JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars reached a critical juncture in their development last season, as the young, inexperienced team blossomed into an AFC South champion and logged an extraordinary playoff win. But the next step in that journey toward becoming a true championship contender will prove even tougher. It will demand sharper focus, increased maturation and more improvement in areas that have been lacking. One specific priority: The Jags' defensive front must do a better job disrupting opposing quarterbacks.
No team in the NFL made a greater leap last season than Jacksonville, which went from winning just three games in 2021 to producing a 9-8 record. The Jaguars were able to do that because new head coach Doug Pederson provided stability after the Urban Meyer debacle, quarterback Trevor Lawrence grew up in his second season and the entire team displayed tremendous resilience in rebounding from a 3-7 start. The Jags might have been even more impressive if their pass rush had been more daunting. Their defense was solid at limiting points -- ranking 12th in the NFL in scoring D -- but underwhelming when it came to generating sacks. Jacksonville's 35 quarterback takedowns tied for 25th. Kind of ironic, considering the franchise's most recent playoff team prior to last season -- the 2017 Jaguars -- finished second in the league with 55 sacks, giving birth to the defense's "Sacksonville" nickname.
Talent -- or a lack thereof -- wasn't the culprit in Jacksonville's low sack production in 2022. Rather, the Jaguars just failed to consistently finish the job. Addressing that shortcoming has been a major theme in this year's training camp.
"We just want steady improvement," second-year defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell said. "Last year, we had a bunch of pressures, but we didn't get the quarterback on the ground enough. That's the main focus now: finishing the rush. The players have done a good job of understanding what was needed to do that. They've worked on it in the offseason and continued to get after it out here."
Caldwell knows full well how vital that pressure will be to whatever success Jacksonville hopes to attain. The Jaguars may reside in a division where two teams are breaking in highly drafted rookie quarterbacks -- Anthony Richardson in Indianapolis and C.J. Stroud in Houston -- but the biggest games on their schedule offer the toughest tests for that defense. Jacksonville will face Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Buffalo's Josh Allen, Cincinnati's Joe Burrow and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson in showdowns that will go a long way toward determining playoff opportunities. The more Jags defenders can get their hands on those quarterbacks, the easier life is going to be for Lawrence and his offensive mates.
It's also important to note here that the Jaguars haven't exactly ignored the need to produce up front. Their front seven includes three edge rushers who were drafted in the first round: Josh Allen, K'Lavon Chaisson and Travon Walker, last year's No. 1 overall selection. So, the potential is there for great things. The question is whether this group can bring it all together, especially at a time when one of the top QB hunters from last year's team is now in Tennessee (Arden Key) and another is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon sustained last December (Dawuane Smoot).
Allen said there's plenty to like about this year's pass-rushing unit, largely because of the kinship throughout the overall defense and the desire for everyone to excel.
"We might be overlooked from a national standpoint, but we know what we can bring and we know what we did in the last quarter of the season," Allen said. "We know we're capable of doing that from Game 1 to the Super Bowl. Now it's just about being committed to that and staying true to one another."
Allen stressed one thing that will be crucial to the identity of this defense in 2023: a discernible tenacity. The players feel more comfortable in Year 2 of Caldwell's defense, and the need to be physical has been stressed throughout the offseason. Jacksonville found a way to make enough plays last season to keep games tight. This year, as Allen noted, "it's about setting a tone from the start."
Allen, of course, is an essential component of this pursuit. The seventh overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, he set a franchise rookie record with 10.5 sacks in his first season, but hasn't cracked double digits in that category since. Allen has shown noticeable improvement as a run defender and he's effective enough to regularly generate hurries as a pass rusher. However, he earned Pro Bowl honors in that first season because he was getting his hands on the quarterback. That has to become his calling card again.
Walker faces even bigger expectations. The top pick in last year's draft entered the league as a jack-of-all-trades defender out of Georgia, a player who'd contributed in a variety of positions on a national championship defense. All that versatility meant Walker needed plenty of time to settle into his role as an outside linebacker in Caldwell's 3-4 scheme. He wound up with just 3.5 sacks, but already feels like he's grown plenty entering his second season.
"I'm seeing different formations faster and the scheme of our defense is easier," Walker said. "I'm not thinking about the call so much anymore. I'm just going. I hear the call and then automatically I'm looking at the personnel to see what I can anticipate."
"He's more comfortable in being him," Caldwell said. "If you look at him and then go try to find another guy around the league like him, there's probably one or two with his skill set. He's a unique talent. I tell him all the time, 'Just be you.' That involves being physical, being strong in the run game and using that unique toolbox. He has a couple moves that he's using now that he really likes, so he's starting to see the hard work pay off."
The Jaguars clearly won't take anybody by surprise this fall. Along with storming back from that slow start to the season, they became known for their comeback ability within games, as showcased in regular-season wins over the Cowboys and Titans, as well as the stunning Wild Card Weekend victory over the Chargers that saw Jacksonville overcome a 27-0 deficit to prevail 31-30. The defense played key roles in all those wild games. Rayshawn Jenkins returned an interception for the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Dallas, and the safety also supplied a strip-sack late in the fourth quarter that Allen returned 37 yards for the game-winning score in the division-clinching win over Tennessee.
The Jaguars proved throughout last season that they weren't going to fold when faced with serious adversity. This year, they'll have to show they can prosper when the expectations around them are much grander. As much as that means the offense must thrive, it also means the defense must start making life tougher on opposing passers. As Caldwell said, "We had a bunch of pressure, but not enough results."
The goal now in Jacksonville's simple: to jump-start that disruptiveness earlier and keep it going all year long. Allen even admitted there's some advantage in the defense flying under the radar, with Lawrence and his offensive mates dominating the headlines. The reality is the Jaguars changed the perception about themselves by improving in a hurry as a team. They'll be even better this season if the players providing their pass rush can do exactly the same thing as a unit.