A healthy Stroud means bad news for opponents testing the Jaguars' middle.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
at Kansas City
at Tampa Bay
at New Orleans
The King 500
47Rashean Mathis, Cornerback
An instant starter since joining the Jags as a second-rounder in 2003, Mathis doesn't stand pat. Equally effective at Cover Two jams and man coverage, the '06 Pro Bowler breaks down his own play on tape in the off-season. "Last year I worked on my backpedal," he says. "This year I tried to get better at not standing up too quickly. You've got to get better every year, or you're getting worse."
In the eternal pursuit of the Colts, the defense will do its part and the run game should be solid -- and it still won't be enough
To start with, good health. Quarterback Byron Leftwich's left ankle, middle
linebacker Mike Peterson's left pectoral muscle and Pro Bowl defensive tackle
Marcus Stroud's right ankle all have been surgically repaired, restoring three
of the Jaguars' cornerstones. "The fact is, a team's health is such a big factor
in the NFL," says coach Jack Del Rio. "We are very energized right
Leftwich missed five games in 2005 and 10 last year before undergoing surgery
to remove bone spurs. "It's been a long time since I wasn't playing in pain," he
says. Peterson, the ninth-year vet in the middle of Del Rio's
Cover Two, played only five games in '06; the 6' 6", 306-pound Stroud, who
combines with 6' 7", 325-pound John Henderson to form the NFL's best
run-stuffing interior line, played 11 games, all in pain, before microfracture
Also, Jacksonville added slot receiver Dennis Northcutt and right tackle Tony
Pashos through free agency, and Del Rio -- under pressure to get to a Super
Bowl in his fifth season -- brought in six new coaches, most important offensive
coordinator Dirk Koetter from Arizona State and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula,
late of Alabama, with the promise of a more open offense.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
The Jaguars are one of a dozen teams whose realistic goal is to win the
NFL title. Now. They were 12-4 two years ago and lost in the wild-card round to
New England, then fought through injuries last year to finish 8-8, including a
split with the eventual-champion Colts. "What we want around here is to win a
championship," says 10th-year running back Fred Taylor.
The defense is among the best in the NFL, moving up in the rankings from
sixth in 2005 to second, behind Baltimore, last year. Henderson and a healthy
Stroud are almost unblockable in the middle gaps; Peterson anchors a linebacking
crew that goes six deep; corners Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams are solid;
and while both safeties are in their first year as full-time starters -- Gerald
Sensabaugh, an '05 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, and rookie
first-rounder Reggie Nelson from Florida -- they're promising. This defense will
not yield big numbers.
"The goal is to intimidate," says Peterson. "We want to be one of the great
defenses in the league, like the '85 Bears or Baltimore in 2000, where teams are
thinking about playing us two weeks ahead of time. They come on the field, and
running the ball is out of the question; they just throw up Hail Marys. We want
to help the offense by giving them the ball on the 30-yard line."
That's the central question in Jacksonville: How much help will the offense
need? The running game should be very good again. A year ago 5' 7", 212-pound
second-round pick Maurice Jones-Drew, out of UCLA, became one of the NFL's
biggest surprises when he produced nearly 1,400 combined rushing and receiving
yards and 16 touchdowns. The underappreciated Taylor rushed for 1,146 yards on a
career-high 5.0 yards per carry. "People are saying there won't be enough
balls for both of us," says Taylor. "Don't worry about that. Maurice is going to
make my career longer, and he's going to be one of the great players in this
league, in the category of a Barry Sanders."
Yet the offense will need increased production from Leftwich, the No. 7
pick out of Marshall in 2003. In four years he has a 24=20 record as a
starter -- hardly a bust but not nearly up to expectations for such a high draft
choice. (The Jaguars could have selected Brady Quinn in April but passed.) This
year Leftwich has dropped 12 pounds, down to 242 on a healthy ankle. "The only
thing that held me back was my ankle," he says. "Now I've got the opportunity to
go out and show people that I can play this game."
Shula has worked with Leftwich on his footwork in the pocket and tried to
quicken his release. Koetter, who was fired after six years as coach at Arizona
State, will give him more shots at throwing downfield. A good offensive line,
however, was dealt a blow when veteran center Brad Meester broke his right ankle
early in training camp; he will miss at least the first month of the season.
Even if Leftwich is substantially improved, it remains uncertain if
Jacksonville has the receiving personnel to worry defenses. Former first-round
draft picks Reggie Williams (ninth in 2004 out of Washington) and Matt Jones (a
quarterback at Arkansas before being taken 21st in '05) are expected to be
sitting behind Northcutt and Ernest Wilford at the start of the season. "All our
receivers know what we need and what we expect," says Del Rio. "It's their
responsibility to get on the field and make plays."
If they do, and if Leftwich is effective, the Jaguars are a threat to unseat
the potentially vulnerable Colts in the AFC South. If the passing game
sputters, they will fall short. -- Tim Layden