JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There was a point in college, when Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue was still terrorizing Big Ten offenses at Maryland, when he realized that chasing down sacks was selling his skill set short.
Instead, he started zeroing in on the football. That, to him, was where the money was.
He had no problems blowing by tackles. He typically did it so quickly that he could see the quarterback dangling the ball without a care.
So he decided to focus on what mattered the most.
“Instead of going for the sack when the quarterback still has a chance to throw it, I’m going for the ball,” Ngakoue said. “Secure that ball, get the ball out, force a fumble, give your offense a chance to get back on the field.”
In the two years since the Jaguars took him in the third round of the NFL Draft, the strip-sack has become Ngakoue’s calling card and a huge part of what makes the Jacksonville defense so dangerous.
All season, the defense has been running relay races to the end zone.
It’s one thing that they got offenses to cough up the football more than any other team in the NFL, recording 33 takeaways.
They also flipped those turnovers into points more than any other team in the league, scoring eight defensive touchdowns.
Some of it’s simple, defensive coordinator Todd Walsh said, and some of it’s a skill refined over a lot of repetition.
“A lot of it is we’ve got good players, so they make plays on the ball,” said Walsh. “We have a lot of sack fumbles, and that is stressed heavily in the defensive linemen. We very seldom talk about sacks. We talk about sack fumbles. That is the most important thing, is we get the ball back to our offense.”
In 34 career games (including the postseason), Ngakoue has forced 11 fumbles. Four of the six he forced this season led to a Jaguars touchdown.
In last Sunday’s 45-42 playoff win over Pittsburgh that set up the AFC title game matchup with the Patriots, Ngakoue caught Ben Roethlisberger from behind, knocked the ball loose, and watched linebacker Telvin Smith sprint 50 yards for a touchdown.
It’s the type of play Ngakoue is trying to sniff out every down.
“I really like forcing a fumble,” Ngakoue said. “I like seeing my guys score. It’s a great feeling just seeing the change in momentum. It brings chills up your body.”
There’s no doubt in his mind how valuable it makes him as a defensive end.
“I think I’m the best at doing what I do as far as getting the ball out,” he said. “I don’t get as much notoriety, I guess, being a third-round pick.”
There’s no shortage of talent at each level of the Jaguars defense, but the combination of Ngakoue’s playmaking and the experience of Pro Bowlers Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson makes the line the place where all the havoc starts.
“Guys work hard, and we know that if we get our hands on some balls, just throw a block because it’s coming back to the end zone,” said Campbell.
The mind-set was ingrained long before the season started, and their traits rubbed off on one another.
In his 10th season, Campbell had the kind of work ethic that made teammates redefine their own. Jackson remembered the first time Campbell invited him to stick around after a Wednesday practice for extra work.
“The first time we did it, I was kind of iffy,” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘Ah, we do a lot of work already.’ ’’
But he came back every Wednesday.
“The way he works in the summer, you have no reason to look at yourself and say, ‘Well if he’s super old Father Time, moving like that and working like that, who am I going into Year 6 that I can’t do that type of thing?’ ” Jackson said.
It wasn’t as if Jackson hadn’t figured out what worked for him.
In four years with the Denver Broncos, he racked up 14½ sacks. In 2015, he was a part of a menacing defense that led the NFL in nearly every meaningful category and ultimately pushed the Broncos to a win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship game en route to a Super Bowl title.
He has been a resource all week. He asked the Jaguars film department to add the footage from that game to everyone’s iPads and specifically told Ngakoue and defensive end Dante Fowler to watch.
“I’ve been able to share what I learned in that 2015-16 season,” Jackson said. “I told Yannick and Dante to watch [DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller] to know what they were thinking and what they were doing. I just told them the thought process we had going into that game as far as what we were thinking rushing Tom Brady and what we had to do to beat that O-line.”
Having voices that have been on football’s biggest stage adds another layer to a talented defense, Walsh said.
“The leadership with Calais and Malik is unmatched,” he said. “That leadership’s going to be big. Overall, I’d say we’re a young team, but we’ve got some great leaders, and those leaders are going to take us as far as we can.”
Jackson was coy about what the key to slowing down Brady and the Patriots might be.
“A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” he said with a grin. “We’ll show you Sunday.”
As that Broncos defense threw itself into the conversation about some of the greatest in NFL history, he believes the Jaguars eventually will have that opportunity too.
“I think that we compare very nicely,” Jackson said. “I think where we are right now is a special place. But we won’t be able to see to compare unless we go all the way.
“If we don’t go all the way to the Super Bowl this year, then what we’ve done would be all for naught and we’d have to try again next year.”