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Jaguars are atop the AFC South at their bye, but no one imagined defense would be the catalyst

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Pederson insists this is where he envisioned his team being at its bye week: atop the AFC South and with one of the best records in the NFL.

How the Jaguars got to this point? Well, that’s surprised everyone, including Pederson.

The Jaguars (6-2) have become a defense-first oddity in an offense-friendly league. It’s helped Jacksonville win five consecutive games and improve to 5-0 away from home.

The latest was a 20-10 victory at Pittsburgh in which Jaguars safety Dewey Wingard grabbed a “Terrible Towel” following a late interception and mockingly waved it on the field to celebrate. The Jaguars lead the NFL with 18 takeaways, including two in the fourth quarter on Sunday to prevent Pittsburgh from mounting any sort of comeback.

Jacksonville is now 13-4 over its last 17 games, tied with San Francisco for the second-best record in the league (behind Kansas City) over that span.

“It’s just confidence in our guys, confidence in the team," Pederson said Monday. "As a coach looking at our schedule and looking at the season and how things started out — it was a little rough — but to be here at 6-2, I expected that, the guys expected that.”

But with the offense leading the way, right?

“You would think so with the weapons and the firepower,” he quipped.

Instead, defense has been Jacksonville’s calling card. The Jaguars have allowed 81 points, 16.2 a game, during their winning streak. They’ve been stout against the run all season and arguably just as good against the pass thanks to 11 interceptions.

Steelers receiver George Pickens provided extra motivation by calling Jacksonville a “hope defense” leading into the game, saying the defense hoped its pass rush could get to the quarterback in time to save a shaky secondary.

“I don’t know how they thought we were going to come in and play, but we would have HOPED they would put up a better fight than that,” Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins chirped afterward.

Added Wingard: “If hoping is getting a ‘W,’ we’ll take the ‘W.’ … You don’t fire up a bunch of hungry dogs. It’s not smart. George, do better.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Jacksonville’s run defense has been among the best in the league, and it could get better with the return of defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton. The Jaguars are allowing 79.3 yards a game on the ground and 3.6 yards a carry — both fourth in the NFL.

The Steelers finished with 70 yards rushing, but just 32 of those came from running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Hamilton, meanwhile, played 14 snaps in his season debut. He missed the first seven games after being diagnosed with a back infection in August that required IV antibiotics.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Jaguars managed to overcome failing to score a touchdown in three trips inside the 20-yard line. Making their red-zone woes worse, they turned the ball over twice near the end zone. Tight end Evan Engram fumbled at the 19 and Trevor Lawrence threw an interception in the end zone on a first-and-goal play from the 6.

The last time Jacksonville went 0 for 3 in the red zone was in a Week 2 loss to Kansas City.

“It’s not the recipe, obviously,” Pederson said.

STOCK UP

Travis Etienne, who scored two rushing touchdowns in each of the three previous weeks, made the game’s biggest play. Etienne’s 56-yard TD catch late in the third quarter gave Jacksonville a 14-point cushion.

He finished with 149 total yards, the fifth time he’s eclipsed 100 this season. He has accomplished the feat three times in the last four games, proving to be a key cog in Jacksonville’s offense.

STOCK DOWN

Rookie running back Tank Bigsby fumbled for the second time in 24 touches this season, another turnover that could cause the coaching staff to lose confidence in the third-round draft pick from Auburn.

Bigsby already was being limited on passing downs because of concerns about his blocking ability. He has 23 carries for 54 yards and two touchdowns. He has one reception for 6 yards. He also tipped a pass in the season opener that resulted in a touchdown.

INJURIES

With a restful bye week ahead, the Jaguars expect to have CB Tyson Campbell (hamstring), S Andre Cisco (hamstring), WR Zay Jones (knee) and LG Walker Little (knee) back in the starting lineup against San Francisco on Nov. 12.

KEY NUMBER

3 — Number of times Jacksonville has won at least six of its first eight games in franchise history. The Jags started 6-2 in 1998 and 13-1 in 1999.

NEXT STEPS

The Jaguars have two weeks to get healthy and ready for San Francisco, which has lost three in a row for the first time since October 2021.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl