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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Sunday’s uncharacteristic meltdown doesn’t change the fact that the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense is one of the league’s best.

It’s not on the same historical pace it was for much of the season, but the Jaguars still lead the NFL in sacks (52) and pass defense (173.5 yards per game), are second in scoring (16.9 points per game) and third in total defense (289.7 YPG).

The unit has come a long way in only two years.

The Jaguars ranked 20th or worst in those same statistical categories, including 31st in scoring (28.0 points per game), in 2015, which was one of the main reasons quarterback Blake Bortles set franchise records in attempts, completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns. The Jaguars were always trailing … by a lot.

The journey from the bottom of the defensive rankings to the top might have happened quickly, but it wasn’t easy. The Jaguars (10-5) had to hit big time in the draft and nail free agency by targeting the right players and having enough salary-cap space to afford them.

General manager Dave Caldwell did both, and here’s a look at how it all came together:

The draft

Caldwell gets plenty of criticism for his first draft in 2013 and his selection of Bortles third overall in 2014, but he absolutely nailed his first three picks of the 2016 draft: cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.

Ramsey made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and has established himself as one of the best man-coverage corners in the NFL. He takes the opponent’s top receiver each week, and this season has locked down T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green, Sammy Watkins, Larry Fitzgerald, and Doug Baldwin.

Ramsey led all rookies with 14 pass breakups, and intercepted two passes and forced a fumble in 2016.

Jack had a nondescript rookie season because he wasn’t able to settle at one spot. He started working behind Paul Posluszny in the middle, moved to weakside linebacker behind Telvin Smith, and eventually settled in at strongside linebacker. He played only 230 snaps.

The Jaguars moved him to middle linebacker in the offseason and slid Posluszny to the strong side. Jack has started every game and has a fumble return for a touchdown.

Ngakoue has been fantastic in his two seasons. The third-round pick ranks ninth overall in sacks (20) and first in forced fumbles (10) since the start of the 2016 season. He has been the second-best pass-rusher from the 2016 draft, behind only Joey Bosa (22 sacks), and has outperformed first-round picks Leonard Floyd (12.5 sacks), DeForest Buckner (nine), and Shaq Lawson (six) and second-round picks Noah Spence (6.5) and Emmanuel Ogbah (9.5).
The Jaguars’ investment in Calais Campbell has paid off big, with the defensive end notching 14.5 sacks in his first 15 games with Jacksonville. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
Three other starters or key contributors on the defense also were Caldwell draft picks: Linebacker Smith (fifth round, 2014), defensive end Dante Fowler (first round, 2015) and nickelback Aaron Colvin (fourth round, 2014).

Smith has become the Jaguars’ emotional leader and one of their most consistent playmakers, with a team-high 93 tackles (11 for loss), three interceptions, two fumble recoveries (one for a TD) and five pass breakups. Fowler missed his first season because of a torn ACL but developed into a solid complementary pass-rusher (11.5 sacks, including 7.5 in 2017) over the past two seasons.

The Jaguars drafted Colvin despite the fact that he suffered a torn ACL three months before the draft during Senior Bowl practices. He missed the first 10 games of his rookie season but has developed into the team’s top nickelback.

Free agency

The Jaguars spent big in free agency in 2015 on tight end Julius Thomas and defensive end Jared Odrick, but structured those deals so that the combined $46.5 million in guaranteed money was paid out in the first two years. They were both cut after 2016 with no dead money and that — along with not having to sign any of the 2013 draft picks to an extension — left Caldwell with plenty of cap space to go big last March.

And he did.

Caldwell added defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church on the first day of free agency, giving out a combined $68 million in guaranteed money to the trio. It was definitely money well spent, because that group is already the best free-agent class in franchise history.

Two of those three signees are Pro Bowlers and one is a serious candidate for defensive player of the year.

Campbell (four years, $60 million, $30 million guaranteed) has enjoyed a career year in 2017, with a franchise-record 14.5 sacks and team highs with 30 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for loss. He was voted to his third Pro Bowl and trails NFL leader Chandler Jones by just half a sack.

Bouye (five years, $67.5 million, $26 million guaranteed) leads the Jaguars with a career-high six interceptions and 18 pass breakups, which ranks fourth in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, Bouye has allowed only 37 catches for 430 yards and no touchdowns, and opposing quarterbacks have a 31.6 rating — lowest in the league — when throwing in his direction.

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Bouye, who also was voted to the Pro Bowl, combines with Ramsey to give the Jaguars the best cornerback duo in the NFL.

Church has played a key role in the Jaguars’ defense even though he doesn’t have outstanding stats. The eight-year veteran is the calming voice in a secondary full of egos and trash talk, and he’s the player coach Doug Marrone goes to when he sees a problem with anyone in the group.

His teammates have nicknamed him Uncle Church, and he’s been a valuable buffer and pipeline between the secondary and the coaching staff. He also has set career highs in interceptions (four) and pass breakups (eight).

Defensive tackle Malik Jackson was the cornerstone of Caldwell’s 2016 free-agent class. He signed a six-year, $86.1 million contract with a franchise-record $46 million guaranteed. After posting a career-high 6.5 sacks in 2016, he has bettered that in 2017 (8.0) and earned his first Pro Bowl nod.

Safety Tashaun Gipson came over in 2016 on a five-year, $36 million deal with $12 million guaranteed. After tying his career low with one interception his first season in Jacksonville, he has rebounded with four this season as his role has expanded.

The coordinator

Good players are important, but so is someone who is able to put them together in a scheme in which they can thrive. That’s what Todd Wash has done in only his second season as a defensive coordinator.

Marrone retained Wash from Gus Bradley’s staff, but Wash is not running the same defense he ran in his inaugural season as a coordinator under Bradley. That was Bradley’s defense, which he brought with him from Seattle when he was hired as Jaguars head coach in 2013. The 4-3 alignment — with a big end and rush end (called a Leo) — featured a box safety and single-high safety, and Bradley rarely deviated from that approach.

Wash, who came with Bradley from Seattle, called the defense that way.

However, he scrapped the Leo, modified the duties of the strongside linebacker and was more flexible in his coverages. He was obviously helped by the free-agent additions, but that’s particularly true with Church because he gave Wash the ability to have interchangeable safeties.

Church is much better in coverage than Johnathan Cyprien, so Wash was able to move around Church and Gipson. The Jaguars are no longer playing almost exclusively a single-high safety. When they do, it might be Church, and not Gipson, who’s deep.

The Jaguars are playing more quarters coverage, and there have been times when Ramsey has played safety, too. There’s just more variety in what Jacksonville does in the secondary, which the players really like.

It took a bit to figure that out, though, because the Jaguars weren’t able to put their starting secondary on the field until the season opener, because each player in the group dealt with injuries at one point or another throughout camp and the preseason.

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It all came together for Wash, though, in the Jaguars’ Week 5 game at Pittsburgh. The Jaguars intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times and won 30-9. That’s when Wash realized the defense could be special.

“The Pittsburgh game was big for us,” Wash said. “You go and you play against a really good quarterback and you play well. I think that’s really how you really look at your defense: How well do they play against really good quarterbacks?

“We thought we were going to be solid from that point.”

They’ve been better than solid, and it all came together in two years.

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