EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There seems to be some confusion over exactly when it happened, but everyone involved agreed on this: Linebacker Telvin Smith predicted a defensive score, and his teammates answered.
Linebacker Myles Jack grabbed an Eli Manning pass that was deflected by nose tackle Abry Jones and returned it 32 yards for what turned out to be the deciding points in the Jacksonville Jaguars' 20-15 victory over the New York Giants. The Jaguars' defense did that kind of thing somewhat regularly last season, and what happened Sunday at MetLife Stadium might be an indication that it'll carry over into 2018.
"I think everybody understands that they know this defense scores touchdowns," Smith said. "We are almost an offense on defense.
"We just play ball, and we play with each other and for each other. Whatever the situation, we don't back down. We go out and attack."
The Jaguars' defense established itself as one of the NFL's best in 2017 in part because it scored a league-high seven touchdowns. Only two defenses have scored more defensive TDs in a single season in the past decade (New Orleans scored eight in 2009, and Chicago had nine in 2012). This year's unit would love to reach double digits, which has been done only once since 1991 (Seattle scored 10 in 1998).
That's a pretty lofty goal. Scoring seven is already impressive, and it'd be unreasonable to expect that kind of production again, especially when turnovers often depend on luck. An example is safety Barry Church's interception return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in October. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey deflected the pass, and if the ball had bounced the other way, it would have fallen harmlessly to the turf.
But this defense could do it, Jack said, because it's loaded with playmakers.
The Jaguars' starting defense has eight Pro Bowl players, including six who made it last season (Smith, end Yannick Ngakoue, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, Ramsey, cornerback A.J. Bouye and end Calais Campbell). Safety Tashaun Gipson and nose tackle Marcell Dareus have made Pro Bowls in the past five years, too. When you get that many good players in one spot, Jack thinks, it's hard for them not to make big plays.
"That's the cool part," Jack said. "We don't have a defense that's, I guess, the ordinary. We've got superstars. We've got Pro Bowl players. We've got first-round draft picks. We've got real guys on this defense. For us to be put in a box, it's not normal.
"Last year we had 10 sacks in the opening game, and nobody would have predicted that. We just have one of those defenses that I feel like is going to be great and guys are going to be talking about for a long time."
However, Sunday's touchdown was because one of the team's non-Pro Bowlers recognized something he had seen on film during the week.
"We saw a formation. I think they slammed down on Abe," Jackson said. "He recognized it, got out of it, put his hand up in the air, and Jack was right there where he was supposed to be. It's a beautiful thing when we're able to do things for our team and put our team in winning positions that teams don't usually do."
The Jaguars really needed it at that point, too. They were clinging to a 13-9 lead, and the offense was sputtering without running back Leonard Fournette, who left the game late in the first half with a right hamstring injury. The Giants began the drive at their 27-yard line, and just before play resumed after a television timeout, Smith made his proclamation.
"Right before the play, we said we were fixing to get a pick," Smith said. "I told the whole defense we're fixing to get a pick. We're fixing to make a play. It's going to happen right now.
"And it happened."
As for whether it can keep happening, we'll have to wait and see.