JACKSONVILLE – Improvement doesn't come always come immediately.
And it's not always as much as you want.
Those things are true to varying degrees when it comes to the Jaguars' defense, but this is true, too: The unit absolutely has improved in recent weeks. And as defensive coordinator Todd Wash sees it, the reason is relatively simple.
"A lot of it is they've just gotten better," Wash said Thursday as the Jaguars (1-11) prepared to play the Tennessee Titans (8-4) at TIAA Bank Field Sunday at 1 p.m.
The defensive improvement has shown itself since a Week 8 bye.
The Jaguars allowed 30 or more points in six games leading to the bye, tying an NFL record for consecutive games doing so. They allowed 33.3 points during that span and 360 yards per game. In five games since the bye, they have allowed 26.4 points and 326 yards per game.
And while the improvement hasn't been enough to snap an 11-game losing streak, the Jaguars have forced seven turnovers since the bye after forcing just four in the six games before it. After registering six sacks in six games leading to the bye, they have registered nine in five games since – including a season-high four in a loss to Minnesota this past Sunday.
"Through trial and error, they're learning how to play, and I think they're getting better," Wash said. "That's the biggest thing we talk about as a coaching staff: 'Continue to get these guys better.' They'll make plays. Give them an opportunity to compete on Sunday."
The improvement has come not only during the most difficult part of the Jaguars' schedule – the last four games have come against teams contending for the postseason – but as injuries have sidelined starters and front-line players such as defensive end/pass rusher Josh Allen, cornerbacks DJ Hayden, CJ Henderson and Sidney Jones IV, safety Daniel Thomas and defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton.
That has meant a largely new lineup in the last month, but one that has kept the Jaguars close enough to have possession with a chance to win in the closing minutes in four of the last five games.
"We've played a lot of young players," Wash said. "We look out there and three or four of them weren't on our team when we broke training camp, and now they're starting for us. It takes some time to learn the system and knowing what's expected of them within the system."
Part of the Jaguars' defensive improvement in recent weeks – and big part of the increased production from the pass rush – has been defensive end Dawuane Smoot. A third-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, Smoot registered a career-high six sacks last season and has a team-high 4.5 this season, including two of the team's four sacks against the Vikings. "I've just been sticking to my game plan – just working hard as I have been since the offseason," Smoot said. "It's coming together for me, kind of all coming to fruition. I'm trying to stick to it." Smoot, whose contract will expire after the 2020 season, on Thursday was asked about re-signing with the Jaguars. "I already bought a house here, so I'm looking to stay here," he said with a laugh. "My family loves it here. I love it here. There's a lot of opportunity here, so I'm definitely looking to stay here for a long time."
Jaguars Head Coach Marrone on Wednesday said rookie left guard Ben Bartch is "trending in the right direction" while playing more snaps in recent weeks. With starter Andrew Norwell on injured reserve, Bartch – a fourth-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft – has played 63 snaps over the last two games with veteran Tyler Shatley also playing the position. Bartch played 29 snaps this past Sunday in a loss to Minnesota in which Shatley moved over to center after starting center Brandon Linder left the game with an ankle injury. Marrone said lack of offseason program and preseason games because of COVID perhaps slowed Barth's progress in pass protection. "It's at a much higher level here than the run game," Marrone said, adding that Bartch was strong as a run blocker early and that he has improved in pass protection. "He did a much better job in protection last week. I'm happy with him. He's a tough guy. He can move. As we work our way through the season, playing is going to make him better. Then we have to figure out what's the best position for him, because he can play multiple positions."