There's no more holding back in the Jaguars' new attack defense
Every Monday during the season the Jaguars defensive backs gather in an Alltel Stadium meeting room to watch film of their previous game. The players pore over the action for any sign of a bad play by their unit, and when they spot a missed tackle, a dropped interception or a blown coverage, they bang their fists like gavels on the tables in front of them and holler, "Cha-ching!" That means someone in the room has just contributed $50 to the defensive backs' fine pool, which most years totals thousands of dollars and is used to pay for a rather extravagant off-season dinner for the players and coaches.
The way things are going this season, however, the 7-1 Jaguars and their sensational secondary could be looking at a potluck supper—sometime after the Super Bowl. On Sunday, Jacksonville crushed the Falcons 30-7 in a game that showcased the NFL's top-ranked defense. "So far, this is as impressive a performance by a defense as I have ever been a part of," said free safety Carnell Lake, who signed a free-agent deal with the Jaguars last February after 10 years in Pittsburgh.
The Jaguars have given up only 76 points, keeping them on pace to shatter the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season. The 1986 Bears allowed 187. (While Jacksonville has benefited from a weak schedule, it's worth noting that Chicago set the scoring mark against teams that finished with a combined .402 winning percentage.)
"You can see the fear in people's eyes, and it's the best feeling in the world," says Jacksonville linebacker Kevin Hardy. "You're in their head. They're so worried about who's coming and from what angle that they can't even concentrate on the play."
Hardy buried Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler twice; he leads the team with 7� sacks. The Jaguars, who collected 30 sacks in 1998, already have 35 this year. "This is what we had always hoped our defense could be like," Hardy says, "and the reason it's working is our secondary."
After finishing 25th in the league in total defense in 1998, Jacksonville was steamrollered by the Jets in the second round of the AFC playoffs. Three days after defensive coordinator Dick Jauron left to take over the Bears, Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin hired former Panthers coach and zone-blitz mastermind Dom Capers to overhaul the defense.
Capers's blitzing attack stands in stark contrast to Jauron's bend-but-don't-break scheme. But it's a much better fit for the young, spirited talent on the defensive roster, particularly in the secondary. Three weeks into Capers's tenure the Jaguars landed Lake, a consummate professional and the perfect role model for Jacksonville's young defensive backs. "I still catch myself going, 'Damn, that's Carnell Lake!" says rookie cornerback Fernando Bryant, a first-round pick. "It's like learning from our generation's Ronnie Lott." Together again after helping create the Steelers' Blitzburgh defense, Capers and Lake went to work teaching the tenets of what can be a complicated defense to Bryant, strong safety Donovin Darius, a first-round pick in '98, and fourth-year corner Aaron Beasley.
After an off-season spent working out at his alma mater, West Virginia, and a preseason switch to right cornerback, Beasley has been reinvigorated. The AFC defensive player of the month in September ( Jacksonville defensive end Tony Brackens won the award in October), Beasley is tied with Darius for the team lead in interceptions, with four, and is a main reason that the Jaguars have given up a league-low 151.6 yards per game through the air. "[Former Steelers All-Pro corner] Rod Woodson thought he could make every play on every down and often tried to," says Lake, who had two sacks on Sunday. "That's what I see in Fernando and Aaron."
Although the zone blitz has become synonymous with an all-out attack, Capers's scheme is predicated on stopping the run, which creates the kind of third-and-long scenarios that are the lifeblood of the system. The result? Jacksonville is allowing 3.8 yards per rush, down from the 4.4-yard average it surrendered last season. Early on Capers promised his young guns in the secondary that if they helped with the dirty work of run support or man-to-man coverage behind eight-man fronts, he'd let them get after the quarterback.