No Free Pass

Jaguars are lacking one major ingredient that all championship teams have, a pass defense.. and there are no signs of it getting better.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have a reputation around the NFL for being a tough, physical team with a strong running game and solid defense. After 12 games, the Jaguars have an 8-4 record and appear to be a virtual lock for their second trip to the postseason in three years. They currently have the second-ranked rushing attack in the NFL and their passing game seems to be improving by leaps and bounds with each and every game. Their quarterback, David Garrard, is currently the league's third-ranked passer with a 103.7 rating, and he's looking like a trip to Honolulu is in his future. The Jaguars run defense is in the top-ten of the league, and the team appears to have all the ingredients for a deep playoff run.

Unfortunately for the Jaguars, they lack one major ingredient that all championship teams have, a pass defense. The Jaguars pass defense has gone from bad to worse in recent weeks and there is no sign of it getting better. This Jacksonville defense currently owns the number 27 ranking against the pass, and they are giving up nearly 250 yards per game through the air. Giving up some of the big yardage is certainly understandable, being that they've faced Pro Bowlers Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Unfortunately, those two quarterbacks faced the Jaguars only three times and the other nine games were against very pass deficient offenses led by the likes of Joey Harrington, Damon Huard, Vince Young, and J.P. Losman, all quarterbacks whose passing acumen won't be easily confused with a Dan Marino or Joe Montana any time soon.

Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio shed some light upon the team's low defensive rankings-

"It's down for sure in terms of overall yardage and passing, and it's really the overall is because of the passing. Our rushing allowed is very much in line with what we've done. Our points given up are in line with we've done. We've given up some explosive plays in the pass game, and that right now has become an area of concern and one that we're going to give a lot of attention to. We know that in order for us to have success in December and potentially beyond, we've got to shore that part of our game up so we're working hard at that."

So what has been the big problem with the Jaguars pass defense? There are numerous issues, first of which is the lack of a consistent pass rush. Veteran Paul Spicer is playing the finest football of his eight-year career and he is really the only defensive lineman who has been a difference maker. Bobby McCray has gone from double-digit sacks a season ago to the inactive list in two of the teams last three game, mainly based upon his performance, or lack there of. Reggie Hayward is battling an injury to his Achilles tendon which caused him to miss most of last season, and he clearly isn't anywhere near the same player he was prior to the injury. Brent Hawkins was drafted to be a designated pass rusher, but he's been mostly ineffective this season in the Jaguars 4-3 defense, and a 3-4 scheme would probably suit his talents better. Simply put, the Jaguars haven't been able to sustain any kind of pressure by rushing four this season, and when they've blitzed, they've been leaving their corners and safeties on "islands" far too often.

Del Rio talks with Reggie Nelson
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
As far as the coverage is concerned, the Jaguars knew that there would be an adjustment period with rookie Reggie Nelson starting from day one at free safety. The hopes were that the team's outstanding corners, Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams, would continue their outstanding play and take some of the heat off Nelson. Williams has certainly stepped his game up to near-elite status, but the former Pro Bowler, Rashean Mathis seems to have gone in the other direction. Mathis appears to have caught the mythical disease, "Pro-Bowlitis." When a cornerback appears to have "Pro-Bowlitis," the symptoms often include watching the quarterback instead of the receiver he should be covering, and breaking off coverages to try for interceptions. Mathis certainly appears to be guilty of both, and teams have been targeting him in the passing game. Add in a rookie free safety in Nelson, and a veteran strong safety that was unemployed when the Jaguars started training camp (Sammy Knight), and it's easy to see why the pass defense has struggled so mightily.

Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio was asked if there are any corrections that can be made regarding personnel--

"Our personnel is what it is, and we've played good defense with the personnel we have. We've got to do things better, more consistently and we'll coach through that. We've had a couple really bad days that will keep us low in the rankings in passing yards. It doesn't matter how many great days you have now to close the year, you're not going to be where you want to be, not where I want to be in terms of the passing yardage, that's going to be there. The things that we've been good at, rushing yards and points, we need to continue that while we work on that other part of it, and that is defending the pass. So obviously that'll be something as we go through December, and if we earn it beyond, that's going to be an area we're going to need to be better in because you're going to face some good players. You're going to face some good quarterbacks and good passing offenses."

One other area of concern for the pass defense has certainly come on third down. The Jaguars have allowed a 43.5% conversion rate on third and fourth downs. That's right around the middle of the pack. The eight division leaders (currently) have a third down conversion rate against of 38.9%, which is a considerable difference. In Sunday's loss at Indianapolis, the Jaguars allowed the Colts to make 10 of 13 third downs (77%). It's very difficult to win against one of the NFL's elite if your defense can't get off the field on third down.

Coach Jack Del Rio
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio was asked if there was any one problem with the third down defense after Sunday's game-

"No, not any one.I'll give you three examples. We had one bringing pressure, have a guy unblocked in the quarterback's face, he throws it up and we have a breakdown and let one go over the top of us for an easy touchdown. We played coverage on another and we don't take away the leverage point that we're required to take away on defense, and the guy runs by and gets an easy touchdown. A third time we basically got picked down in there but you've got to be able to fight through that and make it more obvious. The guy's coming to pick you and there is no excuse. You've got to make it so obvious because you're going so hard through the guy that it's a glaring.and then he'll get the call. So in all three cases they executed beautifully, so you have to give them credit, but we broke down fundamentally in things that we believe in that we teach and coach, and so we've got to be better in that area. There were three plays right there, there were third downs that they scored on that we had a chance to force a field goal or a punt there. When you play a game and you end up losing by three points, you look back at some of those and say 'gee, if I could just have one of those play a little better maybe we'd have a chance to win that ballgame.'

Most games in the NFL are decided by seven points or less. That means one play, or missed play usually determines the outcome of a game, especially when the game is on the road against one of the league's elite teams. The Jaguars have been able to get away with a porous pass defense for much of the year thanks to their powerful rushing attack keeping the ball away from opponents, combined with the fact that they've played some inferior teams. Last Sunday, the Jaguars needed to make one more play on defense in Indianapolis to win the game and couldn't. That has seemed to be the case with the Jaguars in big games recently. If they are going to rewrite their recent history, they need to correct the pass defense or the playoffs will likely be another one and done.

Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of, and a regular syndicated contributor to, Sirius NFL Radio, MySpace Sports and Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.

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