|LONG ON FOOTBALL: Once-dominant Jaguars defense in sudden decline|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 04 December 2007 10:18|
They are no longer an inept passing team, having found offensive balance after switching coordinators nearly as often as quarterbacks.
They also are no longer a dominant defensive team.
While coach Jack Del Rio spent the past four years searching for consistency on offense and on the scoreboard, the defense has deteriorated into mediocrity.
The Jaguars (8-4) rank 22nd in the league in total defense, a significant drop from the last four seasons in which they finished second, sixth twice and 11th.
Stout defense has been a hallmark under Del Rio, a former NFL linebacker whose coaching career started on that side of the ball.
The Jaguars would talk a big game, then back it up. They would shut down running backs with Pro Bowl tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, then tee off on quarterbacks and receivers.
They made it look easy, too.
And in close games, the defense usually came up big.
Against Indianapolis on Sunday, Jacksonville cut the lead to 28-25 with 3:01 to play. Del Rio expected his defense to get a stop and get the ball back to the offense for a potential game-winning drive.
It never happened.
Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark picked apart the secondary, Joseph Addai gained a few crucial yards and the Colts ran out the clock for their fifth victory in the last six meetings.
Missed tackles, missed assignments and one huge missed opportunity for Jacksonville, which blew a chance to tie for the AFC South lead.
The Jaguars found plenty of excuses for this one. They pointed to some questionable officiating calls. They accused Indy defenders of barking out snap calls that caused several false-start penalties.
They should have blamed themselves.
The defense allowed the Colts to convert 10 of 13 times on third down. Rookie safety Reggie Nelson got beat all over the field. And neither cornerback, Rashean Mathis or Brian Williams, could keep up with Wayne.
Of course, defensive meltdowns are nothing new for the Jaguars.
They allowed a franchise-record 282 yards rushing against Tennessee in the season opener. They allowed at least 380 yards against Houston, Indianapolis (first meeting), Tampa Bay, New Orleans and San Diego.
The Saints racked up 32 first downs, 538 total yards and 445 gross passing yards - all franchise records for Jacksonville.
Maybe the most telling stat of the season: the Jaguars have allowed a league-high 47 pass plays of at least 20 yards.
``We've given up some explosive plays in the pass game,'' Del Rio said. ``That has become an area of concern and one that we're going to give a lot of attention to. We know that in order for us to have success in December, and potentially beyond, we've got to shore that part of our game up.''
The defensive decline started when the front office allowed safety Deon Grant to leave via free agency, which essentially forced first-round draft pick Nelson into the starting lineup.
Nelson and fellow safety Sammy Knight have been picked on all season, embarrassingly exposed by Manning, Jeff Garcia and Drew Brees.
There's not much the Jaguars can do to prevent it, especially since they're not getting nearly enough pressure up front.
Linemen Henderson, Reggie Hayward and Bobby McCray have made little or no impact.
Henderson said he is having personal problems. Hayward might never return to form after rupturing his Achilles' tendon in 2006 and missing the season. And McCray, who had a career-high 10 sacks last year, can't seem to get near the quarterback.
The Jaguars also are playing without linebacker Mike Peterson, the team's top tackler and defensive leader.
Still, that's no excuse. After all, the same unit overcame countless injuries the last few years.
Stroud's return could help. He was suspended the last four games for violating the league's steroids and related substances policy.
But will it be enough?
``Our personnel is what it is,'' Del Rio said. ``We've got to do things better, more consistently and we'll coach through that.''
Despite the defensive slide, Jacksonville is still positioned to make the playoffs - thanks mostly to the emergence of quarterback David Garrard.
Del Rio points to Garrard's breakthrough as a sign that the team is moving closer to becoming one of the league's elite.
``In order to become part of that conversation, you have to have a quarterback playing at a high level,'' he said. ``And we have that right now. That gives us a legitimate chance.
``Until you find that, until you get that kind of play from your quarterback, it's really hard to get to that next level. Once you have that, a lot of other things tend to fall in place.''
The Jaguars can only hope those ``other things'' include the once-dominant defense.