Gene Frenette: Jaguars, pass rusher Josh Allen must find answers to fix declining defense
Josh Allen is unquestionably one of the most polite, down-to-earth players in a Jaguars’ locker room chock-full of classy people.
But going up to him after Sunday’s 27-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs — a game where the Jaguars got two turnovers and allowed 486 total yards to the NFL’s best offense — to ask if the defense is regressing, Allen was taken a bit aback.
That’s because, deep down, he probably knew a truthful response would be incriminating.
Allen paused momentarily, then diplomatically replied: “Man, I don’t know how to answer that one. Next question.”
Frankly, it’s the biggest question about the Jaguars that head coach Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell must address during the bye week.
Trying to decipher what’s happened to the defense — including the mysterious descent of Allen and several key starters — has become the elephant in the room.
Gene's previous 3 columns
- Walk the walk:Jaguars always talk of complementary football, but rarely do it
- Trevor's time is now:Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence entering NFL golden age for young, promising QBs
- Hurricanes' hope:Hurricanes can eye FSU's Mike Norvell for blueprint on football turnaround
One NFL coach called me Monday morning at my Kansas City hotel to ask this simple question: "Is Josh Allen hurt?"
The implication was obvious: he was wondering why Allen's sack number was so low for the season.
But it's not anything medical-related because Allen hasn't been on the injury report all year.
At least franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence and parts of the offense are showing signs of incremental progress, though not enough yet to indicate a major transformation is imminent.
The other side of the ball is a different story. For reasons rather baffling given the massive investment in draft picks and free agent acquisitions, things are getting worse.
Jaguars’ defense underachieving
It’s a defense blended almost equally with young and veteran players — including six starters the Jaguars drafted in the third round or higher — so the arrow should be pointing up.
Just the opposite is happening, and nobody is under greater scrutiny for the defense’s mediocre output than Allen. That’s because he’s a top 10 draft pick in his fourth season, which means expectations are higher for a pass-rusher entering the prime of his career.
But Allen has only 3.0 sacks, and none since putting the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts on the ground in Week 4. His six-game sackless streak is eclipsed only by a seven-week stretch last season when he finished with 7.5 sacks. As a rookie, he started just four games and had a career-high 10.5 sacks.
While the Jaguars drafted Travon Walker with the No. 1 pick to have what seemed like an ideal tag-team to get after the quarterback, the numbers are beyond disappointing.
Walker has only 2.5 sacks, and first-round draft choice Devin Lloyd is clearly regressing, having been subbed out in brief spurts the past two weeks for third-round rookie linebacker Chad Muma.
The Jaguars are 27th in sacks (16), 23rd in third-down percentage (42.15 percent) and 22nd in touchdown red-zone percentage (59.4 percent).
Pederson made no attempt Monday to sugarcoat Allen’s lack of production, though he’s hardly the only defensive player not playing up to standard.
“He understands that he needs to get going, he knows that.” Pederson said. “Conversations that he’s had with the staff, on defense, and knowing that he’s a big part of that rush. He’s talented, too talented not to get there and just got to make sure that he stays focused in and locked in on the rush plan and sticking to the technique that has made him a good pass rusher in this league.”
Allen is by no means deserving of a pile-on for the defense’s shortcomings. The Jaguars’ front seven was rather pedestrian against KC and not nearly as impactful as when the team got off to a 2-1 start.
Other than cornerback Tyson Campbell, backup pass-rusher Dawuane Smoot and safeties Andre Cisco and Jenkins, few defenders are playing at a consistently solid level.
Sobering all-around numbers
After a 38-10 rout of the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 3, the Jaguars’ defense looked like it might be on the rise.
Allen was so effusive in his praise for Walker and Lloyd, he declared after that game that one of them “is definitely going to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.”
Walker and Lloyd were among the favorites with one oddsmaker at that time, carrying odds of 5-1 and 3-1, respectively. Now both are at 50-1 and joining Allen in their frustration of looking to ignite a slumping defense.
If you think the Jaguars’ defense isn’t in decline, all the pertinent numbers say otherwise. Here’s their total defense weekly ranking since that win at L.A. broke an 18-game road losing streak: 7, 14, 9, 11, 17, 18, 16, 24.
A run defense that was No. 1 in the league to start October is now eighth. After accumulating seven sacks in the first three games, the Jaguars have only nine the past seven weeks. The defense had more takeaways (six) after three games than in the past seven (five).
Jenkins, who acknowledged blown coverages on three of the four TDs allowed against the Chiefs, implied Tuesday that the defense needs to be more focused every single play and not have periodic lapses.
“It’s a team sport, so you can’t really point fingers at whoever,” said Jenkins. “I would definitely say that we can definitely tighten screws a bit as a unit, just settle down and really be on every detail of the game. This is a game that’s turned more, in my opinion, more mental than anything.
“It can’t just be run and hit, run and hit. It’s thinking about how I’m getting set up for this play, how they are trying to attack me and the defense on this play. We just need to be more cerebral with stuff like that.”
The K.C. game was a textbook example. Despite a plus-three turnover margin, the Jaguars offset that by shoddy play from both units on third down and left Patrick Mahomes’ targets wide open on all four TD passes.
Pederson cited a malfunctioning headset for messing up the defense’s communication on a 6-yard scoring toss to Kadarius Toney, but it’s not like the receiver was hidden. He went out in motion to the right and no defender bothered to follow Toney, who hop-scotched the last three yards into the end zone to avoid going out of bounds.
Fixing a leaky defense
So many situations like that have been a microcosm of why the Jaguars’ defense is underachieving. They give up too many big plays at the most inopportune times.
Here’s the most damning stat that explains why the Jaguars are 3-7 and not 5-5 or 6-4: the defense has allowed an NFL-high six go-ahead touchdowns to its opponents in the fourth quarter, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The next highest is the New Orleans Saints with three.
Furthermore, it’s not like the offense turned the ball over and gave the opponent short fields. The length of those six TD drives were 90, 74, 66, 66, 79 and 80 yards.
Can the Jaguars’ defense rectify this in the last seven games? It should help that five of those matchups — the exceptions being the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions — are against teams with less-than-potent offenses.
Then again, the Jaguars faced three of the lowest-scoring offenses in the league at the time they played — the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts (second time) and Denver Broncos — and still lost.
One of the few bright spots against the Chiefs was Cisco, who delivered two monster hits on pass breakups and also had an interception. When asked about his balling-out performance, these were the first words out of his mouth: “It wasn’t good enough.”
That would aptly describe the trend for Caldwell’s entire unit most of this season. Outside of the second-half shutout pitched against the woeful Las Vegas Raiders, too many parts of the Jaguars’ defense lately leaks oil.
The question coming out of the bye week now becomes: what is Josh Allen and company going to do about it?
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540
Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette