Could the Jaguars be switching defensive alignments again?
By Jeff Tice
The question of which base defense to run is a tale as old as time. Every year, media members, fans, and even coaches from high school to the pros ponder the advantages and disadvantages of switching base defensive alignments.
If you need a quick lesson on the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4, here's an easy explanation.
If it seems like Jacksonville Jaguars fans have asked this question a number of times over the years, it's because they have. But, they're far from alone. As an example, look at the Dallas Cowboys.
They finished with the sixth-ranked defense in the NFL last year and tied for third in the league in total sacks with 54. And yet, you can still find debate within the Dallas fanbase about whether or not the Cowboys could be switching to a 3-4.
Observers regularly embrace an alignment shift as a sort of magic bullet that will fix everything on defense. In Dallas' case, not a whole lot would seem to need fixing. On the other hand, they did blow a 27-10 lead to the Jaguars in a game most of their fans feel they should have won.
Don't worry, this is not a column on the Dallas Cowboys or their beautiful defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is only a reminder that very good defenses have their base philosophy questioned too.
Even after the 2023 draft, the Jags' defense is still thought of nationally as a bottom-third unit as outlined here. If it's fair to question the sixth-ranked defense in the league, isn't it fair to examine the Jaguars' defense as well?
The Jacksonville Jaguars are hoping for a better defense in 2023.
So, what about the Jaguars' defense?
To make matters a little muddier, the Jaguars ran a sort of hybrid 4-3/3-4 combo last year under first-year coordinator, Mike Caldwell. Also, they ran more plays out of nickel than base, as experts quickly tell you. But, their base defense was a 3-4 at its core.
The D did appear to improve as the year went along and the team expects familiarity to help the unit improve in 2023.
So, while a shift in philosophy is not currently a hot topic in Jacksonville, the team could be flying under the radar with a scheme adjustment few are thinking about.
What if the Jaguars are planning to run a lot more 4-3 next year?
A potentially confusing point to understand is who qualifies as a linebacker in the two schemes. The 3-4 defense has 4 "linebackers" and the 4-3 defense has 3 "linebackers". So, you might think you need more linebackers to run a 3-4 defense.
However, the outside linebackers in a 3-4 are really more like defensive ends. These are EDGE players like Josh Allen and Travon Walker. So, while there are technically more linebackers in total in the 3-4, there are actually more off-ball linebackers in a 4-3.
How the front 7 looks in the 3-4
Last year, when the Jags deployed their standard base defense, it looked something like this:
Linebackers: Allen, Oluokun, Lloyd, Walker
D-Line: Robertson-Harris, Hamilton, Fatukasi
Of course, there were exceptions and variations but that was the base personnel a lot of the time when running the 3-4. All of those players are returning in 2023 so it's reasonable to think not much is going to change in the front 7. But, consider some other factors.
There were several developments in the 2023 NFL draft that were curious for the Jaguars. Taking 13 players notwithstanding, one pick that seemed a little odd was Ventrell Miller.
The Jags already have a tackling machine at linebacker in Foye Oluokun, and they took their lumps with two rookie linebackers in Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma. That's 3 off-ball linebackers manning two positions. So, why in the world would they be interested in another off-ball linebacker?
The official answer was to add depth and help with special teams. But, if a switch to a 4-3 is in the offing, another true middle linebacker makes sense. Several other draft picks would fit in as depth pieces in a switch to a 4-3 as well.
How the front 7 might look in a 4-3
Linebackers: Oluokun, Muma, Lloyd
D-Line: Allen, RRH, Fatukasi, Walker
Notice Josh Allen and Travon Walker are still the starting EDGE defenders. They merely alter their pre-snap stance and become down linemen instead of stand-up outside linebackers. There are several advantages to this alignment from a personnel perspective.
The interior defensive tackles become one of the strongest units on your team with a stout rotation of Roy Robertson-Harris, Foley Fatukasi, and Davon Hamilton. They are all being paid well, so you could expect a healthy rotation with everyone getting lots of snaps regardless of who starts.
Moving Lloyd to strongside linebacker (SAM) would arguably better utilize his talents, which would thereby force Travon Walker to his more natural position as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end.
Last season, many observers noted that Walker appeared to be more effective when he had the opportunity to rush from a down position on a 4-man line, as opposed to a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker.
Walker was the Jaguars' number one overall draft pick last year. If any single player would provoke a change in philosophy in order to maximize his talent, he would do it.
Josh Allen has played in both systems with his best year coming as a down defensive end in a 4-3 during his rookie year.
Statistically speaking, Allen had a better season than it would seem last year, leading the team in pressures if not sacks. Still, a return to double-digit sacks next year would be welcome, and if putting his hand on the line of scrimmage more often would help, all concerned would likely be for it.
Who would be the middle linebacker, or "MIKE," in that alignment? That's a key question, as Oluokun shined in his first season with the Jags and you wouldn't want to do anything to mess that up.
But, Oluokun also possesses ideal traits to wreak havoc as a weakside linebacker (WIL) in a 4-3, and the cerebral Chad Muma is nicely equipped to play middle, with natural instincts for the position.
In this scenario, there would even be room to keep a role player like Shaq Quarterman, who has performed his duties well when given opportunities.
If a surprise switch to a 4-3 is quietly in the works, the draft begins to look different. Rather than looking like a sort of odd gathering of random players in the mid to late rounds, the draft class begins to come into focus as a careful collection of quality depth pieces, like Miller, to back up the starters above.
Rookies like Lacy and Abdullah would slot in nicely as primary backups at defensive end in a 4-3, with Lacy providing Dawuane Smoot-like versatility to shift inside on passing downs, and Abdullah serving as an ideal speed rusher behind Allen.
All of a sudden, your front 7 goes from a group with question marks to a pretty stout defense with quality depth.
Maybe, maybe not
It's fair to note that there are plenty of other explanations for why the Jaguars drafted who they did and what their plans are for the defense in 2023.
One might argue the last thing they would want to do is nerf the experience earned last year by their top 3 defensive rookies, Walker, Lloyd, and Muma. Some national observers expect that investment to pay off next season:
"Lloyd was the Defensive Rookie of the Year for the first month of the season... That first month showed what he is capable of, and the plays he was able to make in coverage can be particularly transformative to a defense. With a season under his belt and an offseason to get up to speed, next season could be a breakout year."- Sam Monson, Pro Football Focus
Add to that comments like this one from Foye Oluokun and you might feel even more skeptical about a potential switch.
"A big jump, just because you understand where you’re supposed to be on every play. You’re going to watch all of this film, all these cut ups of plays you might have messed up on technically. Now, you’re going to see the same formation next year, so now it’s like, ‘Alright, I know I’m going to be here. I remember from last year they ran these kind of plays out of this formation."- Foye Oluokun
One might also point out that the defense is already a hybrid, not a true 3-4, with the team already running a 4-3 at times, necessitating versatile backups as described above.
That's true. But the intriguing catch in this discussion is just that. The Jaguars don't have to do much of anything to switch to a 4-3, because, by their own descriptions, they are already a 3-4/4-3 hybrid.
Even if they do make a change in philosophy internally, there likely won't be any big public announcement. They can just lean a little more into 4-3 alignments and no one is the wiser.
So, whether it is spoken of publicly or not, keep an eye out for some more 4-3 throughout the preseason and the first month of the regular season. If it happens and it works in September, it could shed some light on what they were doing in April.