Defense on verge of 'elite'

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Back in the summer, we talked about our expectation that the Jaguars defense would become one of the elite units in the NFL this season. Since then, Reggie Hayward was lost for the season in the first game of the season, Mike Peterson was lost for the season in the fifth game of the season, and Marcus Stroud suffered an ankle injury the week of the season opener that has caused him to miss the last three games and, possibly, several more.

Think about that: Hayward, Peterson and Stroud all not playing. What if I had told you back in the summer that I knew, for a fact, those three players would miss the time they have? Would your expectation for the defense have changed?

Now comes news that John Henderson has a hamstring pull. When will this rash of injuries come to an end?

There remains, however, one thing more amazing than the Jaguars' injury report: the continued high-level performance of the team's defense.

Though the Jaguars have sustained major injuries to the core of their defense, the unit continues to pursue status as one of the game's elite units. It is currently ranked seventh overall, which is only one spot lower than its ranking last season when Hayward and Peterson had career years and Stroud was selected for the Pro Bowl for a third consecutive year.

Despite its injuries, the Jaguars defense has 17 sacks one game shy of midseason. Hayward, an 8.5-sack defensive end in 2005, tore his Achilles before he had a chance to contribute a sack this year. In his place, Bobby McCray has leaped into the team lead with five.

The Jaguars defense is number three in the league in first downs allowed, number seven in yards allowed per rushing attempt and number five in points allowed per game.

Despite all of its losses to injury, the Jaguars defense is playing at a level just beneath elite status, and with two teams in the bottom third of the offense rankings next up on the schedule, the Jaguars defense could make the leap into the league's top five category in the next two weeks.

Very few teams could sustain the losses the Jaguars have and stay at the high level of performance they have on defense. Who gets the credit?

Start with head coach Jack Del Rio for implementing a system that is to success on defense what Denver's system for running the ball is to 100-yard rushers.

Go to Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith for consistently knowing how to defend opponents and devising game plans his players can execute.

Include all of the position coaches – Dave Campo, Ray Hamilton, Ted Monachino, Mark Duffner and Alvin Reynolds – for developing young talent that has stepped up and replaced injured personnel.

Here are 10 things the Jaguars have to do to beat the Tennessee Titans.

  1. Disguise and confuse—Vince Young is a rookie quarterback, which means his understanding of defensive strategy is minimal. Force him into mistakes.
  1. Run the ball—It worked in Philadelphia and should work against the Titans, the league's next-to-worst run-defense.
  1. Protect the quarterback—In more ways than one. This week's quarterback controversy is going to heap a lot of pressure on David Garrard. He needs the full support of his teammates so that he can be successful and take his critics out of the game.
  1. Play hard—This is a big one because the Titans are doing it. The Titans know they are an overmatched team right now, but they're rallying around the fact that they are playing teams off their feet with sheer effort.
  1. Contain Young—He won't beat you if you keep him in the pocket. It's that simple.
  1. Make big plays—Especially in the passing game, which has made very few big plays this year. It's time for a Jaguars wide receiver to do something big.
  1. Stop the run—The Titans are 12th in the league in rushing. It's really the only thing they do well.
  1. Beware of Jeff Fisher—He's a heckuva coach, especially if he gets on a roll.
  1. Get that old feeling—These are the Titans. They are this team's number one rival. They must be treated as such.
  1. Beware of last season—The Titans turned in an embarrassing performance in last year's regular-season finale. Fisher, no doubt, is using that performance to challenge his team for this game.
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