JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell re-watched his first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he noticed a recurring issue: The vaunted defense had chances to come up big late in games and failed.
It happened in four of Jacksonville’s final five losses, including – and most memorably – in the AFC championship game at New England.
Campbell felt as if the unit also could and should have done more against the Los Angeles Rams, Arizona and Tennessee.
“When I study the tape and those situations, I realize that as good as we are we have so much room for growth,” Campbell said.
With Campbell leading the way, “finishing” has become the defense’s motto for 2018. The Jags expect to be better in those fourth-quarter situations, knowing one stop could be the difference in a league that has a penchant for tight games.
“We have to have that mentality of crunch time,” Pro Bowl linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We know we are not front-runners; we can bang with you. We just have to put our foot on your throat and keep it there from the beginning to the end.”
Jacksonville’s defense was one of the best in the league in 2017. The group ranked second in points (16.8) and yards allowed (286.1) and first in yards per play (4.61), passing yards (169.9), third down rate (33.6 percent) and red zone rate (39.3 percent).
The Jaguars also had 55 sacks and set a franchise record with 33 takeaways.
In some games, it wasn’t enough.
Jacksonville had New England reeling in late January, leading 20-10 early in the fourth quarter. But the defense allowed Tom Brady to convert a third-and-18 play that led to a touchdown and later provided little resistance while trying to prevent the go-ahead score.
In the regular-season finale at Tennessee, the Jaguars trailed 15-10 with about four minutes remaining but gave up two first downs that helped the Titans to run out the clock and essentially seal the victory.
The defense also faltered twice down the stretch at Arizona in late November. The Jags led 17-16 in the fourth before getting torched for a long touchdown pass. They tied the game on the ensuing possession and kept it that way until Blaine Gabbert connected on two first-down passes in the final 16 seconds to set up a game-winning 57-yard field goal.
Those three losses came on the road. The Rams found similar success against the Jags in Jacksonville.
They were up 24-17 with about seven minutes to play and essentially put the game away by picking up three first downs that got them into field-goal range.
“It’s not a conditioning thing. It’s a mental thing,” Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson said. “That is something that is easily correctable. You just have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what it is. It is nothing wrong with what we are doing, us schematically. It is not that we are not in shape. It is just we have to have that mentality.
“You have to see the blood in the water. You have to go attack.”
The Jaguars expect to see gains from returning 10 defensive starters and having all of them in the same scheme for a second straight year. They also anticipate continued improvement from star cornerback Jalen Ramsey as well as linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
All that experience has Jacksonville making offseason tweaks to blitz schemes and third-down packages – and waiting for another late-game shot.
“You have to go out there when you have an opportunity, when it presents itself, whether it is a preseason game or during the regular season,” coach Doug Marrone said. “Then, you have to step up and do it and that will prove that you are able to do those things.
“I think that until you do that in those situations, there is always going to be a question mark. But having the thought of wanting to do that obviously helps because it keeps you aware of that situation.”
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