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Young Jags poised to make run?


Jaguars Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker stood at the 50-yard line during pregame on Sunday, observing his defense as it warmed up. He saw Austin Lane, Courtney Greene, Don Carey, Derek Cox, Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu, all of whom were in the starting lineup, and all of a sudden it hit Tucker just how young the Jaguars are.

That's the good news.

Head Coach Jack Del Rio's young Jaguars have reached the halfway point in the season no better, no worse than when the season began. A season that began with hope still clings to that hope.

"It was a win we had to have and we got it," Del Rio said on Monday of the Jaguars' surprisingly easy 35-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys. "You'd like to remain alive and have some hope. We at least stayed afloat. We play everyone in our division again and Houston twice. We'll get our opportunities."

Last spring, Del Rio announced that his team's goal was to win the AFC South title this year. At the halfway point, the Jaguars will be a game behind the two second-place teams and a game-and-a-half behind the division leader.

Should the Texans win at Indianapolis tonight, the Texans will come to Jacksonville the following week as the division leader. Right away, the Jaguars will be facing one of those opportunities about which Del Rio spoke. Right away, in the first game of the second half of the season, the Jaguars' division title hopes will be on the line.

Yes, the second half of the season promises to deliver that kind of drama, at least for as long as the Jaguars stay in the playoff race. Make no mistake, they're in it as they begin their bye week.

"I'm going to let you worry about that," Del Rio said to a reporter who asked the coach if his team was poised to make a run at the playoffs. "I'm going to go back to the cliché. We beat one of the more talented teams in the league yesterday. Talent alone doesn't get it done. You can't talk your way into the postseason."

Can the Jaguars play their way in? Do they have enough talent and can their young players develop quickly enough to make a run at the playoffs?

"We've been able to omit a lot of negative vibes. Our guys have been able to fight through it. We should be able to ascend and be better than we were when the season began," Del Rio said. "One of the huge factors in that is going to be our quarterback. When he's played well, we've played well."

A combination of four of his best-ever performances and three of his worst-ever performances has left quarterback David Garrard the NFL's fourth-ranked passer with a passer rating of 98.8. He's thrown 13 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Twelve of those touchdown passes and only one of those interceptions are from the Jaguars' four wins.

How important is Garrard to the Jaguars' playoff chances? You could say he's as important to his team as Peyton Manning is to the Colts.

The other half of the playoff equation for the Jaguars would seem to be improvement on defense. Currently, the Jaguars are ranked 30th in the league in total defense; they are 22nd against the run and 28th against the pass.

It's the development of the first-year and second-year players on the Jaguars' roster that will likely determine whether or not the defense can rise to the level of a playoff contender.

"I thought it was Tyson Alualu's best game," Del Rio said of his first-round pick's performance in Dallas. Alualu contributed a sack, two tackles for a loss and a quarterback hurry. Most importantly, he made the stop on fourth down on the goal line in the next-to-last play of the first half. It was the big play in the game.

Another defensive player, second-year cornerback Derek Cox, rebounded from having lost his starting job early in the season to turn in a two-interception performance in Dallas that included a tackling clinic. Cox's right cornerback position has been a trouble spot all season and it would go a long way toward improvement on defense if the position's troubles disappeared.

"When he was placed in an uncomfortable situation early in the year, he responded how you'd like to see a young man respond," Del Rio said of Cox.

Left tackle Eugene Monroe and wide receiver Mike Thomas are two ascending second-year players on offense. Monroe more than held his own against star pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware on Sunday, while Thomas finished the first half of the season with the team lead in receptions, 33. He and wide receiver mate Mike Sims-Walker, who made eight catches for a career-high 153 yards on Sunday, are billing themselves as "Mike and Mike."

Ah, the enthusiasm of youth. How far can it carry these young Jaguars?

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