JACKSONVILLE – Overall, Todd Wash said he saw progress.
Wash, who next season will enter his second season as the Jaguars' defensive line coach, said the group definitely improved this past season, and he said what he perhaps liked best was the improvement wasn't necessarily a statistical thing.
The line just plain started playing better.
You could see it. You could feel it. And it helped the entire defense.
"We saw us starting to affect the passer in the final eight (games)," Wash said recently in an interview with jaguars.com for this series on the Jaguars' position groups, a series that continues with this story focusing on the defensive line.
Circle the first word in that sentence, because in 2013, when it came to the Jaguars' defensive line, "we" was very much the operating philosophy.
Yes, the team had individual standouts. Veteran Jason Babin led the team in sacks, and rookie Andre Branch improved in the second half of the season. But mostly, the pass rush was a team effort, with the group starting with 11 sacks through eight games and finishing with 20 sacks after a midseason bye week.
"You've got to give credit to the guys, because we really started rushing as a group," Wash said. "That's something these good pass rush teams do. They know how to work together.
"We knew our pass rush was coming around. We have some guys who can pass rush. Now, are they the elite guys in the league? Maybe not. But they're also very young in their progression and their development."
A key to the improvement came at midseason. Seeking more speed in pass-rushing situations, coaches devised the "lightning" package, utilized three "Leo" rushers. The package often featured Babin, Branch and first-year veteran Ryan Davis, who was activated midway through the season and who finished the season with a sack and six pressures.
"Ryan didn't have a lot of sacks, but Ryan got the quarterback off the spot," Wash said. "He doesn't get credit for it, but when we sit in our room, we knew the impact he had."
Wash said Babin was key. He led the Jaguars with 7.5 sacks and 19 pressures, emerging as a locker-room leader in his 10th NFL season. Key, too, was Branch, who developed into one of the teams' better young players with six sacks, including five in the second half of the season.
"He really bought into what we were trying to teach him," Wash said. "He became not just a speed guy; he has a power move. That was the most important thing we had to get to. He had "get off," but that's not enough in this league. You have to be able to set a lineman down with a power move. You really saw the development of a second move with him as the season went on.
"He's just starting to scratch the surface. In our year-end meetings, it was a heart-to-heart. He's not close to where we want him to be. He needs to eat crumbs, and realize he has a long way to go."
Wash said the improvement went beyond edge rushers. End Tyson Alualu moved from three-technique tackle to a 4-3 end lining up over the tight end, which Wash called "a drastic position change."
"Once he got it, you could see his progression through the second half of the season," Wash said. "He really did what we asked him to do. We think he can be more productive. He learned the position and played well."
The Jaguars also got production at defensive tackle, with offseason free-agent signings Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller starting much of the season. Marks registered four sacks and nine pressures, and signed a four-year extension late in the season.
"We didn't know we were getting as good a player as we did," Wash said. "He played nose guard at Tennessee and he just basically held up linebackers. In the first minicamp, we were like, 'This guy's got some good first-step quickness – and he's strong-handed. We knew that, but the off-field stuff ... him and Babin were the two leaders in that room."
Miller played through a torn labrum much of the season before missing the final two games, finishing with four tackles for loss and two pressures. Miller throughout the season was key to the Jaguars' run defense, an area that improved significantly in the second half of the season.
"That was one of the big free agency acquisitions, I personally felt," Wash said. "For him to play that shoulder injury he had was phenomenal."
The Jaguars, after allowing 100 or more yards rushing in each of the first eight games, held their next five opponents under that total. That put opposing offenses in more difficult down-and-distance situations, which helped the pass rush significantly.
"You have to earn the right to rush the quarterback," Wash said. "You hear that a lot in our room. If you're going to play Wide 9 and just rush the passer every time, they're going to run the ball down your throat. If it's a run down, we want to be able to hunker down and earn the right to rush.
"If there was one statistic I want to be the best in the NFL in, it's yards per rush. It was fundamentals, playing more square and understanding what we needed to do. We went back to teaching the fundamentals, like we did in training camp.
"I think we got away from it and it showed. That really improved."
Wash said without question the line must continue to improve. He also said players such as Marks and Alualu, who played 946 and 754 snaps, respectively, ideally will play fewer snaps in a deeper rotation in future seasons.
"We want to play eight with everybody playing plenty of reps and staying fresh," he said.
But Wash said overall the fundamentals taught this season should improve next season. He said he and Bradley believe pass rushers develop between Year One and Year Three in the league, and that those players also benefit from time in a specific system.
"There are a lot of guys who get labeled a certain way, but the way we break it down and teach it, we can develop players," Wash said. "Developing players is really the most important thing for us. We feel we've set a good solid foundation with our players. Early on, we were worried about getting lined up. They started figuring it out and our fundamentals were drastically better the second half.
"This was very enjoyable year. You'd like more success on Sunday, but as a unit, we saw some progress. It's far from done, but there was a lot of improvement."