Jags Downsize For '09: Simpler Defense, Smaller Receivers

Jack HarverCorrespondent IIJune 5, 2009

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 18: John Henderson #98 of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates the sacking of Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Alltel Stadium on September 18, 2006 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jaguars defeated the Steelers 9-0.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

When I think about downsizing, John Henderson immediately comes to mind.

(No, seriously.)

The Jaguars' firing of 2008 defensive coordinator Gregg Williams—trimming his complex, blitz-heavy schemes from their playbook—could be just the trick to get the Big Cat back on track after his unspectacular play last season.

Under former coordinator (and current Falcons head coach) Mike Smith, Henderson was terrifying in the middle of Jacksonville's one-gap scheme. His responsibility was to hit the space between the opposing center and guard—and hit it hard. Some plays, he broke through and caused holy hell in the backfield; some plays, he tied up both blockers, creating traffic and freeing up other pass rushers. But he was always wreaking havoc.

In 2008, the Jaguars hired Williams for his reputation as a creative coach whose defenses brought pressure on opposing quarterbacks from all angles; as defensive coordinator for the Redskins from 2003-07, his linebackers and safeties got sacks as much as his down linemen. Looking to pull themselves even with perennial AFC South favorite Indianapolis and Peyton Manning, the Jaguars wanted to improve a pass rush that had faltered in the playoffs.

Applied to Jacksonville's defense, this aggressive style meant that Henderson was stuck two-gapping most of the time. Instead of aiming for a gap between blockers, he'd be assigned to take up space at the line of scrimmage so that an end or backer could make plays. His role wasn't altered drastically from Smith's defense, but flipping that switch from an aggressive mindset to a tactical job was like going from "on" to "off."

Williams is gone, and new coordinator Mel Tucker is reportedly in line with head coach Jack Del Rio's desire to return to the one-gap scheme in which the Jaguars' defense had excelled for five years. The Jaguars' younger starters might struggle initially with their new responsibilities, but look for the defense to come together behind Henderson's resurgence in a familiar role. He's still got it.

On the other side of the ball, Jacksonville's receiving corps underwent a literal downsizing reminiscent of The Biggest Loser: from big, slow, and physical to small, fast, and shifty.

In addition to their off-field legal problems, now-departed receivers Matt Jones and Reggie Williams ran rounded-off routes and had trouble separating from opposing corners and gaining yards after the catch. Jones was trying to establish himself as a possession receiver, and Williams was a technically sound blocker with a mean streak—but 1.1 YAC (Jones) and 37 catches (Williams) aren't the kind of numbers that justify the first-round money both were paid.

Enter polished professional and ex-Ram Torry Holt, along with drafted rookies Mike Thomas, Jarrett Dillard, and Tiquan Underwood—none of whom would see eye-to-eye with the 6'6" Jones, but all of whom make sharp cuts and have the quickness to get yards after making the catch.

The new group of receivers, along with holdovers Mike Walker and Dennis Northcutt, should mesh well with David Garrard's proclivity for short, quick passes. Garrard has struggled with floating jump-ball passes to big receivers like Jones, Williams, and current Dolphin Ernest Wilford, but he's done well fitting the ball into small windows in opposing defenses for slants and seam routes.

If the Jaguars' athletic additions to their offensive line—former Eagle and accomplished pass protector Tra Thomas in free agency, along with rookie tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton—can keep Garrard upright, their smaller receivers could mean a big improvement in their passing efficiency.