Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason Questions: Pass Rush Improved?

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With training camp just around the corner (July 26th), Big Cat Country is taking a look at the progress made by the Jaguars to address their biggest offseason questions.  Today's episode revolves around the addressing the pass rush. 

Where to Begin: (not) Under Pressure

When the Jacksonville Jaguars left the playoffs after a painfully disappointing and embittering loss to New England, the offseason needs wrote themselves.  The Jaguars had just participated in the Tom Brady passing school, where an ineffective pass rush had allowed Brady to complete 26 of 28 passes, a number that would haunt the Jaguars defense. 

The front four of the Jaguars struggled during the 2007 season to bring effective and consistant pressure against opposing quarterbacks.  For the Jaguars, this led to a multitude of problems, from allowing opponents to come back into games to forcing the secondary to cover receivers for so long that finding the open man was only a matter of time.  While many football pundits looked at the Jaguars secondary as the biggest weakness, based off of the passing numbers, the problem seemed to start in the trenches.  Not pressuring the quarterback allows for more passes and more successful plays.  Even the best quarterbacks in the league, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have shown that relentless pressure can bring them down to earth, no pun intended.

Of the 37 team sacks during the season, 10 of them came against the Steelers, Raiders and Texans in the last part of the season.  These are significant because the 5 against Pittsburgh came across a very damaged offensive line, Oakland and Houston were in essence meaningless games.  When the Jaguars faced critical games against Tennessee and Indianapolis, the sacks and pressure were far fewer.  The Jaguars only sacked Manning four times in two meetings, Vince Young had it harder, falling to the turf 8 times, though his scrambling style makes him an easier target, if that makes sense.  (Seriously, with Young's tendency to read and run, the Jaguars defense "sacked" him more often because he'd often find himself behind the line of scrimmage with nowhere to run.  Manning throws the ball away and prevents the sack, or in many cases, find's the open receiver)

All was not bad in the Jaguars pressure though, Football Outsiders rated the Jaguars 10th in pass rush, using their metric that factors in down, distance, and opponent.  This is ahead of teams like Indianapolis and Houston who might have had better rushers, but got the sacks in situations that were unimportant.  An example of an "uninmportant sack" is when the Colts have a significant lead and they get to the quarterback on third and impossible. 

Addressing the Problem: Free Agency or Draft:

Bobby McCray, a powerful but inconsistent defensive end finished the 2007 campaign with merely three sacks, not nearly enough to earn him the contract he wanted from the Jaguars.  Marcus Stroud, while not a pass-rusher, was dealt to the Buffalo Bills for a draft pick, changing the defining makeup of the defensive line.

The Jaguars hit free agency hard, grabbing two receivers and a cornerback right out of the gates.  Most, including myself, expected the team to look at the talent available, whether it be trading for Jared Allen, Jason Taylor, and Terrell Suggs, or acquiring Justin Smith or Antwan Odom from the free agency market.  Yet as free agency developed, the Jaguars were out of the mix for all of these guys.  There was certainly speculation that they'd make a big move or draft pick trade to get a top tier end, but once the money was spent and the draft approached, there was nobody left that was worth spending or trading to pick up.

With the late selection in the First Round, the Jaguars were looking at getting a 2nd tier defensive end, should one be remaining on their board in the first round.  Getting the instant help they needed would require an aggressive move.  When the Atlanta Falcons signed Matt Ryan, Baltimore became a likely trade partner as they targeted Joe Flacco, and the Jaguars had their chance.  It cost them two third round picks and a fourth to make the move, but they moved from 26th to 8th overall, and selected Derrick Harvey, a nasty pass-rusher, the third best in the draft.

The second round saw another trade, this time for Quentin Groves, a player considered by many to be a first round talent that fell into the middle second.  This move was particularly shrewd, as the Jaguars jumped in front of the Tennessee Titans, who were likely to have selected Groves.

Problem Solved?

To determine if the Jaguars addressed this issue enough, FSBlueApocalypse and I will look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios.  These are, as best we figure, the ends of the ranges as far as possible results go.  The actual results will be somewhere in the middle, though hopefully toward the "best case". 

Best Case:By FSBlueApocalypse

Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey represent the shining hope for this years team. They are for all practical purposes our draft class this year, and with any hope will be adding to Peyton Manning’s knee problems in Week 3. Groves and Harvey have the potential to add 20 sacks for our defense this year. Will they get there, maybe, maybe not. But it adds the extra fear into offensive lineman we go against. 

Derrick Harvey comes out of Florida as a top prospect. Though some accuse him of taking plays off, when I see highlights of him putting the top pick of this years draft, Jake Long, on his ass I have hope. Harvey won’t have the tremendous expectations of a Matt Ryan or Darren McFadden on him which should help.

Quentin Groves comes out of Auburn as one of their best defensive players ever. He helped lead an upset of over UF last year and one of the most feared players in the SEC. While the general opinion was that he is a tweener, he fits nicely in the new system. He will basically be a guided missile towards Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Vince Young, etc. Simply put, if he does his job, he’ll replace MJD as the best 2nd round pick in Jaguars history.

Another gargantuan question is can Rob Meier replace Marcus Stroud? I mean, Meier has been the premier back up DT in the league for awhile now, but can we count on him for those critical 3rd and 4th down stops that need to be made. While Stroud has not been his usual self with injuries, I would say Stroud at 90% is better than 90% of the starting DT in the league at the moment. Rob Meier has a history of being a dependable back up but what will happen if he doesn’t pull through for the entire season?

Worst Case:

To bring things down a bit, imagine if Reggie Hayward fails to improve in his second season after Achilies surgery, leaving the Jaguars with an opening day starter with one leg, despite all the energy and strength he brings to the field.  Combine that with the rookie duo suffering from a slow learning curve and the 33 year-old Paul Spicer acting his age and the Jaguars quickly find themselves in the same position in 2008 as they did in 2007. 

Rookie defensive ends, particularly ones that specialize in pass-rushing, have less to learn as they transition to the NFL.  Top rated ones, such as Derrick Harvey, can have immediate impact, a la Freeney, because their job is at its core, a one-on-one battle to get around an offensive linemen and pursue the quarterback.  This battle is more physical than mental, and allow younger players to have an impact without needing a season or two of study to emerge.

That said, the Jaguars face some fantastic offensive lines, and expecting Harvey and Groves to get to Manning, Brady, Young, and others right at the start is unreasonable.  If they struggle with size and speed, they may not be the instant answer the team needs to rachet up the pressure.  If the rookies struggle and the combination of Spicer and Hayward fail to improve, the Jaguars will see no change in the pass rush, and the Mike Smith "rush four, everyone else cover" defense will come back.

Gregg Williams may be an attack style coordinator, but he's not going to bring the heat if his players can't get there.  Should the defensive ends prove ineffective, a cover 2 underneath defense becomes the status quo, the secondary covers for longer, and we start to focus on the addition of Drayton Florence as the "difference maker" on defense.

This "worst case" is hopefully unlikely.  Hayward is very competitive, and will be fighting for his career during training camp, if he's got anything left in his weak leg, he'll show it on the field.  Spicer is now well compensated and should perform accordingly, otherwise the Jaguars wouldn't have been so free with the dollars.  Harvey and Groves have a hard job ahead of them, but one within their skill range.

Without being to pessimistic, the Jaguars Pass-Rush must be considered in terms of the "worst case".  Expecting too much out of any of the ends is dangerous, especially for the rookies.  If Harvey and Groves combine for 12 sacks and contribute to a few hurries, they've had a good season.

There you go, we debate, you decide.

-Chris

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