All signs point to Jaguars switching to a 3-4 base defense

The Jaguars plan to utilize K'Lavon Chaisson (left) and Josh Allen (right) in a way that best suits their skill sets. Defensive coordinator Joe Cullen said, "They can do a lot of things, and I'm excited." David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- New Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen was pretty clear: The scheme he is implementing will be adaptable. The Jaguars can line up as a 4-3 defense on one snap and then give a 3-4 look on the next.

With offensive coordinators trying to create mismatches with motions and misdirection and formations, defenses can’t be rigid. Lining up with the same look in the front seven every snap just isn’t the best way to go any longer.

“We are still evaluating our current roster and I’ve been [in the NFL] for 14 years -- eight years we were a 4-3 scheme, and six years we were a 3-4 scheme when we were multiple,” Cullen said. “It is all tailored to the personnel that you have, and in both schemes, you have the flexibility to do both.”

But if you had to pin down the Jaguars’ base look, it more than likely will be a 3-4 because that’s the best fit for their personnel.

The Jaguars have run a Cover 3 scheme out of a base 4-3 since former head coach Gus Bradley was hired in 2013: Three deep zones and four underneath zones and pressuring the quarterback with almost exclusively just the front four. It worked really well in 2017, when the Jaguars made a run to the AFC Championship game with a defense that led the NFL in pass defense and finished second in total defense, scoring defense, turnovers forced and sacks.

That unit had six Pro Bowlers on it, though: Defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Telvin Smith, and cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. The defense wasn’t nearly as good in 2018 despite having the same personnel and has floundered since. All six of those Pro Bowlers were gone by the start of the 2020 season.

The current personnel is more of a fit for a 3-4 than a 4-3. Defensive ends Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson dropped into coverage a lot in college at Kentucky and LSU, respectively, and neither has the build of the big end that set the edge against the run in the defense run by former coordinator Todd Wash. Allen is 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds and Chaisson 6-3, 254. Campbell was 6-8 and 300 pounds and former big ends with the Jaguars were Tyson Alualu (6-3, 304), Jared Odrick (6-5, 301), and Red Bryant (6-5, 326).

Allen and Chaisson are much better fits as outside linebackers in a 3-4, but Cullen said they will, at times, line up along the line of scrimmage to give the defense a different look.

“I have definitely evaluated those guys, not only coming out [of college], but obviously here,” Cullen said. “They could play in either scheme. Both of those guys are versatile, they are athletic. They can put their hand down, they can stand up. They can do a lot of different things, and I’m excited.”

But while that flexibility is valuable -- the buzz word is “multiple” -- a switch to a 3-4 makes sense especially when you consider that Cullen has spent the past five seasons as Baltimore’s defensive line coach under coordinators Dean Pees and Wink Martindale, both of whom ran a 3-4. In addition, the Jaguars’ new senior defensive assistant is Bob Sutton, who ran a 3-4 in six seasons as Kansas City’s defensive coordinator (2013-18).

And one more hint that the Jaguars’ base defense will lean toward a 3-4: They have an inside linebackers coach (Charlie Strong, who is also the assistant head coach) and an outside linebackers coach (Zachary Orr). There's no need to have an inside linebackers coach just for starter Joe Schobert and backup Shaquille Quarterman.

“The way that ball has evolved now, whether it be on a professional level or the collegiate level, you have to be very multiple on defense,” Strong said. “Sometimes you can show three-down, sometimes you can show four-down, but it also goes back to the personnel. We’ve been evaluating our personnel here in the last few days that we’ve been in, so we know that we have some personnel here, but you always want to get more.

“It’s going to be conversations here in the next upcoming days where we go around to each position and each position coach has a chance to talk about his personnel and what his needs are. But you’re looking at defenses, we’re going to be very multiple.”