JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)Jacksonville’s defense might be a statistical anomaly since key metrics don’t reflect just how good it’s been this season.

The Jaguars rank 15th in points allowed, 21st in total yards and 26th in sacks, spots hardly befitting one of the NFL’s top units. But Jacksonville has outperformed the numbers – and carried the team at times – thanks to a league-leading 15 takeaways.

These Jags are ballhawks.

“It’s just manifesting things we already talked about, envisioned,” said safety Andre Cisco, who is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. “It’s just happening on the field. And for us, it’s expected so it doesn’t even feel as crazy while it’s happening.”

The Jaguars (4-2), who have nine takeaways during their three-game winning streak, hope to keep it going at New Orleans (3-3) on Thursday night. And with quarterback Trevor Lawrence nursing a sprained left knee, the defense might need to do more against the Saints.

“If the quarterback doesn’t play … let’s put it on us to win the game,” linebacker Foye Oluokun said. “That’s probably the next step that we can take as a defense.”

Jacksonville, off to its best start since 2007, insists it saw its defensive evolution coming. Even though general manager Trent Baalke and coach Doug Pederson barely addressed that side of the ball in the offseason, they expected the young unit to grow.

Josh Allen, in the final year of his rookie contract, has seven of the team’s 12 sacks. Fellow pass rusher Travon Walker, the overall No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft, leads a run-stopping effort that tops the AFC and ranks third in the league.

Roy Robertson-Harris and Foley Fatukasi have been stout inside, second-year pro Devin Lloyd has made strides at inside linebacker and the talent-filled secondary has benefitted from late leads that force opponents into predictable passing situations.

And that’s led to a league-high eight interceptions – one in each of the last three games for cornerback Darious Williams – that could be more. Safety Rayshawn Jenkins had another one negated by a penalty in a 37-20 win against Indianapolis on Sunday, and Lloyd dropped two more potential picks because he’s wearing a partial cast on his right hand.

“There is still room to grow,” Allen said. “We are not where we need to be, but we are definitely heading in the right direction.”

A lot of Jacksonville’s success can be attributed to returning 11 defensive starters who are in the same scheme for a second year. Coordinator Mike Caldwell simply knows his players and what they do best. There’s little confusion before and during snaps and even fewer breakdowns as plays develop.

“Seeing it come to fruition is really cool for us,” Oluokun said. “We had confidence in ourselves all the time. I think it’s just being comfortable with who we have out there right now.”

The defense has more help on the way, too.

Although cornerback Tyson Campbell (hamstring) is expected to miss Thursday’s game, defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton is close to returning from a back infection that sidelined him nearly two months and left him on a six-week regimen of intravenous antibiotics. And veteran pass rusher Dawuane Smoot made his season debut against the Colts and played 32 snaps off the bench.

“He’s going to be a week-to-week improvement until he gets his legs under him,” Pederson said. “He did well, though. He did good.”

The same could be said about Jacksonville’s defense, which has allowed 21 or fewer points in five of six games. The outlier was a 37-17 drubbing at home to Houston last month, a stunner that dropped Jacksonville’s record the week before traveling to London to 1-9.

“We knew that was a fluke. We knew it was just a slow day for us,” Cisco said. “But it was definitely a wakeup call. Early on in the year, that’s what you want. Get it out of the way and we’ve been rolling from there.”

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