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T.J.'s back, but where?


The Jaguars welcome back T.J. Slaughter this week to a defense that's playing its best football in three years. But what position will Slaughter play?

"I think back at weakside (linebacker) and in the 'nickel' and 'dime' packages. But I'll make no announcement at this time as to how it will work out," coach Tom Coughlin told reporters today.

Slaughter was suspended by the NFL for violation of the league's policy governing anabolic steroids and related substances. The suspension began on Sept. 6 and officially ended today, though the Jaguars have a one-week roster exemption if they choose to use it. If they activate Slaughter for Sunday's game in Tennessee, a player must be released from the roster. Coughlin said team doctors have cleared Slaughter for full practice participation. He had been recovering from a dislocated elbow suffered in the preseason.

"I'm not going to let this ruin my image. I know who I am and what I stand for," Slaughter said during media interviews today.

He claims not to have used steroids; that he was flagged for a banned substance that was included in a health supplement he purchased over the counter.

"It was unfortunate but I don't regret anything. I learn from my mistakes. It just taught me a lesson; be aware of everything you take," Slaughter added. "Hurt me? No, it made me stronger."

But while he was gone the Jaguars experimented with different combinations at linebacker. Danny Clark was moved from strongside to weakside linebacker and is judged to have played very well. Slaughter is a true middle linebacker but Wali Rainer has settled in at that position and Coughlin isn't likely to remove Rainer's veteran presence and leadership skills from the lineup.

It's a nice problem for Coughlin, who all of a sudden finds himself with depth at linebacker. But it may cost Slaughter playing time, which is a twist of fate since Slaughter was considered to be the Jaguars' best linebacker when training camp began.

It's the perfect example of what has been accomplished during the Jaguars' surprising 3-1 start to the season. They have found players where they were previously considered to be perilously thin.

The season, to date, has been a twist of fate in almost every way. Consider Coughlin, whose name was booed during pregame introductions when the season began. Now, he's one of the leading candidates for coach of the year.

"That's the game, isn't it?" he said.

Certainly that's the game this year. A team most considered to be dead in the water currently has a better record than 22 other teams in the league.

"It's fun to see the effort and enthusiasm. It's not always pretty but it is sincere," said Coughlin, who reviewed Sunday's impressive win over the Philadelphia Eagles, passed out compliments and agreed that rookie defensive tackle John Henderson's three-sack performance is worth consideration for a starting nod this Sunday in Nashville.

"Up until the 6:18 mark of the fourth quarter, the defensive (statistics) were outstanding," he said, adding that the tight pass-defense his secondary provided allowed defensive coordinator John Pease to continue the use of his pass-rush packages. To that end, the Jaguars sacked Donovan McNabb five times and forced McNabb to scramble enough to gain 100 yards rushing.

Late this afternoon, the Jaguars announced they had signed third-year defensive end Rob Meier to a three-year contract extension. Meier received a $400,000 signing bonus on a deal that will pay him $375,000 in salary this year, $450,000 in 2003, $700,000 in '04 and $800,000 in '05.

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