Jack Del Rio's tone of voice suggested he was making more than a promise. He was almost threatening.
"We WILL stop the run," Del Rio said of his defense last summer, before anyone believed that what was about to take place was even remotely possible.
Del Rio inherited a run-defense that was a lowly 25th in the league in 2002. He also inherited two mammoth defensive tackles and signed a pricey middle linebacker in free agency, but nobody expected the radical improvement that would follow.
Though the Jaguars played a schedule that included four of the league's top six and 12 of the top 16 running backs, the Jaguars allowed only one running back to rush for 100 yards, and that in the first game of the year when Stephen Davis gained 111 yards.
By season's end, the Jaguars owned the NFL's second-ranked run-defense, and that left "experts" scratching their heads to explain the dramatic improvement. How had they gotten so good so fast?
It all began with Del Rio's promise, or threat. It all began with a new dedication to stopping the run. Under Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith, stopping the run was priority number one.
"The importance of stopping the run is you have the ability to dictate to the offense that they're going to have to throw the football, and they become one-dimensional. When a team is able to be balanced between run and pass, it makes it more difficult to defend," Smith said.
"Offenses that are able to run the football dictate the tempo of the game. There's nothing more discouraging than to have a team consistently run the football and move down the field. It's a slow death. The old three yards and a cloud of dust is the most frustrating thing for defensive coaches and players," he added.
Immediately, Del Rio and Smith began hammering that philosophy into the heads of their defensive players. They promised to arm those players with an attack-style strategy, but they also emphasized the expectation that stopping the run WILL be the result, or else.
"The techniques and philosophies we installed were more of an attacking style for our defenders than read-and-react. They were more of a read-and-react and we are more of an attacking defense up front," Smith said in comparing the philosophies of the Tom Coughlin regime to what the Jaguars would be under Del Rio.
"Our mantra for our defensive linemen is we're going to attack, neutralize the blocker and disengage. The way our defense is designed, it's all based on gap integrity, so we're not going to give up big runs. It's an attacking, aggressive, gap-controlled defense. Everyone has a gap they must control. If anything comes through the hole, they take it," Smith added. "The theory of read and react is you build a wall and you may not give up an explosive run."
So, it's the scheme that gets all of the credit, huh? Well, not exactly. A lot of teams employ attack-style gap defenses. Some of the league's worst run-defenses attack the gaps. In fact, attacking the gaps is a good way to go to the bottom of the run-defense rankings, because doing it the wrong way will yield a lot of long runs.
The Jaguars didn't rise to the top of the league's run-defense rankings as a result of their scheme. They rose to the top of the league rankings for these three reasons:
- Their ability to teach and install their scheme.
- The players' ability to execute the scheme.
- Careful attention to the tendencies and predictabilities of opposing offenses.
"I don't think it's a unique system," Smith said of the Jaguars' gap-defense scheme. "The way it's installed and is taught is unique. We believe we have a special way of doing it. We try to keep it simple and allow our players to play fast. We don't want them thinking; we want them reacting to the keys to which they're supposed to be reacting."
In executing the scheme, discipline is of the utmost importance. Every gap must be manned. Breakdowns result in long runs, and the Jaguars weren't guilty of many breakdowns last season. The five runs of 15 yards or more the Jaguars allowed last season ranked as the third-fewest in the league. The Jaguars allowed a mere 3.18 yards per rushing attempt; the number one run-defense, Tennessee, allowed 3.79 yards per rush.
But maybe it was Del Rio's and Smith's preparation that was the biggest player in the Jaguars' success. The two coaches and the Jaguars defensive staff spend a lot of time charting the opposition's run/pass tendencies, and their ability to put their defenders in the right defense at the right time was a major player in the Jaguars defense's success.
"We're not guessing. We're playing the percentages. Usually the good teams are predictable. You know what they're going to do and you have to prepare your players and give them a scheme that gives them an advantage," Smith said.
"The first thing you have to be able to do is commit enough defenders to the line of scrimmage. How much is enough? Eight," Smith added.
That's the goal of nearly every good run-defense; to get that eighth man in the box. But it has to be done in a way that doesn't leave the pass-defense vulnerable.
"It's all a numbers game. If you put an eighth man down in the box, you've got one more man than they can account for. The eighth man on offense is the running back. He has to make the eighth man miss. They can't block everybody," Smith said. "You run stunts and games for the disruption of the blocking patterns. That's another way to be disruptive."
And it all worked. The Jaguars finished last season with the highest run-defense ranking in team history.
"You can't have the kind of defense we want to have here without having the ability to stop the run. The theory behind our defense is you have to stop the run first. You develop a toughness, you have to be good tacklers and you develop your pursuit skills," Smith said.
Del Rio said they would.