When Gus Bradley was hired in January as the new head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he inherited a defense which ranked 30th out 32 NFL teams.
A big deal? Certainly, but nothing he hadn’t been through before.
The Seattle Seahawks finished the 2008 season 30th in total defense. After Jim Mora Jr. replaced Mike Holmgren as their head coach, one of the assistants he brought aboard was Bradley, who had spent the previous two years as a linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but had never been a defensive coordinator at the professional level.
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Mora lasted just one season, and most of his staff was not retained by Pete Carroll. But Bradley was an exception. And while the Seahawks weren’t always exceptional on defense under him — they were ranked 27th overall as recently as 2010 — their transformation into a unit last seen clamping down on Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers on national television was well underway.
Bradley’s return Sunday to Seattle will feature two defenses ranked 1-2 against the pass through two games. That’s pretty much where the comparisons end.
Dan Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive line coach who took over for Bradley after serving as Florida’s defensive coordinator, can boast of a secondary which includes what many experts believe are the top players at their positions in cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas.
The Jaguars’ lofty status is largely a result of a porous run defense that made throwing the ball in the second half largely unnecessary on the part of Kansas City and Oakland.
So while Bradley might be familiar with the Seahawks’ personnel and schemes, he doesn’t buy the notion that his knowledge alone will help Chad Henne and a depleted group of receivers succeed where Kaepernick and the 49ers failed.
“It’s a game of cat and mouse a little bit, but I think it maybe gives our offense a general idea what they’re doing,” he said. “But I try not to get too much in the way with that, because I think that you can get too involved. For the offense, they’ve got to go off what they see on tape.”
Not until the last of his four years in Seattle did the Seahawks manage a non-losing season, although their 7-9 record in 2010 was good enough to capture the NFC West. Bradley’s stock rose a year ago as a defense that finished fourth overall helped the Seahawks go 11-5, including a five-game winning streak to end the regular season.
Although the reconstruction of the Jaguars has included the installation of many of the schemes he used in Seattle, the results have been slow in coming.
The Jaguars didn’t force their first turnover of the season until the fourth quarter of their 19-9 loss to the Raiders, and their rate of two sacks a game hasn’t purged the memory of a team that finished last in the NFL in that category a year ago with 20.
Despite the bumpy start, Bradley is no less enthused about matching wits with Carroll, who has described his former defensive coordinator as “the best teacher I’ve ever been around.”
“I’m just excited for our guys. I really am,” Bradley said. “I think we have to look at the big picture with what we’re trying to do with our team, and it truly is to get better and better every week. That’s what we’re doing now, so to take our group up there and face this challenge is a great opportunity for us.”
The Jaguars have stayed out west all week for the first time in franchise history and began practicing Wednesday at San Jose State, the alma mater of free safety Dwight Lowery. They aren’t scheduled to depart for Seattle until Saturday.
If facing the Seahawks weren’t formidable enough of a challenge, the offense will be forced to contend with crowd noise levels at Century Link Field that are perhaps the loudest anywhere in the league. Henne said he’s anticipating something comparable to when he was a freshman at Michigan and the Wolverines had to play at Ohio State.
“From what I’ve heard, with the way the stadium is built, it is a little noisier,” running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. “But that’s no excuse. We just have to go out there and execute. I guess if we were playing San Jose State, they’d be yelling at us the same way. We just have to be able to execute and do our job.”
That emphasis on improving, regardless of what the record might say, is something which Bradley has said he came to fully grasp during his time under Carroll. It might seem contrary to the prevailing wisdom in a league where instant results tend to be demanded, but the Jaguars appear determined not to push any panic buttons.
“Right now, we’re building where we want to go,” said Jones-Drew, who expects to play despite straining a left ankle tendon while being tackled by Raiders safety Charles Woodson. “It’s hard to do that. Rome wasn’t built in one day. And there are steps. There’s a process to when you take those steps.
“We played much better than we did in Week 1, obviously. We just have to keep going on that. I know fans are probably upset, but it takes time. We have a lot of young guys, a lot of new pieces playing together. So you have to be patient.”