The Jacksonville Jaguars were arguably the worst team in the National Football League a season ago, and as new head coach Gus Bradley attempts to right the ship in Jacksonville, one of his primary challenges is improving a defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in 2012.
Bradley isn't wasting any time making changes on that side of the ball. The first was installing the scheme that helped get Bradley the job in the first place.
Bradley is a proponent of a 4-3 "under" front, where the defensive line shifts away from the strong side of the formation. As Jene Bramel of FootballGuys pointed out for The New York Times, the weak-side defensive tackle aligns between the guard and tackle, while the weak-side end plays outside the tackle (often well outside).
Those two players (the under tackle and weak-side end) are often afforded one-on-one matchups in this formation, and it's their ability to penetrate that's essential to successfully pressuring the quarterback in this formation.
Getting more pressure on opposing passers is certainly a priority for the Jaguars. No team in the NFL had fewer sacks in 2012 than Jacksonville's 20. Defensive end J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans had more by himself.
In fact, often the weak-side defensive end (the "Leo") will rush the passer from a two-point stance, creating a formation that looks an awful lot at first glance like a 3-4 front.
As things stand right now, it appears that the Leo for the Jaguars will be Jason Babin, whom the Jaguars claimed off waivers after he was released by the Philadelphia Eagles last year.
Babin's 2012 season was something of a nightmare, but the 32-year-old has 38 sacks over the past three seasons and has a bit of experience playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 front. That experience could come in very handy, and if Babin can recapture his 2010-2011 form he could be the catalyst for a huge improvement in Jacksonville's pass rush.
It isn't just the pass rush that Bradley is trying to improve. The Jaguars struggled just as mightily against the run. For the season, the team allowed 141 yards on the ground per game, the third-highest total in the NFL.
Bradley is thinking outside the box a bit in that regard. As John Oehser of the Jaguars' website reports, the Jaguars plan to move defensive tackle Tyson Alualu to the end spot opposite Babin.
Bradley said it's just a matter of putting his personnel in the best position to succeed:
This is the group we have; how can we place them and have the best possible chance to succeed within the system? Todd Wash brought that up. He said, "You know what? He’s shown some reps playing out there. He did a nice job. We like a little bigger guy out there to hold the edge." He’s done a good job.
Alualu has yet to live up to his status as a top-10 draft pick in his three-year NFL career, but the 26-year-old is coming off a career-high 45 tackles and 3.5 sacks, and Alualu offers the size and physicality that Bradley prefers in his strong-side end.
The Jaguars have done just as much work on the back end of the defense as the front.
The Jaguars allowed over 239 yards a game through the air in 2012, ranking 22nd in the NFL, and in an effort to bolster the secondary Jacksonville will be rolling out a trio of new starters this season.
Two of those starters will be rookies. The Jaguars made Florida International safety Jonathan Cyprien the first pick of the second round, and selected Connecticut cornerback Dwayne Gratz in the third round.
Both players are expected to contribute right away, and Bradley came away from Jacksonville's rookie minicamp very impressed with Cyprien's play, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
That was one guy who really showed up in my eyes, Not only is he playing, but we're watching if they can handle the tempo of practice and the style we're asking. He did a good job leading, too. I was very pleased with his start.
Cyprien may have garnered the headlines in minicamp, but it's Gratz and free-agent acquisition Marcus Trufant who could have the bigger say in how much success the Jaguars have defensively.
The reason is a schematic one. Bradley's scheme utilizes a lot of Cover-0 and Cover-1 coverages. That is, either straight man coverage or man coverage with one safety (likely free safety Dwight Lowery) deep.
That's likely part of the reason why Gratz appealed to the team. At 5'11", he has the size and strength that Bradley prefers in a corner. Cornerbacks in this scheme need to be able to "muscle up" on receivers, much like Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman did while Bradley was in Seattle.
Granted, all this isn't to say that the Jaguars are suddenly going to morph from one of the NFL's worst defenses to one of the best. Frankly, it's still a unit that's relatively short on talent compared to many other teams.
However, Bradley's is a scheme where, assuming everyone does their job, the sum can be greater than the parts. More importantly, it's an aggressive defense, and Jacksonville sorely needs an infusion of attitude on that side of the ball after getting pushed around with regularity in 2012.
In all likelihood, the reality is that the Jacksonville Jaguars will probably be hard-pressed to win six games in 2013.
That isn't to say that the team can't go a long way towards respectability this season, and the pieces would seem to be in place for a defense that won't be the pushover its predecessor was.