A once-proud defense limped home.
Is this the same Jaguars team that returned from Buffalo in week one? Is this the same team that held the Denver Broncos touchdown-less? What happened to the Jaguars defense that roughed up the Titans?
Well, no, this is not the same team that started the season 3-0. The Jaguars team that roughed up its first three opponents is very different from the rather soft performances of the last two weeks. This Jaguars team has a contagion that has spread through the defense as a computer virus would infect your laptop. All of a sudden, nothing is working.
It happens that way. Football is a team sport. You are only as good as your weakest link, and as that old adage pertains to the Jaguars, the depleted defensive end position has turned a very good defense into something unrecognizable.
"We didn't show up with our run-defense," a forlorn-looking Jack Del Rio said following his Jaguars' 34-21 loss in San Diego on Sunday. "It's a matter of not knowing how we fit; gap integrity. We will definitely address that. It's something I take pride in. It's embarrassing to see a run-defense like that. As a coaching staff, we have to take responsibility."
They were some of the most terse words in Del Rio's 21 games as a head coach. In fact, they are his most pointed postgame remarks since he blasted his defense following his team's loss to the Titans at nearly the same point in the season a year ago.
Remember that Titans game? The nearly 12-minute exercise in ball-control against Del Rio's defense? If you wanna push this coach's hot button, you do it by playing soft against the run.
A year ago, the fix was a little easier. Del Rio had a couple of veteran defensive ends who, though they were both over the hill as far as their pass-rush days, were still capable enough and veteran enough to line up and play against the run. They were familiar with the concepts Del Rio preached. They knew the tricks of the trade.
This year, fixing the problem may be a little more difficult because Del Rio's ends are a grab-bag bunch. One of them is a part-time guy whose true position is defensive tackle. Another one is a journeyman. The other two are sixth and seventh-round draft picks.
Truth be known, the Jaguars defense really hasn't been the same since it lost Paul Spicer to a broken leg in week two. The following week, the Jaguars allowed Chris Brown to become the first running back to gain 100 yards against the Jaguars in 18 games. A week later, Edgerrin James nearly hit the 100 mark. Sunday, a reserve running back named Jesse Chatman gashed the Jaguars for 103. Ouch!
It's not that Spicer is a Pro-Bowl type player. It's not as though the Jaguars lost Tony Brackens in his prime. What they did lose, however, was the only true every-downs defensive end on their roster in whom they could depend and trust.
Against the Chargers, Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith made adjustments to their lineup. Marcus Stroud moved to defensive end, which meant losing a Pro-Bowl defensive tackle. Linebacker Greg Favors, who had spent time at end in recent weeks, saw his time on the edge doubled, maybe tripled.
Del Rio would not use the lineup shuffle as an excuse for his defense's poor performance against the Chargers. When he was asked if position unfamiliarity had hampered his defense on Sunday, Del Rio said, "It didn't." Then he paused, considered the question again and said, "No."
But you didn't have to be a mind reader to look into Del Rio's eyes and see the wheels turning. He knows he has a problem that's going to be difficult to fix, but blaming it isn't a cure.
The fix lies in a firmer adherence to the Del Rio way of playing defense. It's about gap integrity. It's always about gap integrity, which means that every player up front is responsible for a gap. Un-manned gaps are not allowed. It is the simple and basic concept of assignment football. Every man does his job; one heartbeat.
"If you don't gap properly, no matter how strong you are physically, it looks soft, feels soft. When we do it right, it looks pretty good," Del Rio said. "I'm not looking for any alibis. I don't think there was a lack of energy. When you don't execute, it snowballs on you. It's a chain reaction. It comes down to basic faith in your teammates and what your defense is built on."
The Jaguars will go back to basics this week. You will hear a lot about improving fundamentals. Del Rio and his lieutenants will work intensely on stressing technique and the application of it, and early in the week decisions will be made on how to line up against the Chiefs this Sunday. What do they do about the sensitive situation at end?
"If you don't execute and play within your responsibility, then it unravels on you. What you saw was the unraveling of a very good run-defense," said Del Rio, whose mind was more focused on an unexplainable lack of execution than it was on offseason upgrades.
This is not the offseason. You gotta play with what you got.
"We'll take our lumps as men and move on," Del Rio said.
It's what they did a year ago. Now, it would seem, they may be at an identical crossroads.