The Jaguars cling to hope that the start of the regular season will reverse the fortunes of their sluggish preseason offense. Saturday night, those fortunes reversed in the second half, allowing the Jaguars a 29-18 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs, but all 29 of those points were scored after the Bucs' defensive starters had left the game.
"The first half is on me," Del Rio told reporters following the game. "You look for a lot of individual things. Another thing you look for is the character of your football team. I like the second half in that we showed a lot of that."
Trailing 11-0 at halftime, the Jaguars first team offense had gained only 95 yards and four first downs. Quarterback Byron Leftwich was sacked four times in the first half, losing a fumble following a sack on the team's opening drive.
In the second half, Leftwich and the starters remained in the game and, against the Bucs' second team defense, the Jaguars pushed the ball down the field with ease twice, scoring touchdowns the first two times they had the ball on drives of 79 and 68 yards.
"We didn't score. I'll take the first half. That's on me, as in I'll do what it takes to make our team better," Del Rio said. "I believe in character. I like the way the team stuck together; continued to work at their trade.
"There are (coaches) all over the league who are answering these same questions. The time for these questions and answers to have more meaning is in the regular season," Del Rio added.
The Jaguars, 2-1, have one preseason game remaining, in Atlanta next Thursday. The preseason finale is usually a tuneup game, of course, as starters usually play a quarter or less.
"That first half just wasn't good. You always want to play well in your third (preseason) game. We didn't do that," said Leftwich, who finished the night having completed 13 of 20 passes for 167 yards, one touchdown and a 107.7 passer rating.
Leftwich knew, of course, that those statistics meant little in light of the Jaguars' first-half failures. He was very realistic about his unit's early sluggishness.
He described his mood as "frustrated. Before the game, I thought we would do some pretty good things," Leftwich said. "I really do believe we're going to be fine on Sept. 10 (the regular season opener). We can't get discouraged."
The bright spot of the first half for the Jaguars was the play of running back Fred Taylor and the Jaguars' run-defense. Taylor had his best game of the preseason, rushing for 37 yards on nine carries, while the Jaguars held the Bucs' first team offense to 12 yards rushing.
Leftwich scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak and then tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Matt Jones. David Garrard replaced Leftwich in the fourth quarter and completed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Rich Alexis. Alvin Pearman capped Jacksonville's scoring with a one-yard run.
Del Rio had hoped to get third team quarterback Quinn Gray playing time in the first half, but Gray didn't play at all and the logic to that was obvious: Leftwich needed the work.
"I recognize that Sept. is coming up pretty quick. You have to take it for what it is. It's never as bad or as good as it looks," Del Rio said.
Middle linebacker Mike Peterson and backup running back Greg Jones each sustained sprained knees, but Del Rio said the news was encouraging and that he expects both players to be ready to play in the season opener against visiting Dallas. Nick Sorensen sprained an ankle and Brian Iwuh bruised his hip pointer. Del Rio also represented those two injuries as minor.
The most major concern is for the sacks the Jaguars offensive line continues to allow, which is now at 10 in three preseason games. Garrard was also sacked once by the Bucs.
"It's still early," offensive tackle Mo Williams said. "Tonight we saw what we need to tune up, our pass game."
Williams expects the pass-blocking to improve when the Jaguars begin regular-season game preparation. "You watch the tendencies and it gives you an advantage at game time," Williams said.
They cling to that belief.