The secret to beating the Jaguars’ vaunted pass defense is in the numbers. Specifically, the number of wide receivers an offense uses. And to beat the Jaguars pass defense, the fewer wide receivers an offense uses, the better.
The standard NFL personnel grouping is “11 personnel”, which means 1 RB, 1 TE and 3 wide receivers. It’s used in the NFL on roughly 59% of offensive plays. No other formation is used even 20% on average.
The Jaguars own offenses in 11 personnel. When an offense trots out 1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs, the Jaguars pass defense allows a ridiculous 39% success rate, 4.9 YPA and a 73 passer rating.
If an offense aligns more than 3 wide receivers, the story is the same. As such, when an offense lines up with at least 3 WRs on the field, the Jaguars pass defense holds them to a 39% success rate, 5.0 YPA and a 59 passer rating. That’s incredible. It’s the best in the NFL. These are targets to all players on the field, not just WRs.
However, here is the secret about wide receivers when facing the Jaguars pass defense: less is more.
When these same offenses lined up in 12, 21, 22 or any grouping with no more than 2 WRs on the field, the Jaguars pass defense allowed a 55% success rate, 9.6 YPA and a 99 passer rating.
That difference is ASTONISHING. Especially considering that these are the exact same teams, with the same quarterbacks, in the exact same games. The difference is simply the personnel grouping they trot onto the field:
- 3+ WRs: 39% success rate, 5.0 YPA, 59 rating
- 2 WRs or less: 55% success rate, 9.6 YPA, 99 rating
And here is how those performances rank league wide:
DIGGING DEEPER INTO THE PERSONNEL GROUPINGS
The disparity in those two sets of numbers above is, indeed, astonishing. Digging deeper into the groupings, courtesy of Sharp Football Stats, here is a look at the Jaguars pass defense based on opponent personnel grouping:
As is evident, passing offenses have an extremely poor success rate when passing with 3+ WRs, and are terrible in 11 personnel specifically. Obviously the Jaguars are a stud defense and have tremendous talent on that side of the ball. But one of the reasons the Jaguars have enjoyed more success is that teams who played them used 11 personnel on 63% of offensive snaps. That 63% ranks as the 5th most in the NFL. Thus, a defense with the best 11 personnel pass defense in the NFL has enjoyed the ability to have offenses use 11 personnel against them at the 5th highest rate in the league. It doesn’t seem to make sense, which tells me that either some teams don’t know of the Jaguars pass defense by personnel grouping, or they don’t care. Most likely, it’s a little of both.
Digging even deeper, here is a look at the positional success against this Jaguars pass defense, by formation:
In 11 personnel, the Jaguars dominate wide receivers, holding those WR-targets to a 36% success rate, 4.7 YPA and an extremely low passer rating of 35.3. But it’s not just WR targets that are worse from 11 personnel. In fact, targets to every position (TEs, RBs and WRs) deliver a lower success rate in 11 personnel and a higher success rate in 12 or 21 personnel.
On early downs (1st and 2nd down), it is clear that opposing offense have been limited tremendously at the WR position. However, on these early downs, targets to RBs and TEs from 11 personnel have substantially higher success rate, YPA and passer rating, as the below table illustrates:
TEAMS TO DEFEAT THE JAGUARS
The Jaguars are 12-6 on the season. Examining the 5 teams to defeat the Jaguars in regulation this year (Jets won in overtime), there appears to be a common bond. All of these teams except one ranked bottom-10 in usage of 11 personnel. They rarely use 11 personnel when compared to the league average. At Sharp Football Stats, I track personnel usage and efficiency, and share a sample of this on the Personnel Grouping Frequency page. The teams to defeat the Jaguars in regulation, along with their ranking 1-32 of 11 personnel usage and the actual usage percentage:
- Titans (week 2) – #1 lowest “11” rate (39%)
- Titans (week 17) – #1 lowest “11” rate (39%)
- Cardinals – #2 lowest “11” rate (39%)
- 49ers – #7 lowest “11” rate* (48%)
- Rams – #1 highest “11” rate** (77%)
*The 49ers were fascinating because, for the first half of the year, they used 11 personnel a lot. Through the first 7 weeks, they used 11 personnel on 62% of offensive snaps, which was 15th most in the league at that time. But in large part due to injuries, they shifted to much less 11 over the rest of the season. The final 5 weeks that have been charted (through week 14) the 49ers used 11 personnel on just 48% of their offensive snaps, which is a decrease of 14% from the first half of the season and is 11% lower than average. A 48% usage would rank as the #7 lowest rate over the entire season. (Since the week 16 49ers game against the Jaguars was not charted previously, I charted it on Tuesday. I’ll share more detail on this game, but the 49ers used 11 personnel on just 21 of 66 offensive snaps against the Jaguars, a 32% rate.)
**The Jaguars game against the Rams was NOT won by Jared Goff and the passing offense. The Rams scored just 1 TD offensively and produced two drives that resulted in field goals, one drive which started nearly in Greg Zuerlein’s FG range (the Jags own 45). The Rams went 57% run in the game, including 65% run on early downs. On early down runs, Rams RB Todd Gurley averaged 5.7 YPC and produced an insane 84% success rate on runs. Meanwhile, Goff produced just a 33% success rate through the air. On all downs, Goff averaged 4.5 YPA, took 3 sacks and delivered a 33% success rate. The Rams are the NFL’s most frequent 11 personnel team, and when they used 11 in the pass game, it was a disaster. And it in no way came close to doing enough to defeat the Jaguars. The Rams used 11 personnel on 41 offensive plays, and posted a 39% pass success rate with just 6.1 YPA. The only other grouping they used for more than 2 plays was 12 personnel. In 12 personnel, the Rams passing offense posted a 50% success rate and 7.5 YPA.
[Note: The Jaguars eventually lost in overtime to the Jets (the #18 lowest “11” rate) in a game that the Jets offense was absolutely terrible in, producing only a 41% success rate on all plays. But the Jets dominated on the goround, rushing for more yards (256) than they passed for, and averaging 8.0 yards per rush. They did not have a very successful day on the ground (only 38%) but busted out 5 explosive runs, accounting for a large chunk of their total. The Jets were also +1 in turnover margin.]
Over the remainder of the article, I’ll refer to the teams that use 11 personnel much less than league average as “light-11” teams. A couple of illustrative examples of how these “light-11” teams performed, in and out of 11 personnel, against the Jaguars:
In week 2 against the Titans:
- Passing from 11 (9 att): 44% success rate, 4.7 YPA, 85 rating
- Passing from 12 (6 att): 50% success rate, 10.2 YPA, 110 rating
- Passing with 3+ WRs (12 att): 42% success rate, 5.2 YPA, 78 rating
- Passing with 1-2 WRs (11 att): 64% success rate, 13.9 YPA, 121 rating
In week 12 against the Cardinals:
- Passing from 11 (15 att): 27% success rate, 1.7 YPA, 43 rating
- Passing from 12 (7 att): 71% success rate, 13.6 YPA, 153 rating
- Passing with 3+ WRs (30 att): 40% success rate, 4.9 YPA, 77 rating
- Passing with 1-2 WRs (7 att): 71% success rate, 13.6 YPA, 153 rating
UNDERSTANDING THE JAGUARS PASS DEFENSE WEAKNESSES VIA THE 49ERS
So we’ve established a few things about the Jaguars’ pass defense:
- They are OUTSTANDING against 11 personnel and any 3+ wide sets
- They struggle tremendously against sets with 2 or fewer wide receivers
- These results were not just situational, they translated into the Jaguars losing games to teams that utilize much less 11 as a foundation of their offense
The final point to make on “light-11” Jaguars opponents relates to the 49ers. As previously mentioned, the 49ers used 11 personnel on 62% of offensive plays through week 7, but dropped down to just 48% to close the season.
But in their game against the Jaguars, however, the brilliant Kyle Shanahan had even more devious things in mind to attack the Jaguars weaknesses. Whether this was planned based on 49ers grading of Jaguars pass defense in 11 (like I do at Sharp Football Stats) or not, Kyle Shanahan chose to use 11 personnel on just 21 of 66 offensive plays, or 32% of the time. Apart from their 2nd drive of the 2nd half (drive 7 of the game), where they got into rhythm with 11 personnel and left them on the field for 6 out of 7 consecutive offensive plays, the 49ers used 11 personnel only when absolutely necessary. Those times were:
- on 3rd down (nine times)
- on 1st and 10 (twice)
- in 2 minute offense at the end of the half (once)
- on 2nd and 11 (once)
- on 1st and goal (once)
After using nearly every personnel grouping around on their first drive, Shanahan basically “21’d” the Jaguars to death over the rest of the game. And while Jimmy Garoppolo threw 2 TDs and 1 INT from 11 while posting a strong 58% success rate, he was absolutely dominant from 21:
- Passing from 11 (12 att): 58% success rate, 5.6 YPA, 79 rating
- Passing from 21 (10 att): 80% success rate, 12.2 YPA, 118 rating
The bottom line was the 49ers used 11 personnel on only 32% of snaps, much less than even their trending rate, and like other teams, were much more dominant when passing from non-11 personnel. Here are a few selected passes from 21 personnel that were highly successful against the Jaguars in week 16, and each of these were on first down. The first targets a WR, the second targets a TE, and the final two target RB/FBs:
In the 49ers case, they chose 21 more than 12 to attack the Jaguars (44% of their plays came when using 21 personnel). They rarely used 21 or 12 on 3rd down, but when they did (3 passes) they were successful 100% of the time and averaged 9.7 YPA. They primarily went to 11 personnel on 3rd down, but were only successful on 50% of those 3rd down passes from 11, and averaged just 5.4 YPA.
11 PERSONNEL STILL HAS ITS PLACE AGAINST JACKSONVILLE
That said, it’s still advantageous to utilize 11 personnel against the Jaguars, but primarily if you want to run out of it. On the season, the Jaguars gave up a 52% success rate and 4.8 YPC on the ground to offenses in 11. Those numbers were worse than they gave up to any other personnel grouping.
I initially postulated that much of that production to 11 personnel run games came in 4th quarter garbage time, when the Jaguars invited the run if up big. However, in the game’s first 3 quarters, the Jaguars defense gave up a 52% success rate and 5.4 YPC to runs from 11 personnel.
The 49ers used 11 personnel on both of their two RB-rushing TDs of the game in week 16. The best rushing grouping for the 49ers against the Jaguars was 11 personnel, and they posted a 67% success rate, averaged 6.4 YPC and recorded the two TDs. Here is how those rushing TDs looked from 11 personnel:
WILL THIS INFORMATION HELP THE PATRIOTS?
Obviously teams that are “light-11” personnel teams have fared the best against the Jaguars’ pass defense. Fortunately for the Patriots, they are one of these “light-11” teams. The Patriots used 11 personnel the 6th least of any team in the league. They also used 21 personnel (the same formation that the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo used to torch this defense) more than any team in the league. The Patriots were the #1 most 21-personnel-heavy team in the league and were followed closely by the 49ers at #2.
When passing from 11 personnel this year, the Patriots were extremely successful, as the below numbers will show. But note how much better they were from 21 (used 26% of the time) and 12 (used 15% of the time):
- 11: 52% success rate, 8.3 YPA, 115 rating
- 21: 64% success rate, 9.0 YPA, 133 rating
- 12: 56% success rate, 9.5 YPA, 150 rating
There is no doubt that the Patriots are the most dangerous passing offense to face the Jaguars this season. But if the Patriots were an offense that used 11 personnel much more frequently, such as the Eagles or Rams (two top-10 passing offenses which are heavily 11-personnel dependent), they would not be as dangerous to this Jaguars defense. Look no further than the Jaguars dominating performances against the Steelers (another top-10 passing offense which is heavily 11-personnel dependent).
This year, the Steelers used 11 personnel the 4th most of any team in the league. There was a reason why Ben Roethlisberger struggled in the first meeting against the Jaguars. The Steelers committed the cardinal sin of passing a ton on the Jaguars out of 11 personnel, while infrequently running the ball out of 11. Take a look at these numbers comparing usage of 11 and 12 personnel for the Steelers offense against the Jaguars in their week 5 meeting:
- Passing from 11: 47 att, 43% success rate, 5.0 YPA, 43 rating (0 TDs, 4 INTs)
- Passing from 12: 3 att, 100% success rate, 24 YPA, 119 rating
The Steelers were successful when running from 11 personnel (50% success rate, 4.5 YPC), which was substantially better than their rushing production from any other grouping. But when lining up in 11 personnel, the Steelers passed the ball 82% of the time and ran it just 18% of the time.
Specifically as it relates to the Patriots, here is a look at their performance by position, player and personnel grouping when targeted in the passing game:
The Patriots have been very successful targeting Cooks in 11 personnel, but he is at his most dangerous in 12 personnel. Danny Amendola has been at his best in 21 personnel. Both he and Cooks are strong in all 3 of the Patriots primary personnel groupings. Chris Hogan is substantially better out of 21 personnel than when used in 11 personnel. Rob Gronkowski, while still good in 11 personnel, is absolutely dominant in 21 and 12 personnel. As mentioned above, the Patriots are very good from 11 personnel, but much more dangerous from 21 and 12 personnel.
The Patriots strengths actually match up quite well with the Jaguars defensive weaknesses. Looking at early downs, for example, the Jaguars are quite weak in 12 personnel to WRs, allowing a 60% success rate, 11.7 YPA and a 104 passer rating. That is diametrically opposed to what they allow to WRs in 11 personnel on early downs. On early downs in 12 personnel, the Patriots WRs have posted a 73% success rate, 17.7 YPA and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. It was the best personnel grouping to target WRs from all season for the Patriots.
On early downs, the Jaguars were very weak against RB targets in the passing game from 11 personnel, allowing a 52% success rate, 6.4 YPA and a 103.9 passer rating. The Patriots delivered almost identical results from 11 to RBs: 51% success rate, 6.3 YPA and a 100.4 passer rating.
The Jaguars were at their weakest on early downs to TEs from 12 personnel. Jacksonville allowed a 55% success rate, 12.6 YPA and a 99.6 passer rating. As it turns out, passing to Gronkowski in 12 personnel was the Patriots most successful time to target him (from formations with at least 3 targets). Brady posted a 56% success rate, 9.1 YPA and a 126.6 passer rating when targeting Gronkowski on early downs in 12 personnel.
SIZING UP THE JAGUARS PRIOR COMPETITION
Not only are the Patriots the most efficient passing offense to play the Jaguars this season, they couple that with being a terrible matchup for the Jaguars defense due to being a “light-11” personnel team.
Through 18 total games this year, the Jaguars played just 3 games against offenses which rank top-15 in both passing and rushing efficiency. Those were games against the Rams and Steelers (x2), two offenses which rank #1 and #4 in highest 11 personnel usage. The Jaguars game against the Patriots will be their 4th of the year against a team with both a top-15 pass and run offense, but the Patriots use the 6th least 11 personnel.
If we relax the offensive standards and isolate only games where the Jaguars faced a team with both passing and rushing offenses that each ranked better than 20th, the only other game that gets added is the game against the 49ers. A team that, like the Patriots, used much less 11 and much more 21 and 12 personnel. However, the 49ers offense was far more injury riddled and less skilled overall than the Patriots. And the 49ers had a quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo who is obviously very talented, but was making just his 6th NFL start, including just his 4th with his offensive coordinator. Despite those impediments, the 49ers played the Jaguars defense and produced a 58% success rate, including a 65% success rate on passes, drove the ball 6 times into the red zone and emerged with 44 total points.
While the Jaguars needed that game against the 49ers for home field advantage, there is no doubt that their game against the Patriots is a far bigger game for them. I would expect them to play better defensively than their poor performance in San Francisco.
It is clear that there is an evident and exploitable weakness to the Jaguars #1 overall defense, and that the Patriots have the massive leg up due to their personnel usage. While it will be suggested that the Patriots should run far more often to avoid this #1 pass defense, I think there are serious holes in that logic and do not agree that simply running the football on the Jaguars defense is the Patriots clearest path to victory. While I agreed that strategy should have been employed more by a “heavy 11” team like the Steelers, such is not the case with a “light 11” team like the Patriots. There are actually more holes and opportunities to attack this Jaguars pass defense for 21 or 12 personnel offense than meets the eye. And the 49ers, a “light 11” offense like the Patriots, laid out a perfect strategy in their dismantling of this seemingly impenetrable pass defense.
When you watch this game on Sunday afternoon, study how frequently the Patriots use 3 WRs (this will generally signify 11 personnel most of the time, for the casual viewer) and how often the opt to use only 2 WRs (this will generally signify 12 or 21 personnel most of the time). A very smart Patriots scouting department should be aware of these edges, and via less frequent 11 personnel usage, should be able to make the top Jaguars pass defense look more mediocre than may otherwise be expected.
To be perfectly clear, this article is not to suggest the Patriots will dominate all aspects of this game and emerge with an easy win. Not at all. The Jaguars are an extremely dangerous team, and has quite clearly the best pass rush is the best in the NFL. As Bill Belichick and Tom Brady know all too well, a strong and successful pass rush can derail any game plan. Just ask Tom Coughlin and his 5-2 record against the Belichick, including 2-0 in Super Bowls. There are the matchups on the other side of the ball, when the Jaguars are on offense (as well as in special teams) that will decide this game. For example, there are universes where, through turnovers and big plays, the Jaguars could jump out a 21-0 lead and force the Patriots to use more 11 than they otherwise would. Or bizarro universes where the Patriots throw out a total curve ball and use much more 11 personnel than expected by their own design. Just because this edge exists in the matchup does not mean it becomes one which is frequently exploited in the game and becomes the deciding factor.
But the discussion of the Jaguars pass defense and its performance in relation to personnel groupings faced by the Jaguars has not been made elsewhere. The goal of this article was to bring this element to light. I hope you will agree after reading this article and seeing the data presented, this narrative is certainly worthy of incorporating into the discussion and analysis of what I think could be another tremendous playoff game.
If I am the Patriots, I am taking a hard look at the numbers I presented above, related to what the Jaguars defense allows based on personnel groupings this year:
- 3+ WRs: 39% success rate allowed, 5.0 YPA, 59 rating
- 2 WRs or less: 55% success rate allowed, 9.6 YPA, 99 rating
I am realizing that the teams that had the most success against the Jaguars pass defense were just like me: “light 11” teams, so I am planning on emphasizing my 21 and 12 groupings, my RB-passes, and my fast-pass offense to prevent the Jaguars insanely good pass rush from getting home. I need to target my WRs less often in 11 personnel, and target my RBs more often. I need to run the ball more when in 11 personnel. And when I want big gains on early downs, I need to target my WRs in 12 personnel, a strength for me and a weakness for the Jaguars.
If I am the Jaguars, I am doing everything in my power to realize that I have a severe weakness against these types of offenses that don’t run 11 personnel nearly as much as the league average. I realize it will be my toughest challenge of the year, but as Sun Tzu teaches “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” I understand that the Patriots bring a passing offense perfectly built to attack my weaknesses. I am trying to account for this weakness and improve my results for Sunday. I’m also preparing my own offense to play more aggressively should my defense falter. I’m also planning to be less reactionary with my offensive strategy, knowing that I am 1-4 when trailing at halftime this year, including 2-15 in my last 17 games (since late-2015). And while I may want to hide Blake Bortles and win a lower scoring, defensive game, I need to seriously contemplate the potential that my defense may hemorrhage more points than it’s accustomed to, and I may need to ready more Bortles-centered offense than I would prefer. I need to try to stuff the run and force Brady to throw more, and hope that if I can take a lead, the Patriots throw more out of 11 personnel than they might like.
Note: personnel grouping frequencies and success rates, YPA and passer ratings based on personnel grouping frequencies is captured through all games as of week 14. The charting of the last 3 weeks has not occurred at the time of this writing, with the exception of the week 16 game between the 49ers and Jaguars.