Coach Jack Del Rio believes Byron Leftwich can be coached to protect the ball better, and Del Rio challenged his offensive line this afternoon to assist Leftwich in protecting the ball by providing him with better pass-protection.
"He can be a little smarter in the way he holds the ball, but I wasn't ready to pull him," Del Rio said of yesterday's game, when Leftwich was stripped of the football three times while attempting to pass. He lost two of those fumbles and they resulted in 11 points that, ultimately, spelled defeat for the 1-7 Jaguars.
Leftwich came to the Jaguars from Marshall with some bad mechanics and the Jaguars have worked on correcting those problems. Del Rio said progress has been made and the focus will now fall on where Leftwich carries the ball while standing in the pocket.
"Closer to his body and two hands on it," Del Rio said of the proper technique. "Some things are coachable. The areas where we can tighten up the game, there's room for growth. There are emphasis drills. It's a matter of attention to detail. We've made some progress in some areas already. He has made strides. He has worked diligently and made progress."
Leftwich has thrown nine interceptions and has lost six fumbles in five starts. The interceptions are expected of a rookie, but the fumbles must constitute a significant concern because it involves a bad habit that must be corrected. As teams see tape of Leftwich holding the ball low and away from his body, they will concentrate an even greater emphasis on stripping it.
Along those lines, Del Rio also made a concerted effort during this afternoon's press conference to challenge his offensive linemen, as he did his linebackers a week ago. This afternoon, Del Rio praised the performance with which his linebackers responded Sunday in Baltimore.
"We have to firm up protection for him. We can't have our tackles in his lap, and (Leftwich has) got to do a better job of protecting the ball," Del Rio said. "We're not having assignment errors. We're just letting the pocket collapse."
Leftwich was sacked four times by the Ravens, but three of those sacks were the result of the forced fumbles. That's where Leftwich and his line must share the blame: The rushers weren't close enough to him to sack him, and had Leftwich had the ball in the right position neither the fumble nor the sack would've occurred, but the line is also responsible for keeping those rushers at a greater distance from Leftwich.
In other news from today's press conference:
• Del Rio announced that center Brad Meester has been signed to a contract extension. The deal is for five years, $13 million and includes a $3.5 million signing bonus. "He was a guy we wanted to get signed," Del Rio said of Meester, who would've become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Meester has missed three snaps in four seasons and has started all 56 regular-season games during that time.
• "The thing I'm most proud of is the way the linebackers responded," Del Rio said of Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Ravens, in which the Jaguars became only the second team this year to hold Jamal Lewis under 100 yards rushing. "I believe you do have to stop the run first and we are learning how to do it."
• Del Rio referred specifically to safety Deke Cooper, special teams gunner Nick Sorensen and wide receiver Troy Edwards as roster additions who've pleased the coach.
• Leftwich isn't likely to leave the starting lineup, if Del Rio's remarks this afternoon are any indication. "He's a pretty resilient guy. He's made some terrific throws. He made some yesterday. You can't coach that arm and decision-making. I think the future is bright for him," said Del Rio, who agreed Leftwich should've thrown the ball away on third down instead of risking the interception that clinched the Ravens' win.
• Rashean Mathis will probably remain at corner. "Likely he will. I like what I'm seeing out of Rashean right now," Del Rio said.
• Why was Hugh Douglas not on the field more? "We had a (rotation) plan and we stuck with it," the coach added.
• Is he pleased with the performance of his coaching staff? "I believe we can do better as a staff. We all share in it," he said, referring to coaches and players.
• Cornerback Jason Craft (knee) and wide receiver Jimmy Redmond (foot) are expected to return to practice this week, and Mark Brunell (elbow) should begin throwing. But Del Rio didn't expect Brunell to be available for action this Sunday against Indianapolis.