Mike Smith knew it wasn't going to be easy. He knew there were problems that had to be overcome. He probably didn't expect, however, his pass-defense to be ranked 27th in the league heading into the final four games of this season.
"You never know how guys are going to bounce back from injuries. We haven't played as efficiently as we'd like. We're always trying to identify areas we have to improve," the Jaguars defensive coordinator said on Thursday.
The pass-defense has been easy to identify. In week nine, the Jaguars allowed a franchise-worst 445 yards passing to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. This past Sunday, problems in pass-defense reared their ugly head again, as the Jaguars allowed 288 yards and four touchdown passes to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
"Statistically, we're not pleased with our pass-defense. You have to go back to basics and work on fundamentals of technique," Smith said.
"We have to do it better. The bottom line is you're judged by your production. We've kept the scoring down. Yes, we have guys who don't have a lot of experience, but that's not an excuse. This is a no-excuse business. The bottom line is keeping your opponents out of the end zone," Smith added.
Denying touchdowns has been the saving grace of a defense that has fallen on hard times this year. Though the Jaguars have fallen from second in the league in overall defense in 2006 to 22nd overall currently, their seventh-in-the-league ranking in points allowed per game has allowed the Jaguars to hold the lead in the wild-card race with an 8-4 record.
"We have not been good in explosive plays," Smith said, referring to gains of 20 yards or longer by the opponents' offense. "It usually leads to points but it hasn't. We've been able to overcome explosive plays."
The Jaguars have allowed 47 "explosive" pass completions, which ranks last in the league by a wide margin. Five of those plays have been for touchdowns, including a 48-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Reggie Wayne last Sunday. Flirting with that kind of danger is not a formula for success.
So how have they managed to overcome their big-play failures? In a league of coordinators obsessed with denying big plays, the Jaguars have allowed them with shocking regularity, yet, they're on pace for a playoff berth.
Well, for starters, they've largely maintained their ability to stop the run. Despite a meltdown against the run in the season-opener, the Jaguars have slowly climbed in the rush-defense rankings to eighth currently. The other half of the defense's equation for overcoming its big-play failures has been a penchant for creating turnovers. The Jaguars' 23 takeaways is tied for 12th in the league and, coupled with the offense's lack of giveaways, the Jaguars' 7 turnover differential is tied for sixth in the league.
Improving the pass-defense would seem to be the key to the Jaguars' postseason success. In a playoffs that is likely to include quarterbacks such as Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and red-hot Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, the Jaguars will have to do a better job of defending the pass, and any gains in that department would seem to rest on finding new ways to rush the passer.
"We have to continue to work on winning the one-on-ones," Smith said of the pass-rush challenge. "You can't continually depend on bringing extra rushers. There's always a risk-reward when you blitz."
The Jaguars are currently 23rd in the league in sacks per pass play, with a total of 26 sacks. They were 17th last season, when the Jaguars registered 35 sacks.
When the season began, Smith had a defensive end (Reggie Hayward) who was coming off Achilles surgery, a defensive tackle (Marcus Stroud) who was attempting to make a comeback from microfracture surgery, and a defensive end (Paul Spicer) who had missed nearly all of training camp with a back injury. Defensive end Bobby McCray, who led the Jaguars with 10 sacks last season, has mysteriously failed to register one this season.
"Bobby has not had the production he had last season. We've shown Bobby tapes of last season," Smith said.
Spicer, meanwhile, has been sensational.
"Paul has had a great season. If you had asked back in August, with the back injury; it looked like there were times he had trouble walking down the hallway. He's been our most productive player up front," Smith said and, to that end, head coach Jack Del Rio honored Spicer this week with a captain's "C" for the front of his jersey.
Stroud returned to the Jaguars this week following a four-week suspension for violation of the league's steroids policy. Hayward, however, was lost on Sunday for what is expected to be a significant period of time with a groin injury.
"He'll be a big addition," Smith said of Stroud.
"We've got to win the game, not put back to back losses together," Smith added of Sunday's game against visiting Carolina. "It's what you do in the fourth quarter, the four games in December. That's when teams separate from each other.
"When we are operating efficiently as a unit, we can be as good as any in the league," Smith said.