The Jaguars needed this. They really, really needed this.
And as of Friday night, they have every right to feel a whole better about the upcoming season than they did just a short time ago.
The reason had little to do with the score, or the fact that the Jaguars beat the Atlanta Falcons, 15-13, at EverBank Field Friday. It had little to do with the fans feeling good, and erasing the memory of a less-than-attractive blowout loss the week before.
What it had a lot do with was that the Jaguars played good defense – for a while, some really, really good defense.
And that's about as important as it gets around the Jaguars right now.
"Any time you're flying around, that's definitely what you want as a defense," Jaguars safety Dawan Landry said. "We came out and got some positive things done. I think it was a step in the right direction."
And that, of course, is what the preseason is about.
For all the teeth-gnashing over the 47-12 loss to the New England Patriots in the preseason opener, the coaching staff and front office wasn't overly concerned. Yes, they were glad to get a victory Friday, because winning is always better than losing, but for the short- and long-term for this franchise, there were bigger stories.
One is obviously the quarterback position, a story that felt sort of on hold Friday night as starter David Garrard led two drives that finished in turnovers and one that ended in a field goal. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert played the next two quarters, and while he made few big plays, he also made few mistakes.
The kid's learning. Sometimes the preseason is about gaining experience, and Gabbert on Friday got the experience of two more quarters. This story is yet to play out.
But the story of the defense is a pretty important story of this year's training camp, too. And while two preseason games don't tell it in its entirety it is become reasonable to believe that this will be an improved group this season.
The defense against New England looked fast and aggressive early. Linebacker Clint Session forced two fumbles, and the coaching staff talked this week of good energy and a team that was starting to play fast and aggressive. There was optimism about a pass rush that created pressure, particularly with end Aaron Kampman not yet playing while recovering from a knee injury.
That happened again against Atlanta. Not that the Jaguars were perfect Friday. The performance was marred by a 76-yard second-quarter touchdown from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to wide receiver Harry Douglas, and you can't ignore that. You don't become elite in the NFL saying, "Well, if it wasn't for this play . . ." The NFL is a game of big plays, and you have to limit them.
"We gave up one cheap one," Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "It was something that we gave up, nothing that they really earned. It's something that we can correct, but overall we're proud of the way we played."
But as Mathis also said, the preseason is a time for making mistakes, and improving on them, and except for the Douglas reception, there was little question the Jaguars looked pretty darned good defensively.
The defensive front didn't have a sack, but it pressured Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan consistently in the first half. Jeremy Mincey, who started at defensive end, said afterward he could have had four sacks, and his first-half pressure of Ryan not only forced a third-down incompletion, it forced an intentional grounding penalty that pushed the Falcons out of field-goal range.
Afterward, the pass rush was a theme among the defense.
"Any time the front four and front seven is getting pressure and making the quarterback throw out of a manhole, that's something you can always look forward to from the secondary," Landry said.
"Our D-line did a great job pressuring the quarterback tonight," LB Paul Posluszny said. "That needs to carry over."
And overall, the Jaguars' defense just seemed to play fast, particularly in the first half. The defensive coaches talked throughout the season about playing fast, and about swarming to the ball. The scheme was simplified a bit entering training camp, and players afterward said they are seeing the signs of that early.
"We've got some things we have to clean up – simple stuff," Jaguars linebacker Daryl Smith said. "We have a lot of work to do, but it was a step in the right direction."
That was the mood overall Friday after the victory over the Falcons. The Jaguars know there's a lot of work to do. These guys are professionals, and just as there was no panic in the wake of the New England loss, there was nothing close to champagne after the victory over the Falcons. This defense still hasn't had a sack, and defensive players to a man were quick to point out that there is a lot of improving to be done.
But at the same time, there is optimism that this is a better defense than the one that finished last season ranked 28th, and more than that, there is optimism that there is potential to get a whole lot better before too long.
That's something the Jaguars really, really needed, and a big reason why it was OK for them to feel pretty good Friday.