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What will the Jaguars defense look like in 2021?

With a new defensive coordinator and new blood on defense, we can piece together what the Jaguars defense will look like stylistically.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason the Jaguars hired Joe Cullen to be their new Defensive Coordinator. Cullen, who was the defensive line coach for Wink Martindale in Baltimore, has been a person of intrigue for Jaguars fans ever since he made comments on whether the Jaguars would run a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Cullen described his defense as a “hybrid,” and that would send multiple Jaguars fans and writers(myself included) into a frenzy on how the defense would look. Now that the 2021 NFL Draft is over, we can fit the players to the scheme, and what it would look like in 2021, starting with the Jaguars 2nd Round pick, Tyson Campbell. I did this previously for the Jaguars offense, if you want to take a look here.I did this previously for the offense, and you can find that here.

How does Campbell fit in the DB Room?

When the Jaguars took Tyson Campbell with the 33rd overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, many questions were brought up about CJ Henderson and how the current front office sees his level of play. However, I think the addition of Campbell, and a new defensive coordinator could do Henderson some good. After the draft, Meyer said in a press conference that Campbell wouldn’t be an insurance policy for Henderson, but flexibility at multiple positions. “He was a safety in high school and he’s a very physical player, great blitzer. Those are all qualities of the nickel,” Meyer said about Campbell. “They’re very hard to find. I go back to Florida days, a Will Hill or an Ahmad Black, but they’re hard to find, the guys that can go inside and outside, and that’s the reason when we saw him sitting there — I didn’t know he’d make it there — we were worried he’d be gone before then.”

Using Will Hill and Ahmad Black as a reference point for how Campbell would be played is very interesting, to me. In 2008, Meyer had both Hill and Black on a fast defense that was headed by then Defensive Coordinator and now Jaguars Assistant Head Coach Charlie Strong. Black was on the field more because he was the starting safety, and would play in the box a lot more. Hill, however, is where the rubber hits the road for how I believe Tyson Campbell will be played. Campbell did in fact play safety in high school, where he was teammates with Broncos 1st rounder Patrick Surtain II, and Meyer actually recruited Campbell as a safety prior to leaving Ohio State. Both Hill and Campbell are around 6’1-6’2, Hill was bigger, but Campbell was faster. At Florida, Hill would often be the nickel corner, who the Gators would use in man coverage and blitz.

Hill is at the top of the screen in the slot, and that’s where I think Campbell begins his NFL career. As Meyer mentioned, Campbell will be dual-trained at corner and safety, giving the Jaguars the versatility that every team covets now. As Jeremy Attaway of Dawg Sports notes, Campbell’s physicality in the run game is one of his strengths. Campbell is also an effective blitzer, and Kirby Smart used him a lot from the weak side of the field.

Having such a versatile chess piece on the field will allow Henderson and newest signee Shaquill Griffin to be versatile as well, and under Joe Cullen’s (potential) defensive scheme, they’ll rely more on their athleticism than anything else.

Now that we’ve established where Campbell could fit into this defense, let’s take a look at the defense as a whole, starting with the DBs.

Defensive Backs

I think in 2021, we’re going to see a lot more single-high safety looks, exclusively. Across Meyer’s head coaching career, as well as Charlie Strong’s when he was at Texas/South Florida, single-high safety looks dominated the playcall sheet. From 2016-2018, Meyer’s Ohio State defenses spent over 60% of passing attempts in a single-high safety look, according to Sports Info Solutions. What Meyer and then-Ohio State DC Luke Fickell loved to do was start in a split safety look, then rotate to single high at the snap.

However, I think in Jacksonville there will be a lot of single high safety looks pre-snap. Baltimore in 2020 had single-high safety coverage on about 57% of their passing coverage attempts, and showed it from the pre-snap:

Being in single high coverage allows for the defense to be more aggressive in stopping the run, bringing another defender into the box. With the rise of RPO’s, bringing another man into the box also allows for an extra defender to play the passing option. Single high also gives defensive coordinators more of an ability to blitz out of this personnel. However, a drawback to single high is defenses have to have the personnel to play this type of coverage: meaning, a safety that can play sideline to sideline and eliminate mistakes. This coverage also leaves corners on an island in man coverage, and if teams don’t have the athletes to play that type of defense, they’ll get burned.

The main coverage run out of single high for Meyer and the Baltimore Ravens defense is Cover 1 Man. This is the fastball out of single-high: bringing a defender into the box and playing him over the tight end or slot receiver, and leaving CBs on an island with one safety playing the middle of the field. Meyer’s defenses at Ohio State ran Cover 1 over 70% of the time when they were in single-high coverage, which is a large difference from the Ravens in 2020(they ran Cover 1 50% of the time out of single high, which makes sense because Ohio State had the best athletes on the field a large majority of the time and could play that coverage, and also had less dropback snaps).

The changeup in the single high is Cover 3, which breaks the field into thirds, with both CBs and the free safety playing a deep third of the field. The box safety would play the curl-to-flat zone, picking up what the LB’s don’t play over the flat. In Cover 3, a lot of defensive coordinators from the Ravens tree, including current DC Don “Wink” Martindale use a “Bonus Whip Fire Zone,” which Coach Vass details in his Fire Zone coverage breakdown. This is normally a blitz brought from the weak side, that will show four rushers, but drop the strong side end and bring a blitzing linebacker.

The Ravens spent the most time in the NFL in Cover 0, spending 38 snaps in the coverage. This means that there is nobody deep, and primarily used in blitz packages.

Now how do these translate to the Jaguars? Well, it’s actually an easy transition because the Jaguars played more Cover 1 Man than the Ravens—they just sucked at it. Under Todd Wash in 2020, the Jaguars ran a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3, but they allowed 25 touchdowns in those coverages, third-most in the league. However, I think that changes because of the personnel the Jaguars have brought in, and how they’ll play.

A big question throughout the Jaguars offseason, especially since drafting Campbell has been replacing DJ Hayden at nickel corner. The easy answer is Campbell, however, I think every DB will spend some time in slot corner coverage in 2021. Among Baltimore’s top 5 in snaps played from the slot corner position, three of the five were Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Jimmy Smith, their top corners who play on the outside as well(Sports Info Solutions). Having versatile corners allowed Wink Martindale and the Ravens defense to match personnel, and put players in multiple spots. For example, in the 2020 playoffs, Baltimore would have Marlon Humphrey, the most physical of Baltimore’s top three cover corners, play man defense on AJ Brown, matching his physicality. This allowed for Peters and Smith to be interchangeable in the slot or outside, and mix up who guards who on a snap-to-snap basis. Smith even spent time at free safety on plays in 2020.

Smith(22) is at free safety on this play.

This bodes well for Griffin, Henderson and Campbell, who match the height-weight-speed metrics of the Baltimore corners as well. Each are about 6’1 or 6’2, weigh around 185-200 pounds, and ran extremely fast 40’s with Peters being the slowest at 4.53. If you factor in Sidney Jones, who the Jaguars signed this offseason, this gives them 4 corners who fit the height-weight-speed profile of Baltimore’s DBs, as well as the versatility that can be taught by Meyer and his staff. John Shipley of SI Jaguars also notes that Baltimore spent a lot of time in dime personnel, meaning there are six DBs on the field. So to be quick, I think every Jaguars corner will see time in the slot, and Campbell will play safety at times as well. To simply put it, the Jaguars will have a lot of DBs on the field.

the safety position is one that needed a massive upgrade entering this offseason. The duo of Josh Jones and Andrew Wingard played poorly against the pass, and lacked the range that was needed to play free safety in a Cover 1/Cover 3 defense. Enter Rayshawn Jenkins and Andre Cisco. If I had to identify the role that Jenkins will play in this defense with a player that was in Baltimore, it would be Ravens safety Chuck Clark. He was their box safety who would blitz, and play those underneath flat routes in Cover 3. In 2020, Clark was second among the Ravens secondary in pass rush snaps, behind fellow safety DeShon Elliot(who we’ll get to later). Clark would line up over the tight end, or slot receiver, and be the extra guy committed to the run.

Jenkins did this in Los Angeles, taking on tight ends and the occasional linemen in the run game. Both Clark and Jenkins coming out of college were described as “box safeties” who could play downhill against the run. Cullen saw this in Clark with the Ravens, and will try and replicate that in Jacksonville with Jenkins.

Free safety is arguably the most important defender in a Ravens-style secondary. Because Baltimore spent so much time in single-high coverage, the free safety has to have the rangy ability to eliminate mistakes and play sideline-to-sideline. The Ravens defense was at their best in 2019, when Earl Thomas roamed the back end of the secondary. Their EPA on dropback passes was better(via RBSDM.com) and Thomas erased a lot of mistakes on the back end. DeShon Elliot also performed well in that role in 2020, and he also blitzed more at his position than Chuck Clark.

Now who for the Jaguars will enter that role of being the deep safety? I believe that incoming rookie Andre Cisco will be ready by this time. Cisco suffered a torn ACL in his final season at Syracuse, but Meyer said at his press conference that Cisco “should be ready and cleared to go.” When he was healthy, Cisco was a ballhawk, having notched 13 interceptions in three years at Syracuse. He has the range and the ball instincts to be an “eraser” at free safety, making plays on any passes deep:

With Cisco and possibly Jarrod Wilson backing him up, the Jaguars have a rangy safety who has the potential to be a game-breaker on the back end. Baltimore’s defense leaves their defensive backs on islands a lot, and with better top-end talent in the room, I think Jacksonville will try and replicate this success.

Front 7

This is where things start to get interesting. Joe Cullen hasn’t called plays as a defensive coordinator since his time at the University of Indiana in 2004, but he has spent time as a defensive line coach under 4-3 heavy coordinators like Jack Del Rio and Leslie Frazier, but also spent his last few years as a defensive line coach under defensive mastermind and 3-4 coordinator Wink Martindale. However, I think Cullen is going to merge the two into a hybrid style that will switch based on personnel, and the front seven will be benefactors of it.

A base 3-4 defense is three linemen in a three point stance, and four linebackers, the two outside linebackers commonly walked down onto the line of scrimmage as edge rushers. However, a base 3-4 defense like the one Bill Parcells made famous relies on defensive linemen “two-gapping,” meaning that one lineman is responsible for two gaps. The nose tackle is lined up in a “0” technique, being over the center, and the two ends are lined up as “5” techniques, being over the tackle. Defensive linemen are taught differently in this style defense, staying square to the line of scrimmage and stacking the OL so they can see into both gaps. The linemen will also have a more balanced stance, keeping their weight on both feet. The strong side OLB will also be used to “two-gap”, controlling the edge and the gap on the inside. A traditional 3-4 would look something like this:

In a base 4-3, the responsibilities are different. The linemen are now “one-gapping”, meaning that they’re only responsible for one gap. One interior lineman will be in a “1” technique, lined up in the gap between the center and the weak side guard. Another interior lineman will be in a “3” technique, in the gap between the strong side guard and tackle. This can change depending on the call. If the defense is in an “Over” call, then the “1” technique will be on the strong side, and the “3” will be on the weak side. Vice versa for an “Under” call. The ends will play the same on either call, on the outside shoulder of the tackle. For the linebackers, the SAM or WILL linebacker will line up shading the TE, and will set the edge or cover the TE in an “Under” call. For “Over” calls, the strong side End will be over the TE, while the three linebackers play off the ball. For the linebackers that aren’t over the TE, they account for the uncovered gaps. This is what an “Under” 4-3 would look like:

This is what an “Over” 4-3 would look like:

Now, what did the Ravens run, and what can we expect in Jacksonville? Well I think it’s going to be a mixture of both, a 3-4 base with 4-3 philosophies. Wink Martindale’s 3-4 defense is a lot like the Bum and Wade Phillips defenses in philosophy. It combines a base 3-4 defense and two-gapping with a one-gapping, 4-3 style philosophy. The linemen need to be quick and get penetration in the run and pass game. The edge players would be the more versatile players on the field, needing to have the ability to play the run, rush the passer and cover in zone blitzes. That’s the Raven’s base 3-4, but Baltimore would match their front philosophies and personnel to the opponents they would face. For example, against teams who would run the ball well, such as the Patriots, Baltimore would line up in their base 3-4, but also transition to 4-3 looks as well:

Baltimore is running their base 3-4 here, and on first look, the front looks similar to the 5-2 defense made famous by the ‘85 Bears and Bum Phillips in Houston.
This is also against the Patriots, and on first glance it looks like a 4-3 with one end standing up.

Against other teams, Baltimore would take a defensive lineman out for a defensive back, and run with two down linemen. In fact, this might have been their most common formation:

I think this idea of being “multiple” also lines up with Head Coach Urban Meyer and Assistant Head Coach/Inside Linebackers Coach Charlie Strong’s defenses in college. When they were together at Florida, they ran a base 4-3, but would often switch to three down linemen in passing situations. They asked a lot of their linebackers, who would rush the passer or drop into coverage, and defensive backs would blitz as well.

At Ohio State, Meyer almost exclusively ran 4-3, but at Strong’s stops, he would play three down linemen, and blitz his outside linebackers off the edge. So when Cullen says the front will be a “hybrid,” I think the Jaguars will show multiple looks with 1-3 down linemen, and it will vary based on the opponent and game situation. In addition, I think the defensive linemen will be expected to play one-gap penetration as well as two-gapping, depending on the personnel.

Because the philosophies of this 3-4 defense are different from traditional 3-4 defenses, the type of players have to be different as well. Because this defensive front relies more on quickness off the ball and penetration, most players on this defensive front aren’t going to get 10+ sacks annually. In fact, the Ravens defense for the past three years hasn’t had a defender reach 10 or more sacks(Matt Judon had 9.5 in 2019). However, where the defensive front lacks in sacks, they make up in pressures. Wink Martindale is arguably the best in the business at scheming up pressures and blitzes to free up linebackers and defensive backs, something that we will definitely see in Jacksonville. Take this play against the New York Giants for example. It’s 3rd and long, and New York is in an empty set. Before the ball is snapped, Baltimore has six people crowding the line of scrimmage:

Before the snap, the Giants center points in the direction of the four Ravens on the left side of the ball(top of the screen), making an adjustment to slide to that direction to possibly pick up the overload blitz. However, on the snap two linebackers from that side of the ball drop into zone coverage in the hook-to-curl area, and the free safety drops back into the deep middle of the field. The slot DB blitzes to the right side, and because of the Giants slide protection, it leaves the right tackle attempting to block 3 people.

The Ravens blitzed teams on 44.8% of dropbacks, leading the NFL, per Pro Football Reference. In addition, they were fourth in the NFL in pressure rate. The Jaguars were 16th in blitz percentage, but were 28th in pressure rate. A lot of the lack of pressure came from the interior, where the defensive linemen for the Jaguars couldn’t get much pressure. In comes Roy Robertson-Harris, Malcolm Brown, Jihad Ward, and newest draftee Jay Tufele, who Meyer said would be “in the mix” in the DL rotation. Add in Davon Hamilton, Doug Costin and Taven Bryan and you have a group of guys who can get pressure if schemed on stunts correctly, something the Ravens did at a high rate.

Conclusion

Based on the moves made in free agency and in the draft, I expect the Jaguars to spend a lot of time in nickel and dime personnel. Retaining Sidney Jones and CJ Henderson, and adding Shaquill Griffin and Tyson Campbell to the mix gives the Jaguars four corners who can all be on the field at the same time. Rayshawn Jenkins will be more of a box player who will be used to blitz, and if Andre Cisco is healthy by Week 1, he should be the starting free safety. Every DB that is on the field for Jacksonville could blitz at any point, and they’ll primarily play Cover 1 and Cover 0, throwing in Cover 3 as the changeup.

I think there will be a huge improvement in the defensive line play next season. Good coverage leads to sacks, and good pressure leads to interceptions-the Jaguars had neither last year. Cullen should be able to scheme up blitzes and packages that rely more on pressure creating sacks rather than just pure one-on-one dominance. Josh Allen is going to benefit from this, but I think K’Lavon Chaisson benefits the most. He’ll play more standing up, and will be able to use his athleticism on designed stunts and twists to get him free. Overall, the defense could take some lumps in Year 1, but expect one phrase from how Cullen described the defense to be especially true: “We’re going to be an attacking defense that will have multiple looks of a 3-4 and a 4-3.”