JACKSONVILLE, Fla. –– When a team coming off a season in which it recorded an NFL-low 20 sacks hires a head coach with a background in defense, it’s not unreasonable to look for immediate indications of improvement.
So the fans who attended the Jacksonville Jaguars’ scrimmage Saturday night had every right to be happy with a revamped defensive line and what appeared to be a rejuvenated pass rush. But Gus Bradley knows those signs of progress will be forgotten if the Jaguars fail to turn up the heat Friday night in their preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins, who already have one game under their belts.
“That’s one area we need to take a look at and see just how much pressure we can get with a four-man rush — on first and second downs, but also on third downs. We need to evaluate that against some other teams,” Bradley said Monday after the Jaguars’ first practice since the scrimmage and the first that was not open to the public.
Aside from former first-round pick Tyson Alualu, the collection of players competing for four starting spots bears almost no resemblance to the group at the beginning of the 2012 season. And Alualu’s role has changed from that of an interior lineman to a run-stopping end.
Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny likes what he has seen in front of him through the first week of training camp.
“We have some special guys who can do special things in certain situations,” he said. “We have pass rushers like Andre Branch and Jason Babin, and we have guys who can stop the run. So it’s exciting, especially for us linebackers knowing that those guys can be a dominant force and end up playing really well.”
The closing thing to a dominating performance in the hour-long scrimmage was not turned in by Branch or Babin but Pannel Egboh, who has been released six times by four teams during the past four years. Egboh got to quarterback Chad Henne twice, although that happened at the expense of the second-string offensive line rather than the unit featuring No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel.
New defensive line coach Todd Wash is still trying to determine which players can prevail in one-on-one situations often enough to strike fear in an opposing quarterback’s heart.
“We need more rush,” he said. “There were times (Saturday night) when he was standing back there eating and having a picnic. So we need to develop some more consistency.”
Babin, who was claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles toward the end of last season, should start at the Leo position which is a hybrid of a defensive end and outside linebacker. He isn’t showing any aftereffects from the groin surgery he underwent late in the spring during OTAs.
“He came and told me that of all the training camps he’s been in, he feels the best he has,” Bradley said. “He may say something different (to you), but that’s what he told me. So that’s a good thing. That’s what this whole set-up is supposed to do.”
Branch, a second-round selection in 2012, has yet to produce like the Jaguars had hoped.
“We’re continuing to challenge him,” Bradley said. “I know he may at times get frustrated because it’s not coming as fast as he wants it. But it’s just like takeaways. You might get one a game and then another one, but they’ll come in bunches. You just stay true to it, keep going, and they’ll come. That’s what we keep telling Andre.”
Jeremy Mincey, one of five Jaguars to start in all 16 games a year ago, was expected to compete with Alualu at the other end position. But he got hurt in practice Thursday and was scheduled to be examined by a neurologist Monday morning for what could be a concussion.
Depending on how long Mincey remains out, the 305-pound Alualu could get more of an opportunity to showcase his agility and versatility in his new role. Offseason free-agent signees Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks are the current first-team tackles.
“It’s very similar to what I was doing at Cal,” Alualu said. “A little different, but I’m just working at trying to get better.”
“We’re not asking him to be a big fat guy,” Wash said. “We’re asking him to stop the run. But he’ll be able to get on an edge and beat some tackles also.”
Although the Jaguars have been practicing in full pads since Wednesday, limits on tackling and contact were in place for the scrimmage. While Posluszny said that’s no different from the early part of training camp in previous years, it’s clear that the defense is itching to demonstrate what it can do against the Dolphins and in the three preseason games to follow.
“That’s when we really need to show that we can be physical and stop the run and tackle, which we don’t do in practice,” he said. “We don’t get much of a chance to tackle people. So that’s when we really need to take that step.”