Welcome to Sacksonville, Home of the NFL's New Nasty Boys

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJanuary 4, 2018

Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell (93) celebrates a sack of Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates (2) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

JACKSONVILLE, Florida — "You," Yannick Ngakoue says, "are in Sacksonville right now."


It's a place where you find "11 savages, 11 dogs hunting every Sunday," the defensive end says.

It's a place where a quarterback sometimes is given a choice: your body or your football. And sometimes, there is no choice; he must surrender both.

It's a place where the residents can dominate verbally or physically.

It's a place where the bullied have become the bullies.

It's a place we may be talking about more years from now than we have until now.

An NFL-best seven defensive touchdowns. More takeaways than any team but the Ravens. More sacks than anyone but the Steelers

Ten sacks in Week 1 against the Texans, and 10 again in Week 7 against the Colts. A passer rating of 12 for Joe Flacco. Five interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger, and another three of Russell Wilson.

This is Sacksonville.

Instead of a statue of a snarling big cat, the Statue of Liberty could be on the banks of the St. Johns River, welcoming all to Sacksonville.

Safety Barry Church calls Sacksonville "a melting pot," with six starters having begun their NFL lives elsewhere. Church came from Dallas. Defensive end Calais Campbell, from Arizona. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson, from Denver. Middle linebacker Paul Posluzny, from Buffalo. Safety Tashaun Gipson, from Cleveland. And cornerback A.J. Bouye, from Houston.

Sometimes mixing cultures like this doesn't work. It does in Sacksonville. The newcomers—Church, Campbell and Bouye—have only made it more vibrant.

Last January, there were divisions in Sacksonville, even though the team was on its way to finishing the season with the NFL's sixth-ranked defense. Gipson and cornerback Jalen Ramsey let it be known that they didn't like the way they were being used, and Ramsey called for change.

"Last year, I don't think we had a good mix," Jackson says. "We didn't have the stability and wherewithal. We had a young DB core last year. This year, we have A.J. and Church, two guys everybody in this room should want to be like. And then with Calais, we have more examples of guys who are professionals who know how to do the right thing day in and day out."

This January, the Jaguars are AFC South champions, preparing for a Sunday date with the Bills in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.

And after giving up 44 points against the 49ers in the penultimate game of the season, Jaguars defenders say they are more focused than ever. "That game truly opened our eyes," Jackson says. "It showed us we weren't as prepared as we thought. So I think it was a blessing in disguise."

Church finds it "astonishing" the way hired hands have come together. Even their coach, the grizzled Doug Marrone, has taken note. "There is excellent communication between all three levels of the defense," Marrone says. "It's kind of hard to get that, especially when you are acquiring free agents like we have."

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Marrone undoubtedly is responsible for some of it. The first-year head coach, working under new Jaguars executive VP Tom Coughlin, created an old-fashioned football environment that fostered bonding. It began in May, when Marrone ran high-tempo OTA practices. Throughout the 10 practices, the Jaguars ran more than 1,000 team plays, according to coaches.

The ambitious pace continued in training camp, except with pads and pain. Multiple veteran coaches on the Jaguars staff said they had not seen such a demanding training camp since the new CBA restrictions kicked in six years ago.

"There were a lot of people frustrated and complaining," Bouye says. "Our bodies hurt. All this running. So tired. It was a little different. But the hard times we went through in camp brought us closer. We started spending time together off the field. We'd go out so we could laugh."

On Thursdays, the defensive backs get together to watch a game, bowl or take a few swings at Top Golf. The night before road games, they dine as a group at a restaurant in the town they are visiting. They also gather for one or two chapel services every week.

"That's what's helping us," Gipson says. "We have a brotherhood on the back end. That bond we share off the field helps on the field. These are the type of guys who will be at my wedding. I'm fortunate to have met them, not only as far as my career, but personally. We'll be friends for lifetime."

When Jackson threw a party for his daughter Nahla's second birthday in December, he invited teammates and their families. Many of them, though, decided to attend by themselves. 

"We all just gonna show up, and it's gonna be an adult party," says linebacker Telvin Smith, the holdover leader. "That just shows we're all for each other and we just want to be around each other. There is a genuine appreciation for the man next to you and a genuine respect for this game, so when I step on the field, I'm going to handle myself accordingly. I'm not going to play around and take this for granted. That's what I think people have done in the past in Jacksonville. Now we've changed that."

Every Friday, the defensive players meet for about 20 minutes after practice without coaches.

"We go around the room and talk about what we need to do," Ngakoue says. "For example, Calais may speak about the intensity we need. Malik speaks. Everybody has input."

In particular, when the 31-year-old Campbell talks, teammates listen. His approval is a commodity in the Jaguars locker room.

"He's the father figure," defensive coordinator Todd Wash says. "He's been around. He works extremely hard, not only in the classroom but out on the grass. He's constantly talking to the unit about our expectations, and he's a good voice."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Campbell isn't the player Reggie White was, but the 6'8" defensive end's impact on the Jaguars has been similar to White's impact on the Packers when he joined them 24 years ago after a run in Philadelphia.

Campbell, who has 14.5 sacks, even speaks with a deep, raspy voice that is reminiscent of White's.

"We have the ability to be one of the best defenses of all time, and I don't say that lightly," he says. "We have had a lot of busts, made a lot of mistakes. If we can do it right, nobody should ever move the ball on us."

Ramsey and Gipson have found contentment in the enhanced defense, in part because of the additions of Church and Bouye.

With more skill in the secondary, Wash has called for more split safety coverages as opposed to single safety high.

"Last year with [Jonathan] Cyprien here, I was predominantly in the middle of the field," Gipson says. "I had to be. It was frustrating to say the least. There is a versatility now we didn't have, and it's allowed me to open up and make more plays. For me, it's been a blessing to have Barry here. I'm able to guard tight ends, make more plays, contribute in more ways. Our skill sets go together very well."

Ramsey, in his second season, is the star here. It would not have been difficult to understand if he resented Bouye for being given an average annual salary of $13.5 million—or $7.7 million more than Ramsey's. But Ramsey appreciates his new teammate.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 03:  Jalen Ramsey #20 and A.J. Bouye #21 of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrate after Ramsey had an interception in the first half of their game against the Indianapolis Colts at EverBank Field on December 3, 2017 in Jacksonvill
Logan Bowles/Getty Images

"Last year, quarterbacks stopped targeting me and went the other way," Ramsey says. "This year, A.J. got some of those targets and took advantage of it. So it's opened it up for me. I'm getting more opportunities to show what I can do."

Between them, Ramsey and Bouye have 35 passes defensed—as many as any cornerback combination in the NFL. The Jaguars also have 21 interceptions this season after totaling a league-low seven last year.

So many footballs that were intended to end up in end zones instead are ending up on fireplace mantels all over Sacksonville.

An NFL census might show Sacksonville has more talent per capita than anywhere.

Three Jaguars defenders—Ramsey, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and defensive end Dante Fowler—were top-five picks in their drafts. Outside linebacker Myles Jack might have been a top-five pick as well, if not for a degenerative knee condition.

Four Jaguars defenders—Dareus, Jackson, Campbell and Bouye—rank in the top seven in the NFL for average salary at their positions. That helps explain how the Jaguars are using 48.44 percent of their cap space on their defense, according to Spotrac. It's the fifth highest percentage allotted to a defense in the NFL.

Four Jaguars defenders—Bouye, Campbell, Jackson and Ramsey—were voted to the Pro Bowl, and two more—Ngakoue and Smith—probably should have been.

The defensive talent was one of the factors that led Bouye to choose the Jaguars over the Bears and Titans in free agency.

"When you come here, you understand what they are doing in the NBA with quote, unquote Superteams," he says. "If I could help with that, I thought we could change the league and change the game."

When training camp began in July, the Jaguars defense was loaded. Since then, attrition has diminished every unit in the league except this one. The Jags, incredibly, have had only two missed starts to injury—when Smith had a concussion. And now he's back, playing his position as well as anyone.

The Jaguars defense actually has more talent now than when it began its journey, as the team traded for Dareus in October. The former Pro Bowler gave a lift to a defense that already was above the crowd.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 12:  Marcell Dareus #99 of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates a play in the second half of their game against the Los Angeles Chargers at EverBank Field on November 12, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Logan Bowles/Ge
Logan Bowles/Getty Images

"In the league, everybody knows that's a big-time guy," Smith says. "When we see that we are getting that, we live, we live. I don't think there is a better rotation in the league than what we have up front."

In the seven games before Dareus' arrival, the Jaguars ranked 30th in run defense with an average of 138.6 rushing yards allowed. Since, they rank eighth with an average of 98.9 yards allowed.

Young players drafted by general manager David Caldwell—Ramsey, Jack and Ngakoue—have shown considerable growth this season. And at least four veterans—Bouye, Campbell, Church and Jackson—are having career years.

"We have a blend of energy and experience," Campbell says. "The young guys bring that energy to the field, flying around, having fun. The old guys bring the experience and leadership, they're grounded and understand the task in front of them."

Sacksonville is more than just a place or a name. It's a state of mind.

"This game is about who's the toughest, the baddest," Campbell says. "If you are that, you know it."

Smith channels rapper Gucci Mane. "He said some people are born with sauce and some people get lost in the sauce and some people just ain't got no sauce at all," he says. "When you understand that statement, you just got a bunch of guys with sauce. We ain't got lost in the sauce, we just got sauce, you know what I mean? That's that vibe, that's that swag."

The sauce has been drizzled all over the Jaguars' season.

For a team that hasn't played a meaningful game in January the past nine years, there is such a thing as a Jaguars complex. So the "no one respects us" theme has been quite useful in Sacksonville. 

Church experienced it in the preseason. On the first series of the third preseason game, Cam Newton led the Panthers 75 yards on 10 plays, and the Jaguars fell behind 7-0. Then Campbell, Smith and Posluszny called the defense together on the sidelines.

"We can't let this happen again," they told their teammates. "We're tired of being 3-9. We're tired of being the laughingstocks of the league."

Message received, attitude adjusted. "Even without our two starting corners, our starters pretty much shut them down the rest of the way," Church says. "And we've played dominant defense ever since."

The Jaguars defense is edgy.

Ramsey, one of the league's most notorious trash-talkers, goaded Bengals receiver A.J. Green by calling him "weak" and "soft" repeatedly while covering him. Green attacked Ramsey, and both were ejected from the game. "I was physically and mentally beating him down all game, and he did a punk move," Ramsey says now.

Jaguars defenders don't back down. Not even from one another.

After seeing the 49ers drive the ball downfield, Jackson wanted the DBs to explain why the coverage wasn't better. Colvin wanted Jackson to explain why the pass rush wasn't better. The exchange was good television, and the two needed to be separated.

Jackson and Colvin shrugged it off, appearing chummy together on a video on Jaguars.com

"I lost my cool," Jackson says. "We understand amongst each other we're brothers and things can get a little heated. We said it and we moved on. We're brothers now. It meant nothing."

It wasn't the first time something like that happened.

They were trying to ice a shutout against the Colts in October when Jaguars took issue with Jaguars. The decision had been made to have the defensive backs play off. Ramsey and the DBs, seeing opportunity for big plays, wanted to press and cover aggressively. The defensive linemen, meanwhile, were just fine with having their sack opportunities enhanced.

And so on the sideline, the voices were loud and the eyes were angry. "We were getting after each other in a way that people on the outside might think was tension or fighting words," Jackson says. "We had to figure some s--t out, and we got it figured out."

Campbell, Smith, Posluszny and others interceded. "We were able to fix the problem because we addressed it as a group," Smith says. "In order to be a dominant team, you have to have a lot of outgoing personalities. But we've eliminated the selfishness from our play."

The players believe friction has made them stronger. "The D-line wants to make all the plays," Gipson says. "We have two great linebackers in Myles and Telvin. They want to make all the plays. The DBs, we have guys on the back end who want to make all the plays. Our swagger dripped from the DBs, and it bled to the linebackers and the D-line. Now our swagger is through the roof."

How far through the roof? Gipson ponders the weeks ahead.

"You look at the MVPs," he says. "We got Russell. We got Ben. Are there that many others in the AFC? Oh, Tom Brady, of course. You want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Obviously, we want to play him, but whoever gets in the way of this train, we'll be excited for."

There might not be anywhere else where they are hoping to draw Brady.

Only in Sacksonville.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.