The Jaguars nearly became the first team since the 1970 N.F.L.-A.F.L. merger to lead the league in takeaways, sacks and scoring defense, finishing a close second in each category. That stinginess, coupled with a clock-consuming offense headlined by the N.F.L.’s best rushing attack, powered Jacksonville (10-6) to its first playoff berth since 2007 and its first division title since 1999. The Jaguars host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in a matchup of longtime playoff outsiders.
“We’re built to match up with any team,” safety Barry Church said. “From Tom Brady, where they like to do quick stuff and crossing routes, to a guy like Ben Roethlisberger, who likes to develop things and let the play extend, like Russell Wilson as well. We’re going to get tested in the playoffs, but we’re excited for that.”
As Church hinted, the Jaguars were constructed in a specific way: to counter the increasing diversity of pass-oriented offenses. Their unit is loaded at every level — elite cornerbacks, speedy linebackers and ferocious rushers.
The assembly spanned seasons. It was initiated by General Manager David Caldwell and accelerated by the first-year head of football operations Tom Coughlin, who was hired a year ago to restore the franchise he shepherded from expansion to contender back to prominence.
No matter how much young talent Jacksonville had procured, its annual spending splurges tended to promote the same reactions, and results, every year: optimism in the spring and summer but despair in the fall and winter. Investing nearly $184 million in guaranteed money from 2014 to 2016, the most in the N.F.L., according to ESPN, yielded all of 11 victories. Only Cleveland (11) won so few games during that span.
An exceptional draft in 2016, in which the Jaguars with their first three picks landed budding stars — the shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the linebacker Myles Jack and the pass-rushing dynamo Yannick Ngakoue — helped clarify their needs last off-season. Todd Wash, the defensive coordinator, said they prioritized three areas: another cornerback to play opposite Ramsey; a big defensive end capable of rushing the quarterback and setting the edge against the run; and a versatile safety to upgrade their coverage.
The missing components identified, Jacksonville went and lured them all — on the first day of free agency. Beyond the money, the cluster of young talent incentivized cornerback A. J. Bouye, defensive end Calais Campbell and Church to sign. Together they have supplemented production — Campbell’s 14½ sacks tied for second in the league, while Bouye (six interceptions) and Church have helped anchor the secondary — with accountability and professionalism.
“A lot of times when you get new guys, they don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “Not these guys. They just told us straight up what their goal was, why they were here, why we brought them here, the expectations that people here have for them. They’ve fit in perfectly.”
Coach Doug Marrone agreed, calling the newcomers essential leaders and conduits in the locker room. But early on, Marrone said, he was skeptical as to how everyone would coalesce.
“Sometimes you look at the names on paper and you think to yourself: Maybe these guys can be pretty good,” he said in an interview. “But you can do all the research in the world and not really know until you get the players in. You’re talking about human nature and personalities, and it’s a difficult situation because those guys got paid a lot of money. You really never know.”
The mileposts have come at regular intervals: a season-opening 10-sack bonanza at Houston; a five-interception windfall against Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh in Week 5; a shutout at Indianapolis; a smothering showing against Wilson and the Seahawks, who a week earlier had stomped N.F.C.-leading Philadelphia.
“Coming out of Pittsburgh, we were like, ‘I think we have a chance to be pretty successful,’ ” Wash, the defensive coordinator, said in an interview. “When you play against an elite quarterback and you have success, you think you might have something.”
Wash coaches his group to play “on the edge” and “to the echo of the whistle,” much as he did in Seattle, where he tutored the Seahawks’ defensive line in 2011 and 2012 before following Gus Bradley, Marrone’s predecessor, to Jacksonville. These Jaguars, from their Cover 3 scheme to their brash comportment, evoke a less proven version of the Seahawks’ defense that over the past few seasons has set a standard for excellence.
Both teams depended on a four-man rush instead of blitzing, excelled at forcing turnovers and valued speed and athleticism at linebacker to help neutralize pass-catching running backs and tight ends. They also had angular cornerbacks patrolling the boundaries, and every week Ramsey antagonizes, and erases, the opposition’s best receiver the way Richard Sherman did in his prime.
Jacksonville has yielded 4.82 net passing yards per pass play (passing yards minus sack yardage divided by total pass plays), the fourth fewest since 2002, according to the sports data service Sportradar. The three teams ahead of them: the 2002 Buccaneers (won the Super Bowl), the 2008 Steelers (won the Super Bowl) and the 2009 Jets (lost in the A.F.C. championship game).
“It’s hard to say that we don’t potentially have the tools to be as dominant for the next couple of years as those guys,” said safety Tashaun Gipson, referring to Seattle. “When you play the Seahawks, you think defense. It’s the staple of what a great defense should look like. Hopefully the comparisons will be null and void, and the Jacksonville Jaguars will be the premier defense for years to come.”
Marrone just wants his team, which surrendered 44 points in a Week 16 loss at San Francisco before rebounding last week at Tennessee, to play well this weekend against Buffalo.
From Bill Parcells, Marrone said, he has learned that a team never begins the next season where it left off — it must prove itself over again. Not that he expects this season to end soon.
“I don’t ever want to be defined by this game or this season, and I know this team doesn’t, either,” Marrone said, adding: “I have issues enjoying things. And it’s something I have to work on.”
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