A Tale of Two Defenses: 49ers vs Jaguars Preview
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once said, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships”. While this theory has been argued for decades, there is little doubt that offense alone cannot win a championship. Football is a team sport which relies on all three aspects of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. This year the Jacksonville Jaguars have the opportunity to accomplish something truly special by becoming the first team ever to lead the league in sacks, turnovers, and fewest points allowed. Not even the 1985 Bears have that distinction.
What few people realize is how similarly the Jaguars and 49ers have been built and whom they have been built by. Since 2013 Gus Bradley has built the foundation of the Jaguars defense by bringing in players such as Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Sheldon Day, Dante Fowler, Telvin Smith, and Jonathan Cyprien. Of this group, only Ramsey has gone to the Pro Bowl. The Jaguars have four defensive players going to this year’s Pro Bowl including Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, A.J. Bouye, and Jalen Ramsey. Gus Bradley was fired towards the end of the 2016 season and Doug Marrone took his place. Robert Saleh, the Jaguars linebackers coach for the past three seasons, left to take the defensive coordinator position with the 49ers following the 2016 season.
What is interesting is that both Gus Bradley and Robert Saleh have been taught in the Pete Carroll School of Defense, having coached in Seattle before coaching in Jacksonville. To make things even more interesting, the Jaguars defensive coordinator, Todd Wash, coached the defensive line in Seattle for two seasons (2011-2012). What all of this means is that these two teams are focused on building a reliable pass rush which will intimidate offenses for years while the secondary most likely gets all of the glory by picking off passes and making huge plays. While the Legion of Boom is on the decline, its descendants are on the rise. In two years, these just might be the top two defenses in the NFL. The Jaguars are playing the 49ers on Sunday and while at this time it would be unfair to compare the statistics of the two defenses, it is wise to evaluate how they are built. This is truly a tale of two defenses.
While both teams use a 4-3 base defense, the Jaguars use a nose-tackle instead of the traditional defensive tackle. This is unique because a 4-3 defense usually does not use a nose tackle. This position is used mostly with the 3-4 defensive front due to lack of bodies along the defensive line. With a nose-tackle across from center in a 4-3 defense, this means that one side of the offensive line will be over-crowded with bodies. This can be extremely effective in pass rushing as that side of the offensive line would be overwhelmed. The 49ers Earl Mitchell is more of a hybrid NT/DT. At 6’3”, 310 lbs he can play either nose-tackle or defensive-tackle.
The right side of the 49ers defensive line is loaded with top draft picks in Deforest Buckner (7th overall) and Solomon Thomas (3rd overall). While these players are still growing in the NFL they have shown potential. Once Arik Armstead (6’8”, 280) returns next season this can be a very good defensive line. Elvis Dumervil is the out-lire in this group due to his size (5’11”, 250 lbs) and athletic achievements (104.5 career sacks). At 33 years of age, it is clear that he was brought in as a mentor as well as a pass rushing specialist. He can play both outside linebacker and defensive end. It appears the 49ers are forming a formidable unit which can transition easily from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Of this bunch between the two teams the 49ers linebacker, Reuben Foster might have the biggest upside. He was the Butkus Award winner at Alabama as well as SEC defensive player of the year. In many ways, he plays like Ronnie Lott who constantly hit players with reckless abandon. This is why he has been injured so much this year. Twice in the Titans game last Sunday he went down with an injury but kept on getting back up and leading the defense. Keep in mind, this guy is just a rookie. He was voted Defensive Rookie of the Month in November despite having a bye week. If he plays a full season healthy he can become a truly great player. What the 49ers need to focus on is the weakside linebacker
The Jaguars Paul Posluszny has been the defensive leader during the toughest of times for the franchise. While he did not make the Pro Bowl this year, this does not deter just how valuable he is to this team. Myles Jack was so athletic at UCLA that he played running back as well as linebacker. With this skill set his ceiling should be pretty high. Telvin Smith won the National Championship at Florida State and has played like a champion
LCB: Ahkello Witherspoon Jalen Ramsey
K’Waun Williams (Nickleback)
The Jaguars clearly have the upper-hand in this position group as both of their corners are Pro Bowl players. They also have 10 interceptions between them this season. Throughout this season they have proven time and again their ability to be shut-down corners. This is only the beginning of what should be two long and prosperous careers.
Ahkello Witherspoon is just a rookie and has only been in the starting lineup since October, 29. It is hard to tell if he will become a playmaker but he does have an interception. Dontae Johnson is enjoying the best season of his career with career highs in tackles (66 combined) and passes defended (6). It appears that this new scheme is working well for him. Only time will tell if he can become a leader in the secondary.
FS: Adrian Colbert Tashaun Gibson
The Jaguars have the edge in this category just from experience. Only Tashaun Gibson and Eric Reid have been to the Pro Bowl. Adrian Colbert was drafted in the 7th round in 2017 and clearly lacks experience. Eric Reid has been versatile enough to play Rover in nickel packages, meaning he played either linebacker or defensive back depending on the situation.
A coverage is only as good as its pass rush. The Jaguars have built an elite unit which is sending two players to the Pro Bowl this year. The 49ers are building a defensive line which might rival the great defensive lines in history. Both teams have the leaders they need to reach the next level. The Jaguars are starting to blossom as a unit and it appears that after years of high draft picks they are starting to see those picks come to fruition. The 49ers have been building a wall for the past three seasons and are starting to see that unit show more attitude than it has in years. Come Sunday, the final score will not determine just how great these units can be. In two years, they just might be the two scariest defenses in the NFL.