After getting 40 points hung on them by a Dallas Cowboys team ranked 29th in total offense ahead of only the Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, and Arizona Cardinals, conversations have circled around trying to diagnose exactly what the problem is with what was supposed to be an elite unit.
These grumblings have ranged from Tony Boselli saying the team is fine and it was only one game to the total other end of the spectrum, with 1010XL’s Hays Carlyon floating the idea of firing defensive coordinator Todd Wash citing shortcomings stemming from the Jaguars’ scheme.
I’m not going to pretend to go inside the mind of a defensive coordinator with decades of experience in coaching football, so I’m not here to deliberate either point or feign that I know what coverage schemes are being run and what the break downs have been.
But... one thing I have noticed this season that I wanted to research into further detail was just how much cushion the cornerbacks are allowing wide receivers.
But first, what is cushion?
Cushion is essentially how far off the line of scrimmage a cornerback plays. When a cornerback lines up right on the line of scrimmage with no cushion, this is something called “press” technique. Usually, cornerbacks aligned in press are in man coverage and will either jam the receiver at the line off the snap (this is legal within the first five yards) or they will bail and flip their hips to run with the receiver.
Typically, teams with stronger, more physical corners (cough, Jalen Ramsey, cough) will use their length to press weaker receivers and bump them off their stem to disrupt the timing of the route, throwing off the rhythm with the quarterback. Press coverage is also useful because it can buy an extra second or two for a defensive line to convert a pressure into a sack, or for a called blitz to get home. The problem with press, however, is if you don’t have safety help over the top, you leave yourself susceptible to allowing an explosive play, especially against faster receivers who can take the top off. This technique also consumes a lot of energy for a defensive back and can wane the stamina for a position that almost never rotates.
To conserve energy or execute more zone concepts, cornerbacks will often line up with deeper cushion, allowing four or more yards between himself and the receiver at the snap. Referred to as “off” coverage, the cornerback can keep an eye on the quarterback and pick up any receivers coming into his area on crossers or flips his hips and mirror on long vertical routes.
While I don’t know exactly what each player’s assignment purportedly was on any given play without knowing what the specific call from the coordinator was, cushion is something that is black-and-white. It’s simple plain fact. It cannot be debated. It is what it is.
With all that said, I went back and watched every defensive snap through three random games in 2017 and the last three games of this 2018 season to see if I could see any differences in how our cornerbacks were aligning with their cushion.
The results are beyond alarming
I started with the Jaguars’ strong 2017 debut on the road against the Houston Texans where they compiled an amazing 10 sacks. In the contest, both Jaguars cornerbacks were in press alignment the majority of the line. Furthermore, nine of the ten sacks that the Jaguars had in this game came when the corners were aligned in press coverage. Deandre Hopkins had a few moments, but he was getting visibly frustrated when bumped on the line by Ramsey and Tom Savage (and later Deshaun Watson) was simply bailing on his read progression because the receivers were getting stifled, allowing the defensive line to get home.
Another game I chose was the Jaguars’ Week 16 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers because they allowed 44 points to Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo, a duo that Ramsey has lambasted in his interviews as being scheme-driven rather than pure talent. For some reason in this contest, you can see that the Jaguars cornerbacks severely dialed back their cushion and played much less press when compared with the Texans game, instead playing almost a majority of their snaps with seven or more yards of cushion.
Compare this with the cushion chart for the 2018 Cowboys game, where they also allowed 40+ points, and you’ll see that the Jaguars cornerbacks were only in press about a quarter of the time.
That’s a lot of cushion, especially for Ramsey. And it was even worse against the Chiefs, where he aligned in 7+ yard off coverage over 75% of the time.
Yikes. There could be a lot of context that goes into such a drastic change of approach. When you face off against an incendiary wide receiver like Tyreek Hill, you definitely want to give yourself a lot of room to make sure he doesn’t burn you deep. I get it. So I wanted to look into one more game against a team without any terrifying receiving threats.
With this being said, the final opponent I picked was the New York Jets because it was a common opponent from last year and I wanted to do a direct comparison to see how different they were playing in regards to allowing cushion to the receivers. The results were night and day.
Guys, what are we doing?
If you’re wondering why Yannick Ngakoue is one of the league leaders in compiling pressures but just a half-second away from getting home for the sack, this could be the catalyst. Quarterbacks are simply seeing the off coverage and releasing the football before the pressure can get to them.
So why are playing less press man? In my opinion, it’s one of two reasons, and neither are very encouraging.
1. Jalen is very hurt and struggling through it
Usually a player who is ailing or tired will line up so far off the line. Ramsey is a rare athlete and I don’t think that he’s out of shape, so is his knee injury bothering him more than we think? This seems to be the common sense answer. But then why is A.J. Bouye’s 7+ yard pie chunks also more in 2018 than they were in 2017?
2. Wash is forcing more zone and not making adjustments
I mentioned at the beginning of the article that it’s difficult to ascertain what coverage looks they were supposed to be playing, but the frequent busted coverages and player-proclaimed lapses of communication suggests this could also be the reason for this. Even Marrone has said they need to take a deeper look at their strategy because it’s not working.
So what do you think? Do the Jaguars need to play more press? What adjustments would you like to see heading into the Texans game this week?