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Thursday, October 2, 2008
Jaguars need better pass rush to be real threat


 
 Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
 Jaguars defensive linemen have notched only 3 sacks through the season's first four games.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

During a training camp visit with Fred Taylor, the topic turned to the Jaguars defense. A lot of running backs would wave off a question about the other side of the ball. Taylor, a leader and spokesman, ran to it as if it were a gaping crease in a defensive line.

He said in Jacksonville's playoff loss in New England that Tom Brady might as well have been on a yacht when he dropped back.

"I think, what I saw and what the whole entire world saw, was that he's just back there," Taylor said. "He had way more than enough time, and no way in hell defensive backs can cover that long. No pressure."

In big games against big-name quarterbacks, the 2007 Jaguars generated an insufficient pass rush, getting to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady just four times in three games.

So the pass rush was the big offseason project on the defensive side of the ball. When Mike Smith left to become head coach in Atlanta, Jack Del Rio hired Gregg Williams, a coordinator with some experience at getting people to the quarterback, with extra people if necessary. They traded up to draft Derrick Harvey eighth and hoped to double their fun with Quentin Groves, 52nd overall.

Now as the Jaguars prepare to face Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger, a team and a quarterback against whom they've had great success, their ability to get to the quarterback remains the big defensive question.

The Jaguars sacked Big Ben 11 times in two wins last year. But last week, Jacksonville failed to sack or harass Houston's Matt Schaub and nearly paid the price, holding on for an overtime win even though they gave up a season-high 307 passing yards.

Groves and Harvey have combined for one of the team's five sacks and too often quarterbacks have been steering that yacht.

Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. wrote on Tuesday: "The Jaguars can't get to the quarterback with just their defensive front four, so they brought linebackers and corners in nine times versus Houston. However, they still didn't get to QB Matt Schaub -- that's a lot of gambling with marginal results."

"It's something everyone would like to have and everyone would like to see and everyone would like to get: sacks," Groves said. "It's something that's going to come in time."

Why can't the Jags get pressure from their front four or with blitzes?

A scout from another team in the division said the line is too imbalanced. While John Henderson is a load inside, he's not a pass rusher. While the tackles are good against the run, they don't have an interior presence that pushes the pocket.

Their four interior guys have one fewer sack and only one more hit than Buffalo's Marcus Stroud, a player Jacksonville deemed finished and dealt away.

With little inside, the Jaguars are depending on the rush to come from the edge. And out there they've got two older ends who aren't especially dynamic rushers in Paul Spicer and Reggie Hayward, and the two kids who aren't yet going to regularly beat quality tackles.

Harvey missed all of camp and is still way behind. Groves is a speed rusher discovering he needs to diversify.

"I thought it was going to be somewhat like college, but then I got into the heat of the fire and realized that you can't just make one move to get through these guys," Groves said in a phone chat this week, echoing what thousands of linemen have said before him. "You've got to make two or three moves and continue to rush the passer if you are going to get there. That's the thing I am getting better at week by week."

Perhaps part of what is going on in Jacksonville is that the personnel does not necessarily fit with what Williams likes best. He has a good group of linebackers and a less talented line when he'd probably willingly swap the two, taking a line that can get up field and create some chaos with steady, responsible linebackers behind them.

As Williams learns what he has and when he can and cannot be riskier, things will improve. He's also got to stay within what a defensive head coach, Jack Del Rio, wants to do.

The Jaguars seem intent on showing patience, which is smart because when you bank on two kids you don't have much of a choice. Groves said Williams is preaching that pressure and sacks will come.

"Our coaches are going to be able to scheme and find ways to get us open and get us free," Groves said. "They've helped us a lot to show different schemes and stuff like that."

Pittsburgh is 31st in the league in sacks per play and may prove a temporary solution. Jacksonville doesn't want to be the team that can't get to Roethlisberger. If it is, things are worse than they seem.

That scout and this blogger are not so sure about Williams' long-term faith in sacks coming this season. The Jaguars have not yet altered the formula, but they probably are going to have to.