The Jacksonville Jaguars came into Pittsburgh's Heinz Field in mid-December with several positives on the offensive side of the ball, and a few defensive issues. Their rushing attack, led by Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, had been racking up yards and extending drives all season. Longtime backup quarterback David Garrard had taken full advantage of his long-awaited starting chance, and his efficiency filled out this formerly earthbound offense. The team had scored at least 24 points in six straight games. The Jags had amassed a 9-4 record despite residence in the NFL's toughest division, the AFC South, and had quietly established themselves as a real power in a conference long thought to have only two real heavyweight champs.
On defense, things were a bit more precarious. End Reggie Hayward, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in 2006, struggled to stay healthy in 2007 and missed three of the last four games of the regular season (including this one) with a groin injury. Middle linebacker Mike Peterson was out with a hand injury. And tackle Marcus Stroud, who had recently been on the short list of the NFL's best at his position, was put on injured reserve in early December with a high ankle sprain, just after he finished a four-game suspension for violating the league's anabolic steroids and related substances policy.
Head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith would have to put their front seven together with some different faces. Strongside backer Daryl Smith replaced Peterson, and rookie linebacker Justin Durant filled Smith's position with aplomb. Hayward was replaced by a rotation of Bobby McCray, who put up 10 sacks in 2006, and Brent Hawkins, a tweener linebacker/end with some pass-rush ability. The Jaguars had veteran Rob Meier to replace Stroud, and acquired ex-Falcons tackle Grady Jackson for situational depth. It was this squad that would head to the Steel City to face a Steelers team that was coming off a 34-13 beatdown at the hands of the Patriots, though they shared Jacksonville's 9-4 record.
Jacksonville is seen as one of the NFL's Super Bowl contenders going into the 2008 season, but how much can they rely on their front four? We'll take a look at where the Jags were in Week 15, and where they're going, to assemble an answer.
Jaguars 29, Steelers 22
A few things were very clear right from the start. Although Pro Football Prospectus 2008 has the Jaguars sending more than four pass rushers on a fairly average basis (they ranked 21st in rushing at least five, 18th in rushing six-plus, and ninth in rushing seven or more), I could count the number of blitzes against the Steelers on one hand. The Jaguars have a very effective package when they bring Durant up outside the right end, but it wasn't used all that often against Pittsburgh. The plan was to bring pressure with four, and counteract Pittsburgh's array of formations (boy, do these guys like their trips right/left, or what?) with more defenders in the zone.
That's a tall order for any front four, even against a Steelers offensive line that's on the wrong side of the development curve, but it wouldn't have been possible without end Paul Spicer, the real star of Jacksonville's front four show. Spicer is a force at left end and occasionally on the right side. He had Pittsburgh tackles Willie Colon and Marvel Smith muttering to themselves all day. Quick enough to beat tackles inside or outside, strong enough to bull a guard back into a ballcarrier on a twist, and effective against the run, Spicer reinforced my opinion that he is one of the NFL's best defensive ends.
Spicer was on all day, but a few plays really stood out. There was the second-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 21, when Spicer was fanned out of the play by Smith, a good three yards behind Ben Roethlisberger at the end of his drop. However, Spicer regained his bearings and, with incredible closing speed, knocked the ball out of Big Ben's hand just as he was about to throw. The Steelers recovered, but it was a great example of Spicer's speed and determination.
Spicer's best play came in the Steelers' second drive of the second half. Roethlisberger took the ball in a shotgun set on first-and-10 with 2:46 left in the third quarter, then rolled right as he looked for an open man. Spicer shook off the blocks of Colon and running back Willie Parker and moved up in the pocket to bring the quarterback down. Big Ben went with the "I'm gonna throw the ball downward and short before I get sacked" strategy, which worked since he was out of the pocket and a fumble wasn't called. Spicer's strength was obvious and impressive. He's also good at sniffing out the direction of running plays and getting across the field to help with tackles. The Jags were extremely wise to give Spicer a two-year, $8 million contract extension in the preseason, locking him up through 2010. From what I've seen here and in other games, it's a bargain. Spicer has already been mentoring the team's new defensive ends, who we'll talk about later.
The main man opposite Spicer on this day was McCray, the team's primary pass rusher, though Spicer led the team in sacks in 2007. McCray left Jacksonville for New Orleans in the offseason after the combination of a three-sack season in 2007 and excessive contract demands had the Jaguars' front office looking elsewhere. After closely observing McCray, it's easy to see why his sack total went down: by my estimation, the guy overshot three sacks in this game alone. This is a common problem among the Jacksonville ends, including Spicer, but McCray plays football like an incredibly fast car with faulty brakes and no GPS. He has one of the quickest first steps I've ever seen, but the control is lacking. When it's all in balance, he's pretty scary. We got to see the good, bad, and ugly in this game.
The good was exhibited in power and speed: McCray pushed Smith back into Roethlisberger on a play late in the first quarter, causing a rushed incompletion to Santonio Holmes, and he was in on several legitimate hurries. The bad came against the run: McCray can be easily disengaged by powerful run-blockers, and he's better at staying with a play against the pass, and the aforementioned overpursuit. The ugly came in two consecutive fourth-quarter plays that helped put the Steelers back in the game after Jacksonville had a 22-7 lead in the third quarter. With the Jags up 22-14 and 9:29 left in the game, Roethlisberger handed off to Parker, who bounced outside and to the left with nothing but daylight in front of him. That daylight was created by Smith, who chucked McCray aside at the snap like a rag doll. Pass-rushing ends that have very little power against the run need to put up more than three sacks in a season.
After an incomplete pass to Hines Ward, the next play was unreal. On second-and 10 from the Pittsburgh 29, the Jaguars brought an enhanced pass rush from their right side with Durant blitzing alongside McCray. Parker took Durant out of the initial rush, and McCray beat Smith to the inside, but overshot a clean angle on Roethlisberger. Daryl Smith shot the gap between the center and left guard and started to bring Roethlisberger down. At the last millisecond, Big Ben threw up a prayer of a lateral to Parker, who took the ball 27 yards to the Jacksonville 44. Full marks to Roethlisberger and Parker, but proper technique by McCray, who had enough time to get where he needed to be at a manageable pace, would have rendered the play moot, and quite possibly ended Pittsburgh's game-tying drive.
The Jaguars traded Marcus Stroud to the Bills in the offseason, and they filled his spot with Rob Meier, an eight-year veteran who's been with the team his entire career. Meier filled in for Stroud through all the drama in 2007 and led the NFL in Stop Rate, albeit in limited action. With a new four-year contract, he'll now be asked to man the undertackle role far more often. In this game, Meier saw a lot of rotation with Derek Landri, a fifth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2007. Landri is a serviceable player who showed nothing overwhelming in this game, but Meier has the strength and penetrative ability to make an impact on the line. This was most evident on the same fourth-quarter play on which Spicer blew past Colon and Parker for the near-sack on Roethlisberger. At the snap, Meier gave right guard Kendall Simmons a jolt to the chest with both hands, pushing him back into Roethlisberger. Meier's a tough guy with speed who put up four sacks in the season that made the Jaguars believers once and for all.
Tackle John Henderson is perhaps the most identifiable member of this No-Name defense, given his predilection for having members of the team's training staff slap him silly before games. But Henderson's also a problem for opposing offenses inside. On the third play of the game, with the Steelers running a shotgun on third-and-10 from their own 35, Henderson was the star of a play that highlighted the toughness of that interior line. As Meier pushed center Sean Mahan back, flushing Roethlisberger out of the pocket, Henderson beat a double-team of Smith and left guard Alan Faneca for a drive-ending sack. It's the veteran acumen of Henderson and Spicer, and the development of Meier, that seem to ensure the future of this line in the face of some big changes.
The Stroud trade netted third- and fifth-round draft picks for the Jaguars. The team gave up a total of four picks –- their first, two thirds, and a fourth –- to Baltimore to move to the eighth overall slot. There, they picked defensive end Derrick Harvey, a tall Florida pass rusher who made 51.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in his collegiate career, including 21.5 sacks. Harvey will help right away in passing situations, and could push Hayward out of a starting spot in time. In the second round, Jacksonville picked Auburn's Quentin Groves, a college linebacker who Del Rio has said will project well as a pass-rushing end or strongside addition in certain blitz packages. He certainly has the right attitude. "I just really don't have a liking for them," Groves recently said about quarterbacks in general. "You can't hit them in practice. You have to stay off them. They don't do too much running. I don't like quarterbacks, period. I don't know why."
And speaking of blitz packages, there's the small matter of Jacksonville's other big-name defensive draft pick, former Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams was the odd man out when Washington hired Jim Zorn as its new head coach, and Mike Smith's appointment to the captaincy of the Titanic known as the Atlanta Falcons left a vacancy that Williams was happy to fill in Jacksonville. Known as an aggressive defensive coach, Williams presided over a Redskins defense that finished first in the NFL sending six or more defenders across the line in 2007. Expect to see more interesting dances with the front seven (especially as Durant matures), and more help for a front four that's already pretty impressive.
As the Jacksonville Jaguars enter the rarefied air of preseason Super Bowl hype, most of the talk will be about David Garrard, Fred Taylor, Pocket Hercules, and a redefined group of receivers. However, it's best not to forget that if the Jags are going to bull their way into the postseason, they'll have to face three division opponents –- Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Houston — who finished in the top 10 in Adjusted Line Yards in 2007. The Colts and Texans also finished in the top 10 in Adjusted Sack Rate, and Houston now has Alex Gibbs running its offensive line. Jacksonville's front seven ranked 10th in Adjusted Sack Rate, but 24th in Adjusted Line Yards. For this team's dreams to come true, they'll have to match the toughness of their offense along the front four. After a year of personnel shifts, it would seem that all the pieces are in place.
The countdown to training camp begins and the Jaguars are already done signing all but their top two…