Striving to be the best

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They are on the doorstep of becoming an elite defense. Will this be the season the Jaguars defense takes the final step?

"We have room for improvement. I think we can be very good. We want to be the best defense in the NFL. I think it's a very realistic goal," Jaguars Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith said.

The Jaguars defense finished last season as the league's sixth-ranked unit. The top five, of course, are considered to be "elite." Those five a year ago were 1. Tampa Bay, 2. Chicago, 3. Carolina, 4. Pittsburgh, 5. Baltimore.

Smith looks back and regrets late-game decisions in two games, Denver and St. Louis. He gambled with some risky gap defenses late in each of those games, when the outcome had been decided and Smith was trying to do something desperate. The result was big plays against the Jaguars that probably cost them a top-five defensive ranking.

"The measuring stick of a good defense is points allowed and we were tied for third," Smith said, taking comfort in that stat.

Nearly all of the stats were comforting. The Jaguars were seventh against the pass, number one in sacks per pass play and number three in third-down defense. Their number 14 ranking against the run wasn't up to their standards but there were schematic reasons for it. The bottom line is the Jaguars were able to stop the run when they focused on it.

"We want to be known as an elite defense," Smith said.

So what will it take to accomplish that goal in 2006?

"The first thing is your players have to stay healthy," Smith said. "The core of this group has been together for three years so they have a very good understanding of the scheme and of each other. It's a group of men who have a passion for football. They enjoy the camaraderie and play hard."

Everything begins with defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. They are the cornerstones to the Jaguars' success on defense, just as former head coach

Tom Coughlin envisioned when he selected Stroud and Henderson in the first rounds of the 2001 and '02 drafts.

The construction of this defense since Jack Del Rio became the Jaguars' head coach in 2003 has followed a pattern. In each of the last four offseasons, the Jaguars have signed a premier free agent who is a key player in the current defense. In '03 it was Mike Peterson. Deon Grant was added in '04, Reggie Hayward in '05 and Brian Williams this year.

Smith has been given only four first-day-of-the-draft players in four years: second-round pick Rashean Mathis in '03, second-rounder Daryl Smith in '04, third-round pick Scott Starks in '05 and third-rounder Clint Ingram this year. You could make a point that the Jaguars defense's first-round picks were made in free agency.

"I think Clint will have an opportunity to compete for a starting position," Smith said of Ingram, who will try to move in at strongside linebacker. If he does, it'll allow Daryl Smith to move to weakside linebacker, where he could also face a challenge from '05 sixth-round pick Pat Thomas.

"He fits the profile we're looking for at linebacker; a strong, fast, physical football player," Mike Smith said of Ingram.

The Jaguars defense isn't an elite-speed unit, but it could have the league's best combination of size and speed.

"When we got here, we had a nucleus of big, strong guys. We continue to look for guys who can run," Smith said.

There are five Coughlin players remaining: Stroud, Henderson, Paul Spicer, Rob Meier and Donovin Darius.

"We've been able to keep the core players intact and whether it's through the draft or through free agency you try to add quality players," Smith added.

That's been another formula for success on defense: re-signing core players. Stroud, Henderson, Mathis, Darius, Spicer and Meier have all gotten new deals.

"This is a prideful group," Smith said.

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