More often than not, one of Jalen Ramsey’s least favorite activities is to stand in front of a media throng at his locker and answer even the most routine questions.
One-on-one, he can be very engaging, but the Jaguars’ All-Pro cornerback tends to treat a group inquisition like he’s about to undergo root canal.
That explains why when asked how much the reputation of the Jaguars’ standout defense would be elevated if they beat the Steelers at Heinz Field a second time Sunday in the AFC divisional playoff, Ramsey didn’t offer much insight, saying: “Uh, we would go to the AFC championship game, that would be dope.”
What’s dope, at least judging by a 17-game sample size, is the 2017 Jaguars’ defense potentially tracking toward being mentioned in the same breath with some of the NFL’s legendary units – the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2015 Denver Broncos, the “Legion of Boom” 2013 Seattle Seahawks, and yes, maybe the gold-standard 1985 Chicago Bears.
There’s just one major caveat holding up putting this young, bold, trash-talking unit on a pedestal with those memorable defenses. And Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose defense has been pretty formidable this season as well, nailed it by saying the truly elite defenses are usually associated with raising a Lombardi trophy.
“I don’t think anybody can say that [about the Jaguars’ defense],” said Tomlin. “Those great ones wear the hardware. I think that’s what we’re all in this tournament chasing. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of maybe some of those [defenses] and, you know, that’s what made you one of those teams, wearing the hardware. I think we all in this tournament are aware of that and I’m sure Jacksonville is as well.”
Tomlin wasn’t trying to diminish the Jaguars’ regular-season accomplishments as a quarterback-smothering, ball-hawking defense. Between their 55 sacks (second to Pittsburgh’s 56), 21 interceptions (second to Baltimore’s 22), 268 points allowed (second to Minnesota’s 252) and NFL-leading 137 points off takeaways, Todd Wash’s unit has earned a league-wide reputation as a beastly defense ready to take Jacksonville’s franchise into prominence.
“I think we’ve built quite a rep just in where we’re at now,” said linebacker Telvin Smith. “Teams know what’s going on when we step on the field.”
Still, those connected to this young defense, which only has one starter over 30 (Calais Campbell) and everyone else but nickel back Aaron Colvin and linebacker Paul Poslusny under contract through at least 2018, acknowledge they have to go the distance in the postseason to be in the conversation with the all-time best units.
“You make your legacy in the playoffs,” said safety Barry Church. “If we’re able to make a run in the playoffs, especially going against some of the game’s best quarterbacks and show dominance on our side of the ball, they got to put us up there with the great defenses.”
The numbers suggest the Jaguars are trending in that direction. In at least two pertinent statistics associated with great defense, average total yards (286.1) and points (16.8), the Jaguars are slightly behind all of those Super Bowl-winning teams mentioned except the 2015 Broncos.
But that Denver defense, which included current Jaguars’ defensive tackle Malik Jackson, enhanced its reputation greatly by allowing just 44 total points in three playoff games against quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh), Tom Brady (New England Patriots) and Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers).
“You guys ask me about the comparison to the Broncos [defense],” Jackson said. “Well, I can’t tell you because we haven’t finished the season. If you don’t hoist up that hardware, it doesn’t matter if you’re a top-5 defense if you’re not doing good enough in January. You can’t say you’re the best defense without carrying your team to the Super Bowl.”
For now, the Jaguars are building a reputation for stinginess. They already had seven games of holding an opponent to single-digit points, then followed up last week with a 10-3 AFC wild-card win over the Buffalo Bills.
It’s hard for opposing quarterbacks to look at tape and not think this is the NFL’s most scary unit. Four down linemen – Campbell, Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler – have at least eight sacks, only the second team in history to accomplish that feat. The starting secondary has combined for 18 interceptions, led by Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye with six. If that’s not enough, Myles Jack and Smith are among the fastest sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the league.
As good as this Jaguars’ defense is now, the potential for future dominance is promising. The ’85 Bears had the longest window of defensive greatness because free agency wasn’t around to break up the roster. Due to their favorable salary cap circumstances, the Jaguars might have at least two more years for the defense to carry them, but that’s contingent on staying as healthy as they did in 2017.
What isn’t up for debate is the opportunity awaiting them the remainder of this postseason. If the Jaguars take down Roethlisberger a second time, even without intercepting him a career-high five times like they did in October, then possibly go to Foxborough next week and knock off Brady’s Patriots, those are the kind of achievements that stand the test of time.
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re building that legacy, but definitely focusing on the Steelers,” Jack said. “What we’ve done is remarkable and outstanding, but we’re not done yet. We’re going to continue getting better, try to fight for another week to show why we’re the best defense in the NFL.”
And if the Jaguars hoist a Lombardi, either in three weeks or next three years, then this defense might well have a legitimate claim to stand alongside the greats.
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