Jaguars' pass rush faces big test against Chiefs, but has it actually improved?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars’ pass rush was the biggest question mark about the team heading into the season. But the defense got off to a good start with four sacks in a season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

That’s either a good sign that the unit has improved from 2022 or was the benefit of playing rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson in his first start. The Jaguars are looking at it as just the beginning.

“We just got a little taste of what we plan on doing the whole season, what we're going to do the whole season,” said outside linebacker (and 2022 No. 1 overall pick) Travon Walker, who had one of the sacks. “We just want to continue to ramp that up.”

Sunday’s home-opener against the Kansas City Chiefs (1 p.m. ET, CBS) will be the toughest test the Jaguars’ pass rush will face this season.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is one of the hardest quarterbacks to bring down in the NFL. Since he took over as the starter in 2018, only two quarterbacks have a lower sack percentage. Mahomes has been sacked on only 3.8% of his dropbacks over that span, tied with Ben Roethlisberger and behind only Drew Brees (3.2%) and Tom Brady (3.4%), per NFL Next Gen Stats.

With Brees, Brady and Roethlisberger retired, that makes it tougher to sack Mahomes than any other active quarterback.

“He's so elusive,” Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said. “Either the ball's coming out quick or he has the ability to make guys miss and extend plays. There's been some good ones that can do that, but he right now is probably the best at it. Plus, he has great vision down the field once he's outside the pocket, and his guys do a nice job in the scramble drill and they do a great job of working for him down the field.”

Pederson and the Jaguars don't need a reminder, though. In two games last season, the Jaguars didn’t sack Mahomes even once and hit him just 10 times. That includes the divisional playoff game when Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain and played through it the entire second half. The Jaguars' pass rush couldn't get to Mahomes, and their season was over.

That was the lasting image of the Jaguars’ 2022 season and why the pass rush was seen as the team’s top issue heading into 2023 -- especially after outside linebacker Arden Key left and signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. Except the Jaguars apparently didn’t see it that way, because they failed to sign any of the free agent pass-rushers available and didn’t draft one until the fifth round (Yasir Abdullah). Defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue visited in the spring, but they ended up signing in Atlanta and Chicago, respectively.

Without much added depth, the bulk of the responsibility for getting to the passer is on Walker and outside linebacker Josh Allen, who is playing this season on the fifth-year option. Allen, who had 10.5 sacks as a rookie, hasn’t surpassed 7.5 in a season since. However, he started Week 1 off right with a career-high three sacks against the Colts.

Allen has not registered a sack and has just two quarterback hits in three games against the Chiefs and Mahomes. That will need to change Sunday if the Jaguars want to shut down Mahomes.

Mahomes was only sacked 26 times last season, and the Lions weren’t able to get to him in the season opener. They did hit him seven times, including three by defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who led the Lions with 8.5 sacks in 2022. Mahomes was more hurt by four drops (the most by any team in the league along with the Dallas Cowboys) than any pressure.

“It’s a little personal for me because the last two times we played them last year, I wasn’t at my best,” Allen said. “But at the end of the day, I got a job to do and for me to be where I need to be, I also need to know what I’m doing out there. The film study and the preparation takes a full hand. If I continue to do that and continue to practice well, everything else is going to take care of itself and that’s what I want to be more consistent on.”

Walker had 3.5 sacks as a rookie after moving to outside linebacker, a position he didn’t play much during his career at Georgia. Walker registered two QB hits on Mahomes last season.

Sure, the Jaguars were able to pressure last season, but they weren’t able to finish. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Jaguars were third in the NFL with 242 pressures and quarterback pressure rate (38.1%) -- but their 35 sacks tied for 25th.

“There are different ways to move the quarterback off the spot and get him to speed up, but it’s not always going to be a sack,” defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell said. “We want the sacks, but at the end of the day, it’s really pressure and affecting the quarterback.”

The Jaguars did that against the Colts -- they hit Richardson six times in addition to the four sacks -- but Walker knows that won’t be good enough against Mahomes.

“It's definitely a sign [we're moving] in the right direction, but I know we can be a lot better than what we obviously showed in Week 1,” Walker said. “As long as we continue to strive to get better as a unit and as a team and as a unit up front, we'll be totally fine.”