JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone noticed that his defensive players got their hands on a lot of footballs during last week’s practices. He said he crossed his fingers and hoped it would continue on Sunday.
The Jaguars forced four turnovers in their 27-17 victory at Cincinnati -- including a pick-six by defensive end Yannick Ngakoue -- and there’s a belief inside the locker room that it was a sign that the defense is on its way to recapturing some of the magic it had in 2017 and become a dominant defense again.
“It’s what Jaguar defense is all about,” linebacker Myles Jack said. “We create turnovers. We play physical. We’ve been playing good defense. We just haven’t been able to get those turnovers that we needed. So once we’re able to create that, I feel like it puts our offense in easier situations, do their thing, and allow them to get into a rhythm. It’s a great feeling, man. It’s a great feeling to see that ball going the other way.
“We’ve just got to continue to emphasizing. It’s got to be in the air. We’ve got to speak it into existence and we’ve got to keep [talking] about it. I think that’s what we really did coming in. We just wanted to start fast, create turnovers, and I feel like we accomplished that today.”
Rushing the passer, creating havoc and forcing turnovers is why the Jaguars were one of the NFL’s best defenses in 2017. They were second in the NFL in sacks (55) and turnovers (33) and scored seven defensive touchdowns.
Since then, not so much.
The Jaguars forced 19 turnovers and had two defensive touchdowns in 22 games entering last Sunday’s game in Cincinnati. The Jaguars had just one turnover -- an interception by Ronnie Harrison against Denver -- in their first six games this season.
It’s understandable when you consider just how markedly different this defense is less than two years later. Six starters and one key reserve from the 2017 defense are gone: defensive tackle Malik Jackson, defensive end Dante Fowler, linebackers Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith, safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Posluszny retired after 2017, Church was cut during the 2018 season, Fowler was traded to the Los Angeles Rams during the season, Jackson and Gipson were released after the 2018 season, Smith decided to take at least a year off and Ramsey was traded to the Rams last Tuesday.
That group combined to have 15 interceptions, seven forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and four defensive touchdowns in 2017. That’s a lot of production to replace – and the Jaguars haven’t been able to do so (even though many of those players were still on the roster last season).
The defense forced at least one turnover in all but two games in 2017 but went six games without forcing a turnover last season.
The Jaguars forced one turnover in their victory over Tennessee in Week 3 (a muffed punt) and another in their victory over Denver in Week 4 (Harrison’s interception), but they had their best day in nearly two years against the Bengals: Cornerback D.J. Hayden forced a fumble that Harrison recovered and the Jaguars turned it into a field goal and 9-7 lead; Jack intercepted an Andy Dalton pass at the Jaguars’ 10-yard line; Ngakoue intercepted Dalton’s screen pass attempt and took it back 23 yards for a TD; and Harrison intercepted a Dalton pass at the Jaguars’ 28.
It was the most turnovers the defense has forced since they had five in a 19-7 victory over Cleveland on Nov. 19, 2017.
“Probably the most important thing that happened [Sunday] besides the win,” Hayden said.
Hayden wasn’t with the Jaguars in 2017, but he has heard his teammates talk about how good that group was at forcing turnovers. Cornerback A.J. Bouye, who led that defense with six interceptions, said this defense can be just as good at taking the ball away. Sunday’s performance is a good start because it reminded everyone the most important thing is to not try to do too much.
“You just can’t force them,” Bouye said. “That’s one thing we didn’t do [Sunday]. We didn’t try to force them. We just kept going. One week we might not have any and then one week we’ll have a lot and it’s just really maintaining that and just playing good, sound ball.”