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Jaguars mailbag: Season-long film room with Ezra Cleveland tape

Answering your scheme questions on the Jaguars’ season to date.

Denver Broncos v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Welcome to the Week 9 edition of our Jacksonville Jaguars film room mailbag! Thank you to everyone who submitted questions on Twitter. We’ll be covering general, season-long questions today since the Jags had their bye last weekend.

Didn’t have time for a separate post but I’ll include Ezra tape in this article (via @gus_logue)

There were two main questions I was looking to answer when reviewing Ezra Cleveland’s 2023 Vikings film: how creatively was he used in the run game -- because Jacksonville likes to pull offensive linemen out in space -- and in what way(s) did he lose during blown blocks?

I watched Minnesota’s first two games of the season, against talented fronts in the Bucs and the Eagles. Cleveland was used as a puller once in each game.

Though neither rep was very noteworthy, it is worth mentioning the Vikings didn’t pull any other offensive linemen.

This block out in space on a screen is what we like to see.

This block out in space on a zone run to the second level was even better.

I only counted three blown blocks of the 122 snaps I watched.

The first one wasn’t helped by minimal effort from wide receiver Justin Jefferson on a chip block. Cleveland had good initial leverage but was twisted around by defensive tackle Mike Greene.

The second loss came on another run play against a strong interior lineman -- this time, Pro Bowl tackle Vita Vea.

Cleveland’s only blown block in Week 2 came on a pass pro rep against another powerful body in Jordan Davis. The 336-pounder was able to breeze by Cleveland thanks to a well-placed shoulder shove.

Cleveland is better at anchoring than his draft profiles indicate, though contact balance remains an area where he could improve.

The obvious theme so far is that Cleveland has a tough time handling bigger dudes. However, what he lacks in strength he makes up for in smarts. The play below is an example of how technique can beat athleticism.

His reps against Eagles defensive tackle Jalen Carter were very encouraging.

The biggest thing that stands out about Cleveland is his awareness. I’ve never seen an offensive lineman keep his helmet on a swivel so much.

Cleveland is acutely aware of not just incoming pass rushers, but also the fellow blockers round around him, which leads to cool blocks like these.

Long story short: Cleveland is worth more than a 6th round pick. If Jacksonville’s offensive line stays healthy the rest of the way, he may not play again until reaching free agency in the offseason -- but Cleveland is a quality offensive lineman (which is in limited supply in the NFL) with the potential to be more. Though he may not have the play strength to single-handedly fix the Jaguars’ short-yardage issues, Cleveland is a very good pass protector to have in the building to ensure Trevor Lawrence stays off the turf.

Are you seeing any noticeable improvements from the interior of the Jags’ defensive line as far as pass rush is concerned? Curious what the tape shows. (via @Demetrius82)

Josh Allen has earned a reputation as a “one-man show” for Jacksonville’s pass rush. If we’re only talking about interior defenders, Roy Robertson-Harris is a one-man show himself.

This rep in Pittsburgh was objectively badass. Robertson-Harris wins with a “long arm” pass rush after doing his best KD impression with a double crossover (which gave him appropriate leverage for the move’s technique).

Quick, one-on-one wins that result in a quarterback hit are exactly what fans hope to see. But plays like the one shown below are a better example of how Jacksonville’s interior wins on passing downs.

Robertson-Harris records another knockdown, albeit this time it takes a lot longer to reach the quarterback. Interior linemen are almost always faced with double teams, but a common solution can be found in stunts. Robertson-Harris got upfield in a hurry to occupy the Saints’ center so Dawuane Smoot could loop around and potentially find a wide-open rushing lane.

Though that didn’t happen, the stunt still caused enough havoc for Robertson-Harris to discard the center and force a checkdown -- just before Derek Carr could see Chris Olave sprinting uncovered toward the endzone.

The Jaguars are masters of chaos. It may not always look pretty, but the D-line is doing its part.

The numbers (via John Shipley of Jaguar Report) may not back it up:

Among 139 qualifying interior defensive linemen, the Jaguars’ top-ranking pass-rusher in terms of win-rate is Roy Robertson-Harris at No. 62. This is behind players like Mario Edwards Jr., Jerry Tillery, and, uh, Taven Bryan. The Jaguars also have three of the bottom-12 players in this metric in Angelo Blackson, Jeremiah Ledbetter, and Adam Gotsis, while Foley Fatukasi ranks just outside the top-100.

Jacksonville’s defensive tackles also rank dead last in combined sacks (0.5) and collective sack rate (0.1%) this season, per Sports Info Solutions.

However, Mike Caldwell’s focus is on stopping the run. Jacksonville’s defensive tackles put in plenty of work on early downs to help set up pass rush situations on late downs, so even if players like Robertson-Harris and Foley Fatukasi aren’t getting to opposing passers often, they still have an important role in setting up sacks.

I made a case on the JaguarReport Podcast that premier pass rushers don’t matter to the Jaguars relative to other NFL teams, especially a team like the 49ers. As Jacksonville fans will witness in Week 10 when San Francisco comes to town, the Niners’ defense typically relies on the talent of four pass rushers to get home so more bodies can be dedicated to pass coverage. Meanwhile, the Jaguars’ defense may be reliant on Josh Allen to generate consistent pressure -- but as long as they can get opposing offenses into 3rd-and-long situations, Caldwell’s scheme can help non-Allen players affect opposing passers, even if the end result is rarely an interior lineman sack.

Why do the Jags rarely (incredibly rarely) attack the middle of the field? (via @F3RopeADope)

I think the biggest reason is the Jaguars don’t have the personnel for it. Calvin Ridley (6’ 1”, 190 lbs) and Christian Kirk (5’ 11”, 200 lbs) aren’t built to take big hits over the middle of the field. Evan Engram is better equipped to use his speed and yards-after-catch ability on horizontal routes across the formation than vertical shots down the seam. With Zay Jones out of the lineup for five of Jacksonville’s past six games, and Marvin Jones no longer in town, there just isn’t a pass-catcher truly suitable for hogging middle-of-the-field targets.

Trevor Lawrence could also have some influence. He’s favored sideline passes since his days at Clemson, so it’s possible the Jaguars coaching staff has adjusted the playbook to fit the quarterback’s preferences.

Digs, slants, and seams are three of the most common routes over the middle of the field. The Jaguars rank last in receptions (11) and yards (102) on such plays this season, per Sports Info Solutions.

The good news is that the team is well aware of their weakness (similar to how they made calls about pass rushers prior to the trade deadline, even if a move wasn’t ultimately made).

Mike McDaniel made waves in the season opener by utilizing Tyreek Hill with what Kyle Shanahan, McDaniel’s mentor, later called “cheat” motion.

Hill’s route was a classic dig -- but the momentum he gained by moving horizontally before the snap (not dissimilar to arena football league rules, which allow its receivers to move vertically at the snap) made opposing defenders’ jobs even more difficult.

The following week, Shahanan weaponized the concept with Deebo Samuel, and Sean McVay deployed it using Tutu Atwell. By now, just about every NFL team has tried it... including Jacksonville with Calvin Ridley in Week 8.

Ridley’s usage this week will be one of many small, schematic details to watch against a Niners defense, led by All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner, that typically shuts down the middle of the field.

Thank you for reading!