JACKSONVILLE – There was learning, and there was adjusting.
There was some getting back to basics, too. And by the end of the 2013 season, Bob Babich said not only was the Jaguars' defense better than when the season began, he said players and coaches had a better feel for one another and the scheme.
A defensive foundation for the future had been established.
That meant there was progress through 2013, and the Jaguars' defensive coordinator said that meant on some level a mission had been accomplished.
"We just felt that after the open date, collectively as a defense we got better," Babich said recently in an interview with jaguars.com for this series looking back on 2013, a series that continues with this story focusing on the overall defense.
The Jaguars' bye in 2013 came in Week 9, exactly halfway through the season. For the Jaguars, it was more than a midway point, it also marked a turnaround.
That was particularly true on defense.
After losing the first eight games of the season by double digits – and after allowing 34 or more points five times in that span – the Jaguars won four of their first five games following the bye. The defense's development during that time stemmed from a marked improvement against the run, which in turn helped improve a pass rush that had struggled early in the season.
"There were some really good things in the first half of the season we did, but we needed to improve on some things," Babich said. "The guys bought into what we brought to them and I think collectively as a defensive unit we got better.
"After the open date, that was part of the evaluation process for us as a coaching staff. We said, 'OK, we've been through training camp and we've been through the first half of the season. Things aren't going like we want it to.'"
Statistically, the improvement was striking.
The Jaguars in the first half of the season allowed 161.75 yards a game rushing, and at least 100 yards rushing in all eight games. They allowed 101.75 yards a game rushing in the second half of the season, with five games allowing fewer than 100 yards a game.
They allowed 33 touchdowns in the first eight games of the season compared to 20 in the second half, and also had 20 sacks in the second half of the season compared to 11 in the first half. The Jaguars also reduced their points allowed per game from 33 in the first half of the season to 23.13 in the second half and had 13 takeaways in Games 9-16 compared to eight in Games 1-8.
"Between the fundamentals, the scheme, the effort and understanding, 'It's all about the ball' – those things I think our guys really grasped the second half of the season," Babich said. "We started in the spring with those things, but it was like the light turned on after the open date.
"We were doing some of those things really good in the first half, but it was not as consistent as it was the second half of the season."
Jaguars players talked often throughout the second half of the season about the experience gained in the first half. With a new scheme implemented by Babich and Head Coach Gus Bradley, and with seven new starters on defense, the unit needed game time to become comfortable with the details of the new approach.
"You would like your process to work itself out a lot quicker," Babich said, "but I think that was a big part of what happened to us defensively. We played a lot faster and we gave up fewer explosive plays. We were tackling better fundamentally and we got more takeaways. We got more sacks.
"We had so many different lineups throughout the season that they were playing as a group and within our fundamentals that much better."
The Jaguars last offseason not only moved defensive tackle Tyson Alualu from tackle to end, they signed Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller as free agents. Those two started the season at tackle, with Alualu and Jason Babin – who joined the team late in 2013 – at end.
Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny started for a third consecutive season in the middle, with Russell Allen returning on the outside and Geno Hayes also starting in his first year with the team.
The secondary was a complete overhaul, with three rookies – safeties Johnathan Cyprien and Josh Evans and cornerback Dwayne Gratz – starting much of the season, and with free-agent cornerback Alan Ball starting opposite Gratz.
Safety Winston Guy also played extensively at safety, with Will Blackmon playing a key role at nickel, but after the early-season loss of safety Dwight Lowery (concussion), only safety Chris Prosinski and nickel back Mike Harris remained from the previous season.
That was a whole lot of new for a whole lot of the season. Bradley throughout the season talked often about the process of learning the strengths and weaknesses of players. Babich said the defensive coaching staff went through that process, too.
"We had to evaluate who we were and who we thought we could be," Babich said. "The guys really bought into the things that we believed could help us. They put forth unbelievable effort to that and it did work out better than it did the first half.
"This staff did a great job of collectively putting it together and taking ownership in it – just like our players. We wanted it to be a collective effort between all of the coaches and all of the players to make it our system. We've got a long way to go, but to see some guys come into new roles and mesh together – and to see Gus do a great job of being the glue to keep it together – it was an exciting process and it was rewarding to us as a coaching staff."
Bradley during the season talked about "ownership," and said it was a key part of the growth of not only the defense, but of the entire team. Bradley said he wants players to feel as if the schemes and techniques belong to them, and Babich said by season's end the defensive players were showing signs of that – something he said will be key to the unit's growth moving forward.
"That started, and obviously we have a lot of room for improvement in that area," Babich said. "The guys did start talking about what we can do defensively. They're the ones actually out their playing and they're verbalizing what can make us better.
"As a coach you appreciate that, and whether you use it or not is not what it's about. It's the fact that they feel really good about talking about what they're doing. It is a neat deal."