Penalty flags started flying just three plays into Jacksonville’s Aug. 20 preseason home game against Tampa Bay.
Personal foul, unnecessary roughness, Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith, 15 yards and a first down. Four plays later, defensive pass interference, Jaguars safety Johnathan Cyprien, 15 yards and a first down. When Jacksonville’s defense eventually stiffened, the Buccaneers missed a 32-yard field goal — then the Jaguars were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
This wasn’t just a rough start to one sloppy exhibition game for head coach Gus Bradley’s team. The Jaguars finished the 27-21 loss with 13 penalties for 121 yards.
And this wasn’t just an obvious red flag for one game. The Jaguars led the NFL in preseason with 45 penalties for 393 yards. No other team was very close. Oakland was second in infractions with 40 while Buffalo checked in as a runner-up with 345 penalty yards.
Such mistakes are often linked to younger teams, and the Jaguars’ initial 53-man roster ranked fourth youngest with an average age of 25.43 years. The only teams younger were Los Angeles, Cleveland and Green Bay.
But age shouldn’t be an excuse when considering the Jaguars were actually the NFL’s second-youngest team in each of the previous two years. And despite that inexperienced, the Jaguars didn’t have this penalty problem a year ago, when they finished tied for 17th with 105 penalties for 880 yards.
“We talk about it and show the clips and we talk about foolish penalties,” Bradley said. “I think we are getting a feel for the game and our style and what we can and cannot do. We have to take away the foolish penalties, the pre-snap errors. Our style of play is going to be aggressive and there are going to be some, but the numbers are just too high. I cannot say they are going to diminish, but there is a mindset that we have to be smart and really be mindful at critical times how much they impact us.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Wash admitted the coaches chided Smith for his late hit on Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. Both Smith’s and Cyprien’s penalties came on third down and gave Tampa Bay a fresh set of downs.
“Some of those aggressive penalties we’ve got to educate them on, but some of those happen, but we cannot have dumb penalties,” Wash said. “We got on Telvin [Smith]; that is not a smart penalty.”
A pair of Buccaneers touchdown drives were aided by three Jaguars penalties in each possession. What makes it worse is the Jaguars were committing the same defensive holding and pass-interference penalties in scrimmages with the Buccaneers that week.
“It happened in practice three times in 1-on-1s versus Tampa and it carried over to a game,” Wash said. “So we’ve got to eliminate those, but the aggressive penalties, I’m never going to calm a guy down from being aggressive. We want to be known as an aggressive defense. We just need to be smart.”
In other words, understand the fine line of playing with intensity but not going too far, which sounds easier said than done. But the Jaguars’ issues can’t be blamed solely on defensive aggressiveness. Fullback/linebacker Hayes Pullard caught a touchdown pass against Cincinnati on Aug. 28, but the score was negated because Pullard failed to report as an eligible receiver. Bradley accepted blame for the illegal substitution.
“We had that 15-play drive and then foolish penalties crept in again,” Bradley said. “I’ll take the responsibility for Hayes Pullard checking in. We talked about it, but I need to remind him again. So put that on me. That is something we can control. It’s a foolish penalty, and it’s unacceptable, and I’ll take responsibility for that one.”
Players are reminded of rules, but sometimes it takes constant reminding. NFL officials visited every team in training camp to explain what rules will be enforced more vigorously. This year, those infractions included restricting centers and long snappers from raising the football or changing its positioning in their hands to try to get defenders to jump offside.
Yet, the Jaguars got penalized for raising the football twice against the Bengals.
“I know with Brandon Linder with the snap, raising the ball up, that’s a point of emphasis,” Bradley said. “These things we’ve got to clean up.”
Quarterback Blake Bortles bemoaned his first-team offense self-destructing against the Bucs. While mistakes are “inevitable,” he reiterated the need for players to overcome those setbacks and do whatever possible to not repeat them.
Much of the preseason buzz about the Jaguars has supported the perception that this team’s roster is more talented than in years past, but fans don’t need to be reminded that their favorite franchise hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2007.
Bradley and his coaching staff have continued to reiterate the importance of cleaning up these “dumb” penalties as the Jaguars prepared to open the regular season at home Sunday against the Green Bay Packers at EverBank Field. It’s the Jaguars’ first sellout since the Pittsburgh Steelers visited on Oct. 5, 2014.
“We’ve got to clean up some penalties. That’s been an issue,” said offensive coordinator Greg Olson.