There is no question this coming Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have arguably their most intense and challenging test of the season when they face the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field in the AFC Divisional playoff game. In many ways, this game presents two important opportunities. Firstly, the chance to play for the AFC Championship for a second year in a row, but then also retribution for their devastating defeat at the hands of the Jaguars in Week 5, a game the Steelers themselves and the fanbase has not forgotten.
For NFL fans who have watched the Jaguars defeat the Buffalo Bills in their Wild Card match this past Sunday, there is no secret that the strength of their team derives from their defense; a defense which in many ways has proven to be one the best units in NFL history. When we think of the Jaguars defense, the name that come to mind is their All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell, or All-Pro cornerbacks AJ Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. Yet to understand what makes this defense one of elite units in football, one must look no further than their defensive coordinator Todd Walsh.
Following a 2-year stint as a defensive line coach for the Seattle Seahawks, Walsh came to the Jaguars organization in 2013. He spent 3 seasons as a defensive line coach and run game coordinator before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016. Despite a dismal 3-13 season under then head coach Gus Bradley, Walsh’s unit showed promise as they finished top 10 in overall defense. This season under head coach Doug Marrone, with the continuous growth of Walsh’s unit the Jaguars have become one of the hardest teams to play against in the NFL. To understand the Jaguars defense, it is essential to understand their defense schemes, which were established by former head coach Bradley, who was once a defense coordinator for the Seahawks during their prime years, and refined by Walsh himself.
Jaguars 4-3 defense
The Jaguars defense under Walsh has the following noted elements:
- 4-3 defensive front, often utilizing a nickel package
- Cover-3 scheme with zone defenders underneath, and corners playing man-to-man on the outside.
- Split-safety look which is key, as this aspect gives their star cornerbacks Ramsey and Bouye more coverage freedom.
Much of the elements seen in this Jaguars defense is reminiscent of the Seahawks 2013 defense that led them to a Super Bowl. In the next segment, we will explore a little bit more of the Cover-3 scheme and how it plays a big role in Walsh’s defense.
Understanding the Cover-3 Scheme
The Cover-3 scheme is one that is often used by NFL defenses. For the Jaguars, then often utilize the cover-3 in a nickel package as illustrated in the following diagram:
In a traditional cover-3 the cornerbacks (C) and the free safety (FS) are each responsible for 1/3 of the deep zone. The linebackers (LB) are responsible for any hook in the area inside, the nickel back (NB) and strong safety (SS) are responsible for anything in the flats or curl area in their respective spots. For the strong safety, he can also play the role of a linebacker depending on what the offense is showing. The overall objectives in a cover-3 involves preventing deep pass plays, while stopping run and giving up short yard plays. If this season is any indication, the Jaguars have these noted aspects down to a science.
In this clip, the Jaguars defense is showing a 4-2-5 in a Cover-3 but with a slight twist. Notice how both linebacker Telvin Smith and Myles Jack are lined up in the safety positions; meanwhile, strong safety Barry Church and free safety Tashaun Gipson are lined up in the linebacker position. When the ball is snapped, notice how all of them are going to revert back to their normal spots and fulfill their respective duties. Observe how the Jaguars corners and safeties prevent anything going deep; at the same time, pressure is coming up front. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor in this case does not have many options. Though he is able to complete a pass to one of his receivers running a slant, it is short of the first down needed. This is one example of how the Jaguars are able to add some variety to their defense, while effectively fulfilling the purpose of the scheme.
What Can the Steelers Offense Do?
It all starts up front. The Steelers offensive line will have the daunting task of facing arguably the best defensive line in the NFL, which features Pro Bowl tackle Malik Jackson and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. The offensive line must make it a priority of protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger so he can have the time necessary to throw the ball efficiently. In addition, the run game blocking must create running lanes for their All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell. One such way they can accomplish this is by running counter plays with All-Pro guard David DeCastro and tight end Vance McDonald, who has proven to be an effective run blocker.
One of the weaknesses of the Cover-3 is seen in the flats, as the area assigned to both the strong safety and nickel back can be opened up. One such a way of opening this area up is by running multiple vertical routes. In this case, the defense may likely not be able to adequately cover three or more receivers running go routes at the same time. With this idea in mind, the Steelers could also have their tight end run slant routes inside to gain first down yards.
All in all, the Steelers more than ever must utilize all their weapons to spread the field and create confusion within the Jaguars secondary. If the Steelers are able to do this, they will have success moving the ball, ultimately leading to points on the board.