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How the Jaguars defense punched Jacksonville’s ticket to the playoffs

Jacksonville’s pass rush was critical against the Titans

Tennessee Titans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The Jacksonville Jaguars are the AFC South Champions.

After starting the year with a 3-7 record, the Jaguars limped into their bye week after a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Jacksonville faced a three-game deficit in the win column in the division, behind the 6-3 Tennessee Titans.

My how things changed down the second half of the year for Jacksonville.

The Jaguars won six of their final seven games, including Saturday night’s 19-16 victory over those same Titans, clinching the AFC South and setting up a home playoff game on Wild Card Weekend.

A huge part of their turnaround?

Their defense.

During their 3-7 start, the Jacksonville defense was around the middle of the pack. The Jaguars defense ranked 18th in the league in Expected Points Allowed per Play, and were 21st in the NFL in Dropback EPA Allowed per Play:

But since then, the Jaguars have been one of the better defenses in the league. Since Week 12, when the Jaguars came off their bye week and beat the Baltimore Ravens by a final score of 28-27, Jacksonville’s defense has been sixth in the NFL in EPA Allowed per Play, and tenth in the NFL in EPA per Dropback:

While Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville offense garnered the bulk of attention in comeback wins over the Ravens and later the Dallas Cowboys, their defense has been a huge part of their turnaround.

And that was on full display Saturday night, particularly in the second half, when the Jacksonville defense frustrated Tennessee passer Josh Dobbs, and created the game’s biggest play.

We will get to the touchdown in a moment, but first we can look at plays like this 3rd and 7 through midway through the third quarter. The Titans have a 13-10 lead, and are just outside the red zone. Dobbs aligns in the shotgun, as Tennessee uses a bunch formation to the right side of the field.

But the QB is flushed from the pocket, thanks to Arden Key on one side of the formation, and a pressure package from the other side:

Prior to the snap, Jacksonville puts five defenders on the line of scrimmage, with three of those to the right side of the offense including Key, who is aligned over rookie right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, and pass rusher Josh Allen, who is aligned outside of Key. But with other defenders lurking on the other side of the formation, Dobbs shifts running back Hassan Haskins to the left side of the offense, where Travon Walker and Foyesade Oluokun are lurking.

As the play begins, the center, right guard and right tackle slide to the right. These three are left to block just two defenders, as Allen drops off the edge into pass coverage. On the other side, Walker and Oluokun both come after the quarterback, joined by cornerback Tyson Campbell off the edge.

Walker and Oluokun are picked up, but Campbell has a free run at the quarterback. That starts to flush Dobbs to his right, but as he begins to move from the pocket, Key works past Petit-Frere.

Dobbs beats the first two threats to the corner, but he cannot beat the third: Roy Robertson-Harris. Under pressure, the QB puts a throw at the feet of Robert Woods, which falls incomplete.

Early in the fourth quarter, an interior stunt allowed the Jaguars to get off the field on third down. With the Titans facing a 3rd and 7, Tennessee put Dobbs in the shot gun with three receivers to the right. Again, Jacksonville puts three defenders on the right side of the offensive line, this time with rookie pass rusher Travon Walker outside the left tackle. Rookie linebacker Devin Lloyd is also lurking, over the left side of the offensive line.

Off the snap, Walker explodes from the edge and into the pocket, and his quickness is the initial reason Dobbs has to climb the pocket. That’s when the interior stunt starts to cause a problem. On the inside, Robertson-Harris and Key have executed a stunt, and that frees Key for a run at the QB.

As we saw on the first example, Dobbs is able to avoid the first two threats. But he cannot avoid the third, which again, is Robertson-Harris:

Dobbs climbs the pocket to avoid Walker, and wriggles out of Key’s grasp. But that’s when Robertson-Harris gets home for the sack, forcing a Tennessee punt.

Still, the Jaguars offense could not get anything going after that punt, and with just over three minutes remaining, the Titans still led the game.

That’s when the game changed, for good:

This alignment and pressure package is very similar to the first example, the 3rd and 7 from midway through the third quarter. Jacksonville puts three defenders on the right side of the offense, including Key over the right tackle and Allen on the outside. But again, Allen drops into coverage.

On the other side, Walker and Lloyd were lurking in two-point stances — similar to Walker and Oluokun on the play from the third quarter — with a defensive back over the tight end. This time it is Rayshawn Jenkins who blitzes.

And gets home.

After the game, Dobbs indicated that he needed to do a better job of getting the ball out of his hands. He holds onto it just a half-step too long, and that is enough for Jenkins to pop the ball loose, setting the stage for the defensive touchdown.

Still, Tennessee had time to pull out the win, and the Jacksonville defense needed one more stop. With the big play being pressure off the edge from Allen working against the rookie right tackle:

Allen beats Petit-Frere off the edge, getting his hands to the football and knocking it loose from Dobbs. The QB manages to hold onto the ball, snatching it out of mid-air, but the loss of five yards puts the Titans into 3rd and long.

Jacksonville would force short throws on the next two plays, and take over on downs.

In the coming days, the attention will likely turn to Lawrence, and the potential Wild Card shootout between him and another of the game’s young passers, Justin Herbert. With the results on Sunday, the Jaguars will host the Los Angeles Chargers next weekend.

We look forward to talking about that game.

But before turning the page to that contest, it was necessary to point out what the Jaguars defense did on Saturday night.

Because they gave us a chance to talk about what we are going to see on Wild Card Weekend.