By Rich Manfredi - @PhillyOwl
In 2013 and 2014, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” helped bring the Seahawks a Super Bowl title and an NFC championship, respectively. In 2015, the Denver Broncos’ secondary, also known as the “No-Fly Zone,” brought that squad a Super Bowl championship. These two secondary units have been the undisputed cream of the pass defense crop during this entire decade, which is all the more impressive considering the game’s transformation due to the passing attempt boom of the 2011 season.
This year, we’ve witnessed a young upstart snatch the title of NFL’s Scariest Secondary. They don’t have a snappy nickname yet, but the Jacksonville Jaguars pass defenders are dominating the league like neither of these historic units ever did.
Led by second-year superstar Jalen Ramsey, the Jags are making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. It certainly helps that they have a fearsome pass rush; Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler and Malik Jackson have combined for 33 sacks… that’s equal to or more than 29 of the league's 32 teams have as a team.
Jacksonville’s success certainly can’t all be placed on the shoulders of pass rushers, though. Ramsey and big-ticket free agent A.J. Bouye from Houston are on pace to combine for 39 passes defensed and 9 interceptions as a duo this season. Ramsey is the definition of a lockdown corner, and though he was out of the Week 12 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, he has taken the throne from Patrick Peterson as the NFL’s top shutdown option in just his second season.
The safeties are a referendum on the “you can’t build through free agency” narrative. Signed in the 2016 & 2017 offseasons, respectively, Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church have come up huge. Church is playing solid football after a career season in Dallas, and Gipson is proving to be the ball hawk Jacksonville pined for when they signed him from Cleveland. The free safety had just one interception in 2016 after averaging almost 6 per 16 games from 2012-2015 in northern Ohio, but he has snagged three INTs through eleven games thus far in 2017. Having been buried in the mess that is the Cleveland Browns, Gipson’s star was never able to shine properly, but he is (deservedly) getting more attention as a member of the Jags.
On pace for 13 TD/20 INT/5.90 YPA/57.2% in the 2017 season, the Jaguars are on a course for a 66.5 total passer rating. In the entirety of the runs of both the Legion of Boom (2011-2017) and the No-Fly Zone (2014-2017) that number has only been bested once: 63.4% by the 2013 Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
Injuries played a major role in the Legion of Boom's demise this year, as two thirds of the unit (Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor) both currently sit on injured reserve. The other third, free safety Earl Thomas, is banged up and has missed time as well. Despite the legitimate injury roadblocks, all three of these players are in their late 20s, which is generally considered the second half of a player’s prime. They all have useful years left in them, but with the injuries, it’s not absurd to think we’ve witnessed the Legion of Boom’s peak.
We’re in just the fourth season with Denver’s No-Fly Zone (revolving around star cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib) but we have almost certainly seen their peak already. After a 2016 season with a league-best 69.7 passer rating against, the NFZ has regressed badly in 2017 (currently with a 101.2 rating against, 28th in the league). They are on pace to surrender 35 TDs this season after giving up just 13 (less than one per game on average) last year. In their last four games alone, Denver has given up a combined 12 TDs to Carson Wentz, Tom Brady, Andy Dalton and Derek Carr.
Denver’s regression is harder to diagnose than Seattle’s; sure, Talib is 31 now, but it’s not like 2016 was that long ago. Departed safety T.J. Ward is certainly a quality player, but the loss of him alone does not explain an increase of 24 passing touchdowns. Plus, they still have future Hall of Famer Von Miller wreaking havoc on quarterbacks for them.
With passers like Trent Dilfer winning rings, and players like Rex Grossman getting to the big game, we all know that a vicious defense can lead a team to a title. It worked as recently as 2015 for the No-Fly Zone, as they effectively hid the older model of Peyton Manning.
It’s been seven years since either the Legion of Boom or the No-Fly Zone wasn’t the top pass defense in the NFL. The struggles of Blake Bortles are well documented… is it possible that this Jaguars secondary could carry him to a title? Lesser units have carried worse quarterbacks to championships, so it’s not out of the question.
Rich probably loves the NFL too much, the NHL too little, and the NBA/MLB just the right amount.