The NFL has become a passing league, and by no small margin. Here’s how David Caldwell’s Jacksonville Jaguars reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007 by building around defending the era of air.
NFL teams have thrown the ball about 5,000 more times than they have run the ball this year, a number that is actually a tick closer than it has been the past six years. In each of those six years, there have been about 6,000 more pass plays than runs in the regular season.
It’s no secret the NFL has become a passing league. Five of the top-10 passers in terms of yardage in NFL history are currently playing, with a long list of younger quarterbacks that could make their way into the record books in the not-so-distant future. Sure, there is still a collection of coaches that want to set the tone with the run game, but there’s a reason quarterback has become the most important and criticized position in pro sports.
In that regard, defenses have had to adapt to the changing offenses. No defense has been more ahead of that curve than Jacksonville, which had the second-ranked overall defense in the league during the regular season. The Jaguars are proof that you don’t necessarily need to be a balanced defense to be elite in today’s NFL. If you put most of your chips in the pass defense basket, there’s a good chance you’ll like the amount of success you have.
The Jaguars have given up fewer air yards and passing first downs than any other team in the league this season, quarterbacks have a league-worst passer rating against Jacksonville, and the defense has the second-most interceptions and sacks in the NFL.
Jacksonville has made a point of beefing up its pass defense. Since general manager David Caldwell took over in January 2013, the team has drafted nine defensive backs, including five in his first draft with the Jaguars. Since then, he has drafted cornerback Jalen Ramsey fifth overall in the 2016 draft and signed two starters this past offseason in free agency – A.J. Bouye and Barry Church.
They’ve also been committed to the pass rush, signing Pro Bowlers Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell in free agency in each of the past two offseasons and spending early draft selections on pass rushers each of the past three seasons.
As good as the Jaguars are in pass defense, and with all the resources they have thrown at that area, Jacksonville has been a bad team at stopping the run. The second-ranked defense in the NFL isn’t even average in run defense – It’s one of the worst in the league.
The Jaguars give up 4.72 yards per carry on first down (29th in the NFL). That number makes the 4.16 yards they give up on average on second down (19th) look pretty good. Rattling off more STATS X-Info numbers won’t make anybody feel any better about the Jaguars’ rush defense: 47.6 percent of opponents’ carries have gone for 4-plus yards (29th), they’re 28th in quality rush percentage (50.1 percent), 26th in opposing rusher’s yards before contact (2.7), 26th in overall yards per carry (4.34), 20th in negative rush plays (44), 18th in stuff percentage (18.9), and 19th in runs of 10+ yards (49).
All of that has led to Jacksonville giving up 116.3 yards per game on the ground (21st), although teams have only ran the ball 26.8 times per game against them – the 13th-highest total in the league.
Despite the deficiencies in run defense, however, the Jaguars haven’t put the same amount of effort into stockpiling talent on the interior defensive line. Since Caldwell took over, the Jaguars have drafted a total of two defensive tackles: Sheldon Day in the fourth round in 2016 and Michael Bennett in the sixth round in 2015 (Day has three stuffs this year, Bennett none). The rest of the league has drafted 46 defensive tackles in the first three rounds alone in that same time period.
Opposing teams have taken notice of the Jaguars’ shortcomings in the middle of the defensive line. According to X-Info, teams are running up the middle on the Jaguars 40.78 percent of the time on first down and 46.05 percent of the time on second down. That’s second-highest and highest in the league, respectively. Remember, the Jaguars are towards the bottom of the league at stopping the run on those downs.
However, in today’s NFL, a team like Jacksonville with an elite secondary and pass rush is getting away with those numbers in the run game. Even when Jacksonville’s defense gets into a third-and-short (1-3 yards) only one other team has seen more passes called against it, despite the Jaguars having the third-lowest opponents QB rating on third down (59.9).
That’s the way the NFL is trending on 3rd-and-short. In 2008, there were more run plays called on 3rd-and-short than pass plays. In 2009 that changed, and the discrepancy has grown bigger almost each year since.
For the Jaguars and their stout pass defense, they know if they get into a third down, they have a good chance to get off the field because the offense is more often than not going to throw the ball and playing into their strength.
That formula has gotten Jacksonville into the postseason after drafting in the top five for six straight years. And it appears the rest of the NFL isn’t far behind in loading up on talent in the back end and focusing on stopping the pass. There will always be more defensive backs drafted than defensive tackles simply because there are four or five defensive backs on the field at all times and only one or two defensive tackles. But considering just four years ago there were five more defensive backs taken in the first three rounds than defensive tackles, compared to last year when there were 22 more defensive backs taken, you start to see a shift in philosophy.
The Jaguars seem to have been at the forefront of this, and it’s led them to their first playoff berth since 2007.
 Quality rush:
1) on first down: a rush play achieves greater than or equal to 40 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
2) on second down: a rush play that achieves greater than or equal to 50 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down.
3) on third and fourth downs: a rush play that results in a first down.