JACKSONVILLE – If two Leos are good, and three are better, what’s four?
As far as Jaguars defensive line coach Todd Wash sees it, possible answers include:
1)One Leo too many.
2)An idea whose time has come.
3)Another way to improve the Jaguars’ pass rush.
The hope is it’s a combination of the latter two, but Wash said the time to find out is the preseason. That’s why he said the team may play four Leo pass-rushers – starter
The move would be an expansion of the team’s “lightning package,” which helped generate more pressure in the second half of last season, and would be designed to help improve a pass rush that has struggled at times over the past half-decade.
And make no mistake:
Wash definitely thinks improvement can be made.
“I think we have some more speed and I think that’s going to be important,” Wash said Tuesday before a two-hour, 20-minute practice at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields. “I think we’ll disrupt the quarterback more than we did last year.”
More Leos on the field isn’t the only way, but Wash and Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley each said Tuesday the idea is worth a look.
“I think what we’re looking at is just the combinations that we can have on the field at the same time,” Bradley said, with Wash adding, “We’re trying to see what the best mixture is to disrupt the quarterback. The preseason is a good time to do that.”
Wash, Bradley and defensive coordinator Bob Babich all believe in getting the best players on the field. That was the theory that spawned the three-Leo “lightning” package last year, and having since-released Jason Babin, Branch and Davis on the field together in the second half of last season gave the Jaguars more speed.
That speed equaled pressure on the passer.
The Jaguars in the offseason signed Clemons, who is expected to start at the Leo, and they also like the progress made by Branch, who had six sacks in his second season last season and who has impressed coaches during the offseason and training camp.
Rookie Chris Smith from Arkansas has drawn praise throughout camp, and Davis – originally signed as a rookie free agent from Bethune-Cookman following the 2012 draft – has impressed enough that Wash on Tuesday called him a “real good surprise.”
“We’re very, very pleased with Ryan right now,” Wash said.
The same is true of pretty much all of the top four Leos. Wash said the team likes how Clemons has assumed a leadership role, working closely with Smith, who is shorter than a typical Leo at 6-feet-1, but whose wingspan Wash said gives him the ability to play as if he’s 6-4.
“His get-off is extremely good,” Wash said of Smith. “The way he comes speed to power, he’s given some tackles some issues … We’re excited about what we’re seeing right now.”
Clemons, who had double-digit sacks in the Leo position each season from 2010-2012 with Seattle, has taken Smith under his wing, mentoring him on details, how to study, how to get the most out of meetings.
“There’s a standard that he plays by and what he accepts out of our group,” Wash said of Clemons. “He’s raised that standard since he’s been here.”
And what of Branch, whose improvement was notable last season? Wash said the third-year veteran continues to impress, and hopes continue to be high he can continue the maturation and improvement that helped him register five sacks in the last eight games last season.
“We were just in watching one-on-ones from yesterday and he (Branch) had a real nice spin past (right tackle Austin) Pasztor,” Wash said early Tuesday. “That’s the first time he’s shown that. With his get-off and get to the edge, his spin is going to be a big part of his foundation.”
The question, Wash and Bradley each said Tuesday, is how many Leos at once are too many?
The position is based on speed and athleticism, and Bradley and Wash each said the concern with having four Leos at once – with Clemons and Branch on the outside and Davis and Smith rushing inside – is not being able to get enough push in the middle.
“That’s something we’re going to have to figure out: is one of those guys stout enough to get the push in two-minute and third-down?” Wash said. “If it is, we have a lot of speed on the field.”
Bradley and Wash each said the concern over push from the middle could mean leaving tackle Sen’Derrick Marks in the game and staying with a three-Leo package rather than four.
“So much of the pass rush is dependent on push,” Bradley said. “You’ve got to have a guy who creates that push and that’s where Sen’Derrick is so important. He’s got the athleticism to beat the guard. So we’re leaning more towards that: Sen’Derrick in there to provide that push with Ryan Davis and Brancher and Clem.
“The more guys you have, the better. The challenge is just how can you get everybody up?”
That’s the challenge, and the Jaguars continue to seek the right combination. If they find it, it could help find answers to what has been a significant question around the Jaguars for a long time.