JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser takes a final look at the week around the Jaguars as they prepare to play the Minnesota Vikings at EverBank Field Sunday
The future looks bright, and that future looks real.
The last part is important when considering the Jaguars' defense – a unit that week by week looks more and more like the foundation of the franchise's future.
That's how players see it, and it's a reason for the unit's motivation in recent weeks – even as postseason hopes have waned and disappeared during a seven-game losing streak.
"You see maturity and growth in guys," linebacker Telvin Smith said as the Jaguars (2-10) prepared to play the Vikings (6-6) at EverBank Field Sunday at 1 p.m. "When you have core players on each level and they're setting the standard all around, you're going to see guys continue to get better because the standard is going to continue to rise.
"If I'm setting the standard, guys are going to keep getting closer to it, so I have to keep rising. That's what's happening right now."
The Jaguars' defense ranks fourth in the NFL in yards allowed, and though the unit may not be the NFL's fourth-best defense, it's vastly improved from last season. The pass rush still must improve and takeaways remain an issue, but the unit has gone from being a liability much of last season to one that is keeping the team in games.
One reason is one Smith noted – that this is a unit with young, core players on each level: Jalen Ramsey at cornerback, Smith and perhaps Myles Jack at linebacker, Malik Jackson and perhaps ends Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. on the line.
Jack, Fowler and Ngakoue must continue to develop to become true core players, but needing continued development is normal for a rookie – and all three have shown the potential to develop into foundation players.
That likely growth is a biggest reason for optimism going forward, and it's a difference between this defense and the Jaguars' 2011 defense. A reader noted this week that the '11 defense ranked No. 6 in the NFL, and that the hope entering 2012 was it would remain something around which the defense could build.
That didn't happen. But that unit was largely built around veterans, and keystones such as cornerback Rashean Mathis and linebacker Daryl Smith were no longer with the team in 2013. That appears unlikely to be the case with players such as Ramsey, Smith, Ngakoue, Jack, Jackson and Fowler – and perhaps others – now forming the defensive core.
"They're playing well, but what about when they're really playing well?" 10-year veteran middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said, adding with a laugh. "I'm not going to be here for that, but we want to build for that. You want to be a part of something, so we say, 'Hey, defensively let's just finish strong and see where this group goes.'"
Jaguars center Brandon Linder (ankle), Otto linebacker Dan Skuta (elbow) and running back Chris Ivory (hamstring) will be game-time decisions Sunday.
Five players have been ruled out: running back Denard Robinson (ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (back), defensive end Jared Odrick (shoulder), safety Peyton Thompson (ankle) and wide receiver Allen Hurns (hamstring).
Ivory's status is key because of the overall injury situation at running back. In addition to Robinson being out, T.J. Yeldon worked all week with an ankle injury. Yeldon was removed from the injury report Friday and is expected to play, and Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said Yeldon has improved despite playing through the injury the past two weeks.
Marqise Lee likely will start opposite Allen Robinson for a second consecutive week in place of Hurns and Ben Koyack and Sterling will be the primary tight ends along with Alex Ellis. Josh Johnson will be the fourth safety with Thompson out. Tyson Alualu will start for Odrick at strong-side defensive end.
Tyler Shatley likely will start at center if Linder is unavailable.
"Anytime you run the ball I think there are a lot of things that it helps. I think it helps the confidence of the offensive line, helps things down the field – those things are all there. We've just got to capitalize on those opportunities. I think that's really the big thing is that the opportunities are there, we've just got to grab them."
--Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett
"Defensively we say, 'Hey, we're improving and we feel like we have the opportunity to be really good.' We want to build the foundation of this organization, sort of like when you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens or the Seattle Seahawks …. You think of teams that have success year after year after year, they're usually pretty solid defensively. The record is terrible and the playoffs are out of it, but let's work for something we can build on and do it week by week by week."