JACKSONVILLE – The results have improved in recent weeks.
There's little doubt about that statistically or visually, and Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash said the reason is simple:
A young defense is gaining experience and growing accordingly.
"I think they're getting better – no doubt," Wash said Thursday as the Jaguars (1-8) continued preparing to play the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0) at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m. "We knew we were going to be young with really no offseason.
"A lot of it is they're just playing more, and we're playing a lot of young guys."
The Jaguars, after allowing 400 or more yards in four consecutive games before a Week 8 bye, have allowed fewer than 400 yards in each of the last two games – a 27-25 Week 9 loss to Houston and a 24-20 Week 10 loss at Green Bay. The Jaguars allowed 19 and 16 first downs, respectively, in those games after allowing at least 23 in each of the first seven games.
The Jaguars had allowed 30 or more points in six consecutive games before allowing 51 total points in two games since the bye.
"We've taken steps in everybody just doing their assignments on any given play, and just being able to function as a whole unit successfully – everybody knowing their jobs, doing their jobs," middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. "We've taken big steps in our execution."
Wash during his weekly Thursday media availability discussed multiple topics regarding the defense – the potential return this week of cornerback D.J. Hayden and an improving secondary among them.
The secondary has allowed touchdowns of 78 and 77 yard in the last two games, and Schobert said reducing explosive plays remains a priority. But the group overall has improved since veteran cornerback Sidney Jones IV moved into the starting lineup in Week 5; he has registered two interceptions and nine passes defensed in eight games played – both of which are team-highs this season.
"Those guys are getting better and better each week as we go out," Wash said. "That's really kind of what we anticipated. We have a very young football team, but they are getting better and better each week. They take a lot of pride in what they do. I think the biggest thing is you just see them executing because they have playmaking ability."
Young players also have made an impact. Rookie nose tackle DaVon Hamilton registered his first NFL sack against Green Bay in his fourth NFL start. Rookie Daniel Thomas moved into the starting lineup at safety in the same game – a week after rookie free-agent Doug Costin impressed in his first start at nose tackle. Rookie defensive end K'Lavon Chaisson has played extensively throughout the season, and cornerback CJ Henderson – a starter since Week 1 – forced a fumble and played well in coverage against Green Bay a week after allowing a long touchdown in Houston.
"It's good to see them mature and grow as the season goes on," Wash said.
Wash said the Jaguars since the bye also have added new looks and simulated pressure, playing more "bandit" and "dime" defense in the last two games "than we have in the last three or four years combined."
"That has definitely helped us on third down," Wash said. "We're playing different packages. We're doing some different things, getting different guys in the field and they're in position to make some plays – and they're making them.
"We're starting to keep the ball in front of us. We're tackling pretty well and getting them in third-and-longer situations, which is helping us out. I think we're doing a better job on first and second down and getting them in third and long situations that really allows us to be a little more successful."
The Jaguars on Thursday designated cornerback DJ Hayden to return from injured reserve. He has a 21-day window in which he can be moved to the active roster, with Wash on Thursday indicating he could play Sunday. Hayden, the Jaguars' top nickel corner the past two seasons, has been out since sustaining a hamstring in a Week 4 loss at Cincinnati. "Obviously he's a vet and knows our package inside and out," Wash said. "It's probably not going to be where he plays every snap, but we're hoping to see how he responds and make the decision as we get through the rest of the week."
Schobert on the need to limit "explosive" plays: "We've proven if we make teams drive down the field, even some of the best teams in the league, we'll be able to get stops and get the ball back to our offense or create turnovers. When we give up explosive plays, we don't give ourselves a chance to hold them out of the end zone or defend every blade of grass. That's something we have to improve on."