Is the Jacksonville Jaguars' Current Strategy Sustainable?

The Jaguars dominated in Week 1 thanks to their defense and running game. Can that continue all year?

The Jacksonville Jaguars made a splash in Week 1. Such a big splash, in fact, that we're writing about them and it's mostly positive.

They made a conscious effort this offseason to retool the identity of their football team, focusing on defense and the run. This new identity worked better than even they probably could have hoped against the Houston Texans.

Jacksonville recorded 10 sacks, holding the combination of Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson to just 4.6 yards per attempt, the best performance against the pass in the season’s opening week. On the offensive side of the ball, rookie Leonard Fournette rushed 26 times for 100 yards with the sixth-most Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) for a running back in Week 1, while Blake Bortles had to throw just 21 times. With an additional 13 rushing attempts by non-Fournette players, the Jaguars had a pass-to-run ratio of just 0.54.

All went exactly to plan, but the question heading into the rest of the season is what -- if anything -- is sustainable?

Defensive Dominance

With the collection of talent assembled on defense thanks to the additions of Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Barry Church in free agency, there was potential to be a fun and quality defense. Collecting 10 sacks against the Texans was exactly that. But while we don’t want to get carried away by just one game, it seems unlikely a team would just fluke their way into a 10-sack performance, even if the Texans looked like they were starting five rookies along their offensive line.

Since 2000, there have been seven other teams that have recorded at least 10 sacks in a game. That’s not a large sample to take away any sweeping conclusions, but the fact it has only happened seven other times this century also says something.

Among those seven teams, just two came from defenses that were bad during the season in which that game occurred. The 2014 Washington Redskins put up 10 sacks in Week 2, but turned out to be the second-worst team by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play over the course of the full season and they had just 26 sacks over their other 15 games. Most teams on the list were fairly good defenses, though, like the 2010 New York Giants, who ranked fifth in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, and the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers, who were seventh.

Here’s the table of those teams with when the 10-plus sack game took place, where the team ranked by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play (Def. Adj. NEP/P) at the end of the season, and their full season sack rate.

Year Team Week Sacks Def. Adj. NEP/P Season Sack% (Rk)
2014 WAS 2 10 31 6.5% (19)
2012 SD 16 11 10 6.3% (t-13)
2011 BUF 8 10 28 5.4% (27)
2010 NYG 4 10 5 7.9% (9)
2007 NYG 4 12 14 9.2% (1)
2007 PHI 3 10 8 6.4% (t-11)
2001 PIT 6 10 7 9.5% (2)

There are examples that didn't pan out, like the Redskins and Buffalo Bills, but the talent on the defensive side of the ball for Jacksonville should put them closer to the five teams that turned out to be good season-long defenses.

One thing that will help them is that the Jaguars aren't just built around the defensive line. With Bouye and Jalen Ramsey at cornerback, it won’t be easy for opposing quarterbacks to throw the ball when they’re not being pressured.

Ground Game

Jacksonville should hope the defense reaches those high expectations because there’s not much the offense can without it.

Over the past five seasons, there have been only seven teams that have finished with more rushing attempts than passes. All seven averaged a positive point differential at the start of every drive. Only one team, the 2012 Redskins, had an average lead of below a point.

Year Team Pass to Run Avg. Lead/ Drive
2012 SEA 0.82 3.89 (2)
2013 SF 0.90 5.48 (1)
2013 SEA 0.91 5.04 (2)
2012 WAS 0.93 0.80 (13)
2014 HOU 0.93 1.11 (8)
2014 SEA 0.95 2.79 (4)
2012 SF 0.97 2.95 (4)

On the other side, there have been eight teams to finish as one of the five most run-heavy squads over the past five years with a negative game script at the start of each offensive drive. None of them made the playoffs and the average wins of those teams was 6.4. Five of them were clearly compensating for a passing offense that lacked ability to move the ball and score. Those five teams had an offense ranked 23rd or worse by Adjusted Passing NEP per play.

Below is a table with those teams, listing their pass-to-run ratio, their average lead per drive, along with ranks by Adjusted Passing NEP per play and Adjusted Rushing NEP per play.

Year Team Pass to Run Avg. Lead/ Drive Adj. PNEP/P Adj. RNEP/P Wins
2016 TEN 1.12 -0.47 (13) 11 14 9
2016 BUF 1.06 -0.94 (15) 19 2 7
2015 STL 1.14 -1.48 (15) 32 18 7
2015 BUF 1.00 -1.58 (16) 12 1 8
2013 BUF 1.04 -1.66 (17) 30 16 6
2014 NYJ 1.07 -4.90 (26) 23 13 4
2013 NYJ 1.06 -5.30 (29) 29 20 8
2016 SF 1.18 -5.63 (30) 28 13 2

Perhaps the 2015 St. Louis Rams could be a cautionary tale for these Jaguars. The Rams rode a top-10 defense (8th by Adjusted NEP per play) and a rookie running back, but a 32nd-ranked passing attack couldn’t get the team above .500.

Unlike those Rams, though, the Jaguars find themselves in a much weaker division. In 2015, the Rams had to battle the 13-3 Arizona Cardinals and 10-6 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West. Jacksonville has the chance to get a two-game lead on their biggest competition in a head-to-head battle this week against the Tennessee Titans. With a win, the Jaguars could be 2-0, with the only other team in the division with a win being the one they just blew out in Week 1. Jacksonville already has a 65.7 percent chance of making the playoffs by our numbers after, which will skyrocket with another victory this weekend.

Mostly, this will all come down to how great the defense can consistently be and whether the passing offense can do just enough to allow the run game to take over. As much as the Jaguars planned around avoiding the passing game, the ability for them to move the ball and score points might still be the biggest key.