jaguars defense at advantage with the chains, they were able to get aggressive when it came to passing downs.

This is a vile pressure look. The Jaguars have four linemen or linebackers either over the center or lined up to the offense's right with Arden Key (49), Dawuane Smoot (91), Devin Lloyd (33), and Allen (41). With only one down lineman to the left (Walker) and a defensive back on the edge, the Chargers almost have to respond to the overloaded front by sliding everyone to the right and asking the running back to handle the defensive back, as you can see Herbert signaling for before the snap. As the entire offensive line washes everything down to the right, Smoot loops back over the top to the left and gets a free run at Herbert for a strip-sack.

Caldwell cooked up a number of other pressures, thanks in part to Walker's versatility. Despite looking like a hand-in-the-dirt strongside end, Walker can actually cover a bit. He regularly dropped into the flat and hook areas at Georgia and has already made an impact there as a rookie. The same was true of Allen coming out of Kentucky a few years back. You don't want either guy dropping out to cover every play, but as a change-up, it's a sweet tactic to be able to go to.

On this play, the Jags are in base 3-4 personnel to match the Chargers' 21 set, and they have their front strength set to the offense's strength (left). With five bodies on the line of scrimmage, the Chargers opt to half-slide the protection to the defensive strength (left) and let the running back pick up the first blitzer inside. All of the Jaguars' down linemen stem their rushes to the outside, leaving a huge part in the middle of the protection for one running back to pick up two linebackers.

Rushing like that would normally be pretty risky, but not with Walker. Not only does Walker (the edge defender on the defense's right at the snap) do well to collide with the first pass-catcher, but he never gives up any free ground to the second pass-catcher. He snaps his eyes immediately back to the quarterback after passing off the first player and looks to pounce on the catch point, making great use of his long arms. There are only a handful of other teams in the league right now with an edge defender who can do that reliably.

It's not just the guys on the line of scrimmage who have overhauled the Jaguars front, either. Lloyd, the 27th overall pick, already looks like the best coverage linebacker the team has had since, who knows, Daryl Smith? Lloyd was an impressive coverage piece coming out of Utah thanks to his pterodactyl wingspan, awareness, and athleticism, but seldom do rookies carry that over immediately into the pros. At least through the first month of the season, Lloyd looks to be an exception, and he proved it against the Chargers.

In some cases, all Lloyd needs are his athletic tools. He can be locked right onto a target in man-to-man coverage and run with them wherever. Lloyd (in the slot to the defense's left) carries Everett step-for-step down the right seam on this play and forces Herbert to place the ball back-shoulder. While the ball was about as well-placed as it could have been, Lloyd was right in position to make a play and reached his long arms up into the catch point to break this one up. The fact that Lloyd is so capable in man coverage gives Caldwell the freedom to call Cover-1 pressures whenever he wants, leaving Lloyd in coverage while Foye Oluokun gets to blitz or just handle the running back.

In other cases, it's Lloyd's eyes and play recognition that do all the work in taking him to the ball. The Jaguars are in Cover-6 in this clip with Lloyd playing the hook/curl area to the short side of the field, the defense's left. The Chargers run a drive concept with the stacked receivers to that side, using Josh Palmer (5) as the shallow runner underneath Everett running an in-breaker at about 12 yards. Lloyd does well to squeeze the shallow until it's time to pass it off, then stays put with good depth in the curl area. He knows something has to be working behind him. With that in mind, Lloyd lets Herbert's eyes take him to the ball, then knocks it down for another pass breakup.

Jacksonville's defense has so many more tools available to them now compared to last season. Walker, a monster run defender who can slide inside on passing downs as well as drop into coverage, has ushered in a whole new section of the playbook for what the team can do up front. The same can be said of Lloyd, who can tack onto blitzes effectively while also handling any coverage assignment the team needs. When paired with Allen, another versatile edge piece, and all of the stout players along the interior, it's hard not to get excited about how far this front can take the rest of the defense.

Comments

5 comments, Last at 28 Sep 2022, 1:54pm

#1 by Pat // Sep 28, 2022 - 10:40am

I really wonder if that strip sack happens if Herbert's healthy. I think he abandoned throwing the ball to protect himself from getting hit there. Otherwise that's just a bad sack: there's no way he shouldn't've seen that rusher coming after dancing that long in the pocket.

Points: 0

#2 by Raiderfan // Sep 28, 2022 - 10:46am

A great article that tells me a bunch that I didn’t know.

Points: 0

#3 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 28, 2022 - 11:04am

Interesting to consider the value of LBs aside from pure pass-rush.

Points: 0

#5 by KnotMe // Sep 28, 2022 - 1:54pm

Agree. Very good stuff here. 

Wasn't Walker drafted as a pass rusher? (EDGE?)  Takes a while to develop I guess

Points: 0

#4 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 28, 2022 - 11:15am

The good Josh Allen is mentioned.

Also sucks seeing Lloyd be the 8th highest grade LB and Quay the 50th/75. They say it's because Quay was more athletic as if their RAS weren't almost identical (Quay with the red Vert. Lloyd just had 1 more yellow) and that it's about age, as if the Packers didn't select an even older player the literal next pick after Lloyd in Wyatt. And that's not revisionism! Everyone had Lloyd higher on their boards. 

Points: 0

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