With the third defensive coordinator in three years, there is some expectation that the Jaguars will be taking a step back in time as they move forward. The newest iteration of the Jacksonville Jaguars defense should take on a more familiar look in 2009.
Mel Tucker assumes the responsibility as the new defensive coordinator for the Jaguars, replacing highly touted Gregg Williams after only one season at the helm. When Williams came to Jacksonville, there were high expectations placed upon him based on his track record as one of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL.
The Jaguars' defense was in decline and needed an injection of life to regain some degree of success, and most felt that Williams would be the right man to make that happen.
His attacking style of defense was somewhat of a departure from what Mike Smith had been running, and forced corner backs to play more man-to-man so that safeties could be freed up to augment the pass rush.
This minor change to the 4-3 defensive scheme that had been the staple for the Jaguars under Jack Del Rio did not blend well based on the personnel that were being asked to make the most significant adjustments.
The team was ill-equipped to run the style of defense that Williams that demanded intelligent play, particularly from the defensive backs.
While Rashean Mathis was able to make the adjustment, Drayton Florence was not a good fit for what Williams wanted to do. And for all of his athletic ability, Reggie Nelson was not the thinker that was required to be the centerpiece of Williams’ scheme.
Brian Williams was adequate at strong safety, but with the injury and subsequent on-field struggles Florence dealt with, he was eventually put back at the right corner back position and Gerald Sensabaugh took over at the safety spot.
After a few games, the problems were significant enough that Williams had to shift to a more traditional cover-two defensive scheme that did suit the personnel, abandoning any notion that he might be able to implement a more traditional “46 defense” that he had used going back to his time in Tennessee.
The end result was a nearly toothless defense because the play from the interior line, which had always been considered a strong suit for the Jaguars, was severely diminished by the departure of Marcus Stroud, and the less than inspired play of John Henderson.
There was no pressure on the quarterbacks, and the defense found it difficult to contain the run.
This was not a good combination or a Jack Del Rio defense that prided itself in playing tough, physical football. They were routinely manhandled, leading to a great deal of frustration for the head coach.
The linebackers also suffered because they were unable to get the space they were accustomed to playing in thanks to the dominance of their defensive tackles. This exposed Mike Peterson badly, putting his age on display.
He was not nearly as effective if he had to shed a block to make a play, and he had clearly lost a step. Youth won out in the end and Daryl Smith replaced Peterson in the starting lineup, but it made little difference in the overall effectiveness of the defense.
The unit was struggling badly, and Gregg Williams was destined to be the fall guy.
Enter Mel Tucker.
Tucker’s philosophy does not mirror what Jack Del Rio espouses with the more traditional 4-3 cover-two scheme. Tucker ran a base 3-4 in Cleveland under Romeo Crennel with limited success. They finished the 2008 season with one of the worst defensive units in the league statistically for yardage allowed.
However, they tied for third in interceptions with 23, and one of the primary areas of concern for the Jaguars was in pass coverage in 2008. They struggled to get to the quarterback, ranking second-to-last in the league in sacks, but were in the middle of the pack for scoring allowed.
The Jaguars will run a base 4-3 package. That is what Jack Del Rio is most familiar with both as a player, and as a coach.
Most speculate that Tucker will be a defensive coordinator in much the same way that Mike Smith was in 2003 when the defense was designed and implemented by Jack Del Rio, and Smith was taking his orders from the head coach.
Over time, as Smith and Del Rio developed the system, he took more control over how it was run, but in the beginning, Jack Del Rio’s fingerprints were all over the defense. That should be the same thing we see now.
It worked for the Jaguars in the past, so having Del Rio getting more involved with the scheme should allow the unit to regain its identity pretty quickly. It can’t get much worse.
The one certainty is the defense will have a very familiar look in 2009 as the head coach inserts himself into the design and play calling once again.
Del Rio will demand that the defensive line control the tempo, stuff the run, and put pressure on the quarterback. Blitzing will be at a premium, but physical, hard-nosed play will become the staple.
The corners will play up on the receivers and disrupt their routes, not allowing the 7-10 yard cushions that gave the opposition ample opportunity to pick the Jaguars apart with the short passing game all season long.
Where Tucker will help is in improving a defensive backfield that struggled significantly last year. His ability to transform a young, inexperienced secondary in Cleveland into one of the better units in the league was duly noted when Del Rio hired him as the Jaguar defensive coordinator.
It will be his task to fix a squad that was too often victimized by the deep pass last year while being picked apart underneath. It is a tall order, especially for a coach coming to a team where the head coach sets such high expectations on his defense. He has little depth to work with, but some quality athletes along the starting lineup.
How he is able to make this work with the personnel limitations will determine how long his tenure will be in Jacksonville, and could have an impact on how long his boss remains here as well.