by Cole Pepper
In the previous 18 season of Jaguars football, you can count on one finger the number of Jaguars defenses that really got after the quarterback.
That was 1999. An you can make the argument that it was as much about the offense getting ahead of teams as it was about the personnel. Dom Capers was the defensive coordinator back then, but Capers was running a 4-3 defense instead of his favored 3-4. Still, with Capers employing an adapted version of the zone blitz defense, the Jaguars set a franchise record with 57 sacks during a 14-2 regular season.
The Jaguars have never truly had a “keep the quarterback up at night” pass rusher. Tony Brackens came close. Never in the history of the franchise have the Jaguars had a Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware or Derrick Thomas.
They still don’t have that guy on the roster.
So it is up to Bob Babich to work with the players on the roster to find a pass rush.
That’s why the Leo position has been talked about so much.
The Leo position is the pass rushing position in the defense that Gus Bradley used in Seattle and that Babich will utilize in Jacksonville. What is the Leo?
“That’s a guy who can set the edge against the run and who creates problems for the offensive tackle,” said Babich.
Rules changes have made the passing game an even more vital part of NFL offenses and so the ability to pressure the quarterback is even more essential to defensive success. I asked Babich what is more important in creating sacks, pass rush or coverage, and he wouldn’t commit to one over the other.
“You know what we talk about? We talk about rush AND cover,” Babich said. “It’s a combination of both. The ball has to come out quick, but at the same time, to get a lot of sacks, you have to have good coverage. To have good coverage, the ball has to come out quick. We talk about that all the time.”
Still, it’s much harder to scheme coverage than it is to scheme pass rush. It’s not easy to do it without the horses in either case.
I’ll detail the defensive line in an upcoming post, but for now, the move of Tyson Alualu from defensive tackle to defensive end will mean that the Leo position will be hotly contested in training camp. Jason Babin is the front runner, but Andre Branch and possibly Jeremy Mincey could compete for time at that position. Mincey isn’t an explosive pass rusher and my expectation was that that would eliminate him from the competition, but that’s not the case according to Babich.
“Until we get the pads on…we haven’t had a chance to see what we have,” Babich admitted. “Ideally, we’d like for [the Leo] to be explosive. and we would like our (other) defensive end to be explosive.”
How this defense will fit together is going to be one of the four or five most intriguing story lines of the preseason. Will the Jaguars find a pass rush? Will the revamped defensive backfield provide enough coverage to allow the pass rushers to get to the quarterback?
It’s too early to tell for sure, but it appears that the other X-factor is middle linebacker. Paul Posluszny is the dictionary definition of a 4-3 middle linebacker. And although the Jaguar are technically going to be a 4-3 team, there are hints that the middle linebacker position will be different than in the past. How will Posluszny, who is as football-smart as they come, adapt?
In general manager Dave Caldwell’s first draft, he addressed the defensive backfield heavily, spending four of his seven draft picks in the back end. That left the front seven to be the focus of free agency. I suspect that the Jaguars first round pick in 2014 will either be a quarterback or a pass rusher, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
Ultimately, like the rest of the team, this is year one of a rebuild of the defense. When the season begins, its likely that only Dwight Lowery, Posluszny and Russell Allen will be returning starters at the same position, and Allen isn’t a lock since he can play all three linebacker positions.
The Jaguars defense is a summary study of the Jaguars organization this year: a few recognizable parts, but an almost entirely new construction.