Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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14 Jul 2008

Every Play Counts: Jacksonville's Front Four

by Doug Farrar

The Jacksonville Jaguars came into Pittsburgh's Heinz Field in mid-December with several positives on the offensive side of the ball, and a few defensive issues. Their rushing attack, led by Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, had been racking up yards and extending drives all season. Longtime backup quarterback David Garrard had taken full advantage of his long-awaited starting chance, and his efficiency filled out this formerly earthbound offense. The team had scored at least 24 points in six straight games. The Jags had amassed a 9-4 record despite residence in the NFL's toughest division, the AFC South, and had quietly established themselves as a real power in a conference long thought to have only two real heavyweight champs.

On defense, things were a bit more precarious. End Reggie Hayward, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in 2006, struggled to stay healthy in 2007 and missed three of the last four games of the regular season (including this one) with a groin injury. Middle linebacker Mike Peterson was out with a hand injury. And tackle Marcus Stroud, who had recently been on the short list of the NFL's best at his position, was put on injured reserve in early December with a high ankle sprain, just after he finished a four-game suspension for violating the league's anabolic steroids and related substances policy.

Head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith would have to put their front seven together with some different faces. Strongside backer Daryl Smith replaced Peterson, and rookie linebacker Justin Durant filled Smith's position with aplomb. Hayward was replaced by a rotation of Bobby McCray, who put up 10 sacks in 2006, and Clint Ingram, a tweener linebacker/end with some pass-rush ability. The Jaguars had veteran Rob Meier to replace Stroud, and acquired ex-Falcons tackle Grady Jackson for situational depth. It was this squad that would head to the Steel City to face a Steelers team that was coming off a 34-13 beatdown at the hands of the Patriots, though they shared Jacksonville's 9-4 record.

Jacksonville is seen as one of the NFL's Super Bowl contenders going into the 2008 season, but how much can they rely on their front four? We'll take a look at where the Jags were in Week 15, and where they're going, to assemble an answer.

Jaguars 29, Steelers 22

A few things were very clear right from the start. Although Pro Football Prospectus 2008 has the Jaguars sending more than four pass rushers on a fairly average basis (they ranked 21st in rushing at least five, 18th in rushing six-plus, and ninth in rushing seven or more), I could count the number of blitzes against the Steelers on one hand. The Jaguars have a very effective package when they bring Durant up outside the right end, but it wasn't used all that often against Pittsburgh. The plan was to bring pressure with four, and counteract Pittsburgh's array of formations (boy, do these guys like their trips right/left, or what?) with more defenders in the zone.

That's a tall order for any front four, even against a Steelers offensive line that's on the wrong side of the development curve, but it wouldn't have been possible without end Paul Spicer, the real star of Jacksonville's front four show. Spicer is a force at left end and occasionally on the right side. He had Pittsburgh tackles Willie Colon and Marvel Smith muttering to themselves all day. Quick enough to beat tackles inside or outside, strong enough to bull a guard back into a ballcarrier on a twist, and effective against the run, Spicer reinforced my opinion that he is one of the NFL's best defensive ends.

Spicer was on all day, but a few plays really stood out. There was the second-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 21, when Spicer was fanned out of the play by Smith, a good three yards behind Ben Roethlisberger at the end of his drop. However, Spicer regained his bearings and, with incredible closing speed, knocked the ball out of Big Ben's hand just as he was about to throw. The Steelers recovered, but it was a great example of Spicer's speed and determination.

Spicer's best play came in the Steelers' second drive of the second half. Roethlisberger took the ball in a shotgun set on first-and-10 with 2:46 left in the third quarter, then rolled right as he looked for an open man. Spicer shook off the blocks of Colon and running back Willie Parker and moved up in the pocket to bring the quarterback down. Big Ben went with the "I'm gonna throw the ball downward and short before I get sacked" strategy, which worked since he was out of the pocket and a fumble wasn't called. Spicer's strength was obvious and impressive. He's also good at sniffing out the direction of running plays and getting across the field to help with tackles. The Jags were extremely wise to give Spicer a two-year, $8 million contract extension in the preseason, locking him up through 2010. From what I've seen here and in other games, it's a bargain. Spicer has already been mentoring the team's new defensive ends, who we'll talk about later.

The main man opposite Spicer on this day was McCray, the team's primary pass rusher, though Spicer led the team in sacks in 2007. McCray left Jacksonville for New Orleans in the offseason after the combination of a three-sack season in 2007 and excessive contract demands had the Jaguars' front office looking elsewhere. After closely observing McCray, it's easy to see why his sack total went down: by my estimation, the guy overshot three sacks in this game alone. This is a common problem among the Jacksonville ends, including Spicer, but McCray plays football like an incredibly fast car with faulty brakes and no GPS. He has one of the quickest first steps I've ever seen, but the control is lacking. When it's all in balance, he's pretty scary. We got to see the good, bad, and ugly in this game.

The good was exhibited in power and speed: McCray pushed Smith back into Roethlisberger on a play late in the first quarter, causing a rushed incompletion to Santonio Holmes, and he was in on several legitimate hurries. The bad came against the run: McCray can be easily disengaged by powerful run-blockers, and he's better at staying with a play against the pass, and the aforementioned overpursuit. The ugly came in two consecutive fourth-quarter plays that helped put the Steelers back in the game after Jacksonville had a 22-7 lead in the third quarter. With the Jags up 22-14 and 9:29 left in the game, Roethlisberger handed off to Parker, who bounced outside and to the left with nothing but daylight in front of him. That daylight was created by Smith, who chucked McCray aside at the snap like a rag doll. Pass-rushing ends that have very little power against the run need to put up more than three sacks in a season.


After an incomplete pass to Hines Ward, the next play was unreal. On second-and 10 from the Pittsburgh 29, the Jaguars brought an enhanced pass rush from their right side with Durant blitzing alongside McCray. Parker took Durant out of the initial rush, and McCray beat Smith to the inside, but overshot a clean angle on Roethlisberger. Daryl Smith shot the gap between the center and left guard and started to bring Roethlisberger down. At the last millisecond, Big Ben threw up a prayer of a lateral to Parker, who took the ball 27 yards to the Jacksonville 44. Full marks to Roethlisberger and Parker, but proper technique by McCray, who had enough time to get where he needed to be at a manageable pace, would have rendered the play moot, and quite possibly ended Pittsburgh's game-tying drive.

The Jaguars traded Marcus Stroud to the Bills in the offseason, and they filled his spot with Rob Meier, an eight-year veteran who's been with the team his entire career. Meier filled in for Stroud through all the drama in 2007 and led the NFL in Stop Rate (explained here), albeit in limited action. With a new four-year contract, he'll now be asked to man the undertackle role far more often. In this game, Meier saw a lot of rotation with Derek Landri, a fifth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2007. Landri is a serviceable player who showed nothing overwhelming in this game, but Meier has the strength and penetrative ability to make an impact on the line. This was most evident on the same fourth-quarter play on which Spicer blew past Colon and Parker for the near-sack on Roethlisberger. At the snap, Meier gave right guard Kendall Simmons a jolt to the chest with both hands, pushing him back into Roethlisberger. Meier's a tough guy with speed who put up four sacks in the season that made the Jaguars believers once and for all.

Tackle John Henderson is perhaps the most identifiable member of this No-Name defense, given his predilection for having members of the team's training staff slap him silly before games. But Henderson's also a problem for opposing offenses inside. On the third play of the game, with the Steelers running a shotgun on third-and-10 from their own 35, Henderson was the star of a play that highlighted the toughness of that interior line. As Meier pushed center Sean Mahan back, flushing Roethlisberger out of the pocket, Henderson beat a double-team of Smith and left guard Alan Faneca for a drive-ending sack. It's the veteran acumen of Henderson and Spicer, and the development of Meier, that seem to ensure the future of this line in the face of some big changes.

Going Forward

The Stroud trade netted third- and fifth-round draft picks for the Jaguars. The team gave up a total of four picks –- their first, two thirds, and a fourth –- to Baltimore to move to the eighth overall slot. There, they picked defensive end Derrick Harvey, a tall Florida pass rusher who made 51.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in his collegiate career, including 21.5 sacks. Harvey will help right away in passing situations, and could push Hayward out of a starting spot in time. In the second round, Jacksonville picked Auburn's Quentin Groves, a college linebacker who Del Rio has said will project well as a pass-rushing end or strongside addition in certain blitz packages. He certainly has the right attitude. "I just really don't have a liking for them," Groves recently said about quarterbacks in general. "You can't hit them in practice. You have to stay off them. They don't do too much running. I don't like quarterbacks, period. I don't know why."

And speaking of blitz packages, there's the small matter of Jacksonville's other big-name defensive draft pick, former Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams was the odd man out when Washington hired Jim Zorn as its new head coach, and Mike Smith's appointment to the captaincy of the Titanic known as the Atlanta Falcons left a vacancy that Williams was happy to fill in Jacksonville. Known as an aggressive defensive coach, Williams presided over a Redskins defense that finished first in the NFL sending six or more defenders across the line in 2007. Expect to see more interesting dances with the front seven (especially as Durant matures), and more help for a front four that's already pretty impressive.

As the Jacksonville Jaguars enter the rarefied air of preseason Super Bowl hype, most of the talk will be about David Garrard, Fred Taylor, Pocket Hercules, and a redefined group of receivers. However, it's best not to forget that if the Jags are going to bull their way into the postseason, they'll have to face three division opponents –- Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Houston -- who finished in the top 10 in Adjusted Line Yards in 2007. The Colts and Texans also finished in the top 10 in Adjusted Sack Rate, and Houston now has Alex Gibbs running its offensive line. Jacksonville's front seven ranked 10th in Adjusted Sack Rate, but 24th in Adjusted Line Yards. For this team's dreams to come true, they'll have to match the toughness of their offense along the front four. After a year of personnel shifts, it would seem that all the pieces are in place.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 14 Jul 2008

21 comments, Last at 17 Jul 2008, 1:02pm by *Legion*

Comments

1
by JCRODRIGUEZ (not verified) :: Mon, 07/14/2008 - 1:50pm

"As Meier pushed center Sean Mahan back, flushing Roethlisberger out of the pocket..."

When will this recurring nightmare end??...how long until September, you say??...are we DAMN sure that he wont start again???

2
by throughthelookingglass (not verified) :: Mon, 07/14/2008 - 3:12pm

“I just really don’t have a liking for them,” Groves recently said about quarterbacks in general. “You can’t hit them in practice. You have to stay off them. They don’t do too much running. I don’t like quarterbacks, period. I don’t know why.”

That is an awesome quote. It's good to have football again.

3
by Ben (not verified) :: Mon, 07/14/2008 - 3:19pm

"in a conference long thought to have only two real heavyweight champs. " ...

Really? Is this what FO has long thought or what Doug has long thought or the national media or someone else?

4
by alex (not verified) :: Mon, 07/14/2008 - 3:51pm

The Steelers Oline is terrible but it should be said that Marvel Smith was playing hurt badly. This was his last game of the season.

If the Steeler coaching staff had acted sooner in getting Marvel out of this game we might have won. I was really let down that they allowed him to get man handled repeatedly and did nothing.

He went out at the end of the 3rd quarter and guess what happened? The offense came to life and we almost won it, but it was too late.

5
by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers (not verified) :: Mon, 07/14/2008 - 7:30pm

Re Ben #3 - I think Doug is referring to the average idiot or perhaps the more dense media outlets who figure the AFC championship game will be Pats-Colts every year.

It's a fair enough statement really. While the Chargers or Jaguars or Steelers even Ravens or Broncos have had impressive patches in the last few years - particularly the Steelers winning the SB - it's hard to deny the 2 best teams in the AFC of recent times are Pats and Colts, especially when you are arguing with dimwits as Doug is slyly referring to I'd wager.

Oh and must add - great to hear some love for Paul Spicer. Everytime the Jags D-line is talked about by afore mentioned hype-merchant media types, Henderson and Stroud are worshipped and the others are ignored.

6
by Doug Farrar :: Mon, 07/14/2008 - 7:34pm

#4 -- I went back and double-checked to make sure that I didn't completely screw up, and that Marvel Smith was in at left tackle on at least the fourth quarter plays I mentioned (McCray). He was in all the way through the fourth-quarter comeback to tie the game. Starks didn't come in at LT until there were less than two minutes left.

Very true, though, that Smith was not having his best day.

7
by Rollo (not verified) :: Mon, 07/14/2008 - 11:02pm

Its a great day to come to FO and see a Jaguars EPC in the offseason. Glad to see some Paul Spicer love - he was the man last season. He and Meier are great bottom of the roster who worked their way into good player stories. I think the most interesting part of the Jaguars D-line might be how it handles the run - can those rookies just out of college hold the point? Nice piece - can't wait for the season!

8
by almon (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 1:23am

NFL Network will show both conference championship games from this past January on this coming Sunday. Yippee!

I am kicking myself for missing the Giant-Cowboy game that aired this morning. Does anyone know where I can view it again?

9
by old (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 2:24am

It will be interesting to see if David Garrard turns into a pumpkin this year. If he plays well, it would not surprise me to see a San Diego v. Jacksonville AFC championship. It will probably be Colts v. Pats again though. (Ho, ho, ho.)

10
by Stillio (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 7:23am

Depends on your definition of pumpkin, I guess. Garrard's TDs and yards on a per game basis were pretty much the same last year as they had been his entire career, the big difference was his lack of accuracy and the interceptions it caused. So far so good in the OTAs; he's been accurate and poised while picking apart the secondary. I expect him to throw more than 3 Ints this year, but I have no fear of the 3 Ints per game Garrard showing up again. The upcoming season for the Jags is all about the rookie ends and a hopefully improved WR corps...but how long have we been hearing about a 'hopefully improved WR corps' in Jax?

11
by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 9:18am

8- NFN had the 2nd round playoff games on all this weekend.

The game that really impressed me with the Jags was I believe a Monday night game against the Giants 2 years ago.

The Jags defense was relentless and Tiki, Eli and the Giants offense looked horrible. They couldn't do anything. The line was stuffing Tiki instantly, and Eli didn't even have time to hit the 5th and 7th step of his drop backs. It was ugly. Of course the QB gets blamed too much in games like that, and gets too much credit in say the super bowl.

Then you watch the Jags/Pats game last year where Brady made that world beater defense look average at best completing 26 or 28 passes. It was like a passing clinic.

I thing the Jags strong physical rush attack on O and D match up better to defeat Indy, but they have had a hard time with the Patriots in the playoffs and I don't see things changing unless Brady leaves or Garrard and the offense become a lot better.

12
by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 9:20am

You also messed up when you said the Jags play in the toughest division in the NFL. The NFC East sports the Super Bowl Champs, The NFC's #1 seed, The playoff Redskins, and the best 8-8 team I can ever remember.

13
by Mike (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 11:15am

So how are the Bills going to do with Stroud? I've heard a lot of negative things from Jags fans - but that's the same group that told us we were getting a steal with Rob Johnson.

14
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 11:45am

10.

I think Garrard's play is going to be the same as last year: completely dependant on his running game and defense. If the running game continues to work well, and the defense continues to be dominant, he'll continue to throw 20 passes a game, and be very successful.

If David Garrard has to throw 35 passes a game, its not going to be so pretty.

15
by Nathan (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 12:14pm

Re: 11 (M. Stroud)

It's not that M.Stroud is completely done, it's just that Buffalo isn't getting the 03-05 Stroud. He is still rather effective in the interior, but don't forget that he had micro-fracture surgery (a major surgery regardless of who tells you otherwise) and he is heading into his 9th season. Also, he hasn't played a 16 game season in two years.

The reason that Jacksonville dealt him was that his value was never going to be higher, and the teams depth at DT allowed for just as good, if not better play without him in the lineup.

I am sorry to see him go, but I think that he has effectively been replaced for the past two seasons anyhow.

You're (Buffalo) getting a good player, he just doesn't have a lot left in the tank.

16
by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 1:39pm

14. Good call. Last year I was saying that if you are going to have a team like that with an offensive game plan like that, you might as well use a Garrard with a better work ethic, mobility, and attitude than " Let Byron Leftwhich be Byron Leftwhich".

15. Stroud used to be real good, but who knows what you are getting out of him at this point. Either way, he isn't as good as Henderson. Henderson is more of a big lurchy run stopper, where as I always saw Stroud as more athletic. Who knows how he comes back. GL

17
by DoubleB (not verified) :: Tue, 07/15/2008 - 10:17pm

14:

Garrard threw 33 or more passes in five games last year. The Jaguars went 4-1 in those games (the loss being to the Pats in the playoffs) with Garrard throwing 10 TDs and 2 INTs. His lowest QB rating in any of those 5 games was 87. They don't always have to do it and they might not like to do it, but the Jaguars have proven they can win games, despite a mediocre WR corps, by throwing the ball.

18
by Dave (not verified) :: Wed, 07/16/2008 - 1:11am

Great look on the upcoming season. I believe one thing will stand out most for the Jags this season "blitz packages, there’s the small matter of Jacksonville’s other big-name defensive draft pick, former Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams" It's not the fact that the Jags have picked up some great tallent at the DE, the greatest impact will be how effective Greg Williams incorporates the blitz into this defence! He's a man who's known for turning medicore tallent into playmaking sensations...

19
by langsty (not verified) :: Wed, 07/16/2008 - 7:44am

yeah, the jags weren't a good blitzing team last year, which hurt them against NE when they basically had nothing in the way of effective pressure packages. i have to wonder if williams can really do a lot to improve this, as it looked to me like the jags simply didn't have many effective blitzers available to them - it's pointless to send extra guys if they don't have good avoid skills on the blitz. their four-man rush was ineffective against NE, but it also would've been a misuse of the personnel if they started blitzing like crazy; this is why i really like their acquisition of the two young DEs. they also struggled a lot in nickle coverage, which made drayton florence a really canny signing. jacksonville's whole offseason was pretty interesting to me, in how aggressive they were about addressing their most glaring weaknesses (pass rush, nickle corner, wr) and seem to have a pretty good handle on their own personnel. granted, their fixes at wr were pretty underwhelming, but they're about the best that could be mustered with this year's FA market.

spicer's a solid player, but not really the foundation of a threatening pass rush. pittsburgh's one of the worst pass protecting teams in the league, so i'm not really blown away by ANY player who has a monster game against them rushing the passer.

20
by CoachDave (not verified) :: Wed, 07/16/2008 - 2:10pm

Hey DoubleB...stop using actual on-the-field performance and statistics as discussion points here...what do you think this is? Footballoutsiders.com?

5 QBs in the NFL threw the ball 35 times or more per game last season. Five. Outside of an arbitrary number Rich is pulling out of his ass to describe his "conventional wisdom"...it really has no significant meaning to the discussion other than a directional number.

Speaking of Garrard, he averaged 27 passes a game...and he did just fine last year.

Garrard threw it 325 times with 3 picks. And at a 7.7 yds/attempt with a sub-average WR crew...it's not like he was playing pitch-and-catch with RBs out of the backfield all day.

I know some folks on this board like to paint Garrard as a "game manager" but judging from his QB comparative numbers last year, that's just not the case.

This year? We shall see...but before this thread turns in the "Chris and Rich Make-Up Crap Hour" I thought a little enlightenment by actual performance would assist the discussion.

*checks URL*

Yup, still on footballoutsiders.com

21
by *Legion* (not verified) :: Thu, 07/17/2008 - 1:02pm

It would be a mistake for people to just label David Garrard a game manager.

Keep in mind that the Jacksonville Jaguars were 9th in the NFL in passing TDs with 28. Obviously, Garrard missed a 4-game stretch, so those TDs are split between him and Quinn Gray. But let's not pretend that the Jaguars don't throw the ball. 28 passing TDs don't happen by accident. (They also don't catch themselves, which highlights the fact that the Jags group of receivers isn't nearly as bad as their reputation. They lack a legitimate #1 WR, but the group is actually quite good from #2 on down).

Obviously, the Jags are a clear run-first team, but that approach is by philosophy, not an attempt to hide a deficiency in the passing game.