Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the Jacksonville Jaguars defense is certainly trying to do the football equivalent over the next three weeks. Ancient Rome’s most unheralded accomplishment may have been the construction of the Aurelian Walls, which would serve as Rome’s defense against invading forces for centuries. Likewise, the original conductor of the Legion of Boom was lured from Seattle to carve a formidable defense out of the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense.
The most disconcerting part about the Jags’ plateauing production since 2013 hasn’t been the 12-36 record, but his bottom-rung defenses. Three seasons into his tenure as Jacksonville head coach, Bradley is finally applying the mortar to his Jags defense while trying to avoid lame duck status.
After defensive coordinator Bob Babich was relieved of his duties during the offseason, defensive line coach Todd Wash was promoted to Jacksonville’s Horatius Cocles role. In the annals of ancient Rome, Horatius is immortalized as the army officer whose savvy leadership was responsible for protecting the Pons Sublicius river bridge into the city during a sixth-century invasion.
By any metric, the Jaguars defense has been giving opposing offenses an Uber ride to the red zone since 2013. Babich was the head of a unit that ranked 31st in points allowed, 26th in defensive-adjusted value over average, which takes into account opponent strength and red zone plays, 24th in yards allowed, 20th in sacks and 26th in interceptions.
In 2016, Gus Bradley’s continued employment with the Jags is contingent upon a second post-Babich bump.
A decade ago Babich assumed control of Ron Rivera’s third-ranked Chicago Bears scoring defense. In three years with Babich at the helm, the Bears ranked 16th twice and 21st in 2009 before he was reassigned to position coach. His successor, Rod Marinelli, led their ascent back into the top 5.
An integral part of the Jags’ defensive rejuvenation was to throw money around during free agency. Jacksonville began the spring with a league-high $32 million in cap room. Malik Jackson is still wiping the Brinks truck tire marks off his chest after they backed it along with a six-year, $86 million deal over him.
Jackson’s affinity for penetrating gaps will be crucial for a crew that recorded pressure on an NFL-worst 26.5 percent of passing plays while in base defense. The 6-foot-5, 293-pound Jackson recorded five sacks as a defensive tackle/end during his final season with Denver, and will be tasked with a similar role in Jacksonville. He’ll look inside and notice Sen’Derrick Marks shaking off the cobwebs and filling in running lanes. Marks isn’t a new addition, but it may feel like it after he missed all but four games last season because of injury.
The Jaguars weren’t just burned at the line of scrimmage. Opposing offenses roasted the Jaguars in 2015 with deep balls. In response, ball hawking free safety Tashaun Gipson was inked to a $35.5 million contract to shut down their center-field tarmac.
However, the bulk of their long-term success rests on the upside of their defensive saplings. General manager Dave Caldwell drafted Dante Fowler Jr. with the third overall pick in 2015, defensive back Jalen Ramsey with 2016’s third overall selection and plucked linebacker Myles Jack out of the second round.
The Jaguars may lead the NFL in rookie knee surgeries. Fowler’s rookie campaign came to an inauspicious ending after he tore his ACL in his first career NFL minicamp practice. This fall, he will file into the weak-side defensive end LEO position as Wash’s pass-rushing missile. Fowler still hasn’t folded his first NFL quarterback in the preseason, but according to observers he’s given tackles Luke Joeckel, Jermey Parnell and Josh Wells whiplash in practices.
Before Jack underwent a second surgery to repair cartilage damage related to the meniscus he tore in his right knee last September, he was the most highly touted defensive prospect of the 2016 cycle. Early on in his freshman season, he was a two-way dynamo.
Jack ran for 120 yards and a touchdown on six carries in a mid-November conference clash against Arizona in 2013. If you thought Braxton Miller throwing Virginia Tech into the washer machine spin cycle was jaw dropping, you haven’t seen Jack’s stiff arm-spin move double move against Washington in 2014.
Remarkably, Jack’s instincts for corralling ball carriers are better than his elusiveness in the open field. Although he’ll begin the season as Paul Posluszny’s understudy, Jack is the ideal sideline-to-sideline sentry in the linebackers corps. In coverage, a receiver in his vicinity would need an exorcist to shake the draft’s best pass-defending inside linebacker.
In the secondary, Ramsey has fully recovered from minor surgery in May to repair a small tear in his right meniscus. Jacksonville anticipates Ramsey evolving into a shutdown corner across from Davon House. Bradley had a front row seat to observing Richard Sherman’s development into a human air defense system. Ramsey played safety as a sophomore at Florida State, then flashed a rare combination of size, speed and technique at cornerback in his junior season, which makes him an asset defending the run.
“Corners have to tackle. Maybe some other corners don’t, but I’m not ordinary,” Ramsey beamed after recording three tackles in his preseason debut. “I feel like I’m the prototypical corner. […] You can look at my high school film and my college film and see my tackling. I’m never going to change, never going to change.”
The difference between Sherman and Ramsey is Sherman’s preternatural penchant for flipping the field with game-changing turnovers. Ramsey picked off just three passes in his collegiate career, half as many as Sherman did in his two seasons as a full-time corner. Ramsey’s 181 tackles in three years is a testament to his physicality, but Ramsey and veteran acquisition Prince Amukamara will face a firing squad when Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck infringe upon their airspace in the first four weeks.
On the undercard, fourth-round pick Sheldon Day and third-round pick Yannick Ngakoue operate under more earthly expectations, but are brimming with potential.
Ngakoue set Maryland’s single-season sacks mark in his junior season and will rotate with Fowler in the LEO role Bradley first utilized in Seattle. Day is a plug in the middle who eats up double teams, provides the Jaguars with depth and has played his way into the starter’s rotation.
The flip side of the optimism in Jacksonville is that offseason champs usually wind up as chum in the water by season’s end. In August, the Jaguars defense is a pop-up art studio. Bradley and Wash are the visionaries tasked with designing a mosaic that can rival their offense’s steep upward trajectory.
Owner Shahid Khan has shown uncanny patience during this stagnated rebuilding phase. Now, the future of Bradley’s regime depends on his embryonic defense serrating its budding claws.