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 1/2 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.
Chandler and Falcons backup quarterback Tony Graziani can attest
to that. They were intercepted three times and sacked a
Jacksonville-record nine times.
Late in the first half Bryant dropped a sure interception and
had to endure the catcalls of "Cha-ching!" for the rest of the
game. That was only 50 bucks toward the kitty, but it's a start.
Joey Galloway's Return
SEAHAWKS GO DEEP AT WIDEOUT
The holdout of Seattle wideout Joey Galloway, who said on Sunday
he would report to work this week, may turn out to have been a
blessing in disguise for the AFC West-leading Seahawks.
Besides forcing the team to rely more on its running game and
bolstering new general manager and coach Mike Holmgren's
reputation as a no-nonsense negotiator, Seattle went 6-2 without
Galloway and is alone atop the division this late in the season
for the first time since 1988. Galloway's absence also helped
the team develop something it has traditionally lacked--depth at
wide receiver. In a 37-20 win over the Bengals on Sunday, the
trio of Derrick Mayes, Sean Dawkins and Mike Pritchard caught a
total of 11 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns.
The most pleasant surprise has been Mayes, who was acquired for
a seventh-round draft pick in a preseason trade with the
Packers. A player who excels at catching the ball in traffic, he
leads the Seahawks with 34 receptions, 489 yards and six
touchdowns. Projected over the entire season, Mayes's statistics
would almost mirror those put up last season by Galloway (65
catches, 1,047 yards, 10 touchdowns). Dawkins, a free-agent
pickup who caught 53 balls for the Saints in 1998, has 25
receptions for 393 yards and three scores. Pritchard, a
nine-year veteran, has 17 catches for 266 yards and a touchdown,
but he doesn't seem the least bit concerned that Galloway's
return might cut into his playing time.
"[Galloway] is going to add an extra dimension," Pritchard says.
"The coaches are going to find a great way to get him--and other
Ravens Coach's Rough Start
BILLICK CAN FINALLY CRACK A SMILE
The masked Dawg Pound rowdies who heaped invective upon Ravens
coach Brian Billick as he made his way off the field following
Baltimore's 41-9 win over the hometown Browns on Sunday could
have been his fans. But after passing up an opportunity to
interview for the expansion team's coaching job last January,
Billick is now viewed by the Cleveland crowd as one of the most
detestable men in football not named Modell. Nothing, though,
could wipe the exhausted smile from Billick's face on this day.
"There were some adjectives and adverbs I hadn't heard before,"
Billick said later, "but overall, those fans were great."
Indeed, before disappearing into the visitors' tunnel, Billick
stopped to survey the belligerent throng and blithely waved.
Billick's serenity was surprising, especially in light of his
bizarre Nov. 1 suggestion--and the ensuing criticism--that the
Ravens could expect to get no calls in Sunday's game because the
league wanted the Browns to beat Baltimore in the first meeting
in Cleveland between the two franchises after the emotional 1996
relocation of the original Browns to Baltimore. Though Billick
apologized for his comments two days later, the controversy
raged on when Al Lerner, owner of the new Cleveland franchise,
and club president Carmen Policy ripped Billick. Asked about his
remarks and the possibility of a fine, a giddy Billick
deadpanned after the game: "The officiating today was
outstanding. I couldn't have agreed more with every call. See,
I'm just a frustrated rookie coach who didn't bear up under the
Given the sorry state of the Ravens' offense--before Sunday's
game it hadn't produced two touchdowns in a game since a 19-13
overtime win over the Falcons in Week 4--it's a wonder Billick
didn't crack sooner. The offensive coordinator for a Vikings
team that scored a league-record 556 points last season, he has
introduced a playbook that seems far too demanding of the three
quarterbacks the Ravens have started this year, but the coach is
at least partially to blame in other ways, too.
Upon his arrival in Baltimore, Billick explored a trade for
Vikings backup Brad Johnson, but decided the asking price was
too high. Instead, he unloaded holdover quarterbacks Jim
Harbaugh and Eric Zeier and traded for Scott Mitchell, a 10-year
veteran who was a bust in five years with Detroit. Billick hoped
Mitchell would experience a rebirth like the one Randall
Cunningham enjoyed in Minnesota in '98. But Billick benched
Mitchell and his anemic 31.5 passer rating just six quarters
into the season, then watched Stoney Case and Tony Banks fare no
better. When two late Banks turnovers cost Baltimore an Oct. 31
game against the Bills, the team appeared to be in utter disarray.
Even as the Ravens were hitting bottom, it was easy to see why
the Baltimore job was the most appealing. Rather than slowly
build a team from its infancy, Billick wanted to win quickly.
Baltimore's second-ranked yet unheralded defense, led by
brilliant middle linebacker Ray Lewis, gives him that chance.
That unit held the hapless Browns to 159 yards of offense, while
Banks chipped in with mistake-free play and the ground game
produced a season-high 203 rushing yards. It was the 3-5 Ravens'
most complete effort of the year, one that sent thousands of
Cleveland fans home early, and Billick back to Baltimore with
his smile--and sanity--intact for at least another week. --Josh
COSLET'S JOB SAFE, BUT WHY?
Cincinnati coach Bruce Coslet's job appears safe at least
through the end of this season. "A coaching change would only
make it worse," Bengals president Mike Brown said before a 37-20
loss to the Seahawks dropped his team to 1-8. Would it? Coslet,
who took over midway through the '96 season, doesn't have a road
victory over a team with a winning record. Cincinnati was 3-13
last year, and this season the Bengals have lost five games by
at least 20 points.... After eight losing seasons with the Rams,
during which the franchise was 40-88, free-agent linebacker
Roman Phifer signed with the AFC East champion Jets in the
off-season. Now St. Louis is 6-2 and leading the NFC West, and
New York is 2-6 and last in its division.... Expect some teams
to ship more young players to NFL Europe next spring. "We see it
as a tool that can pay dividends," says Patriots director of pro
scouting Dave Uyrus. "We've got to find ways to develop more
talent, and [that means] these middle-round draft choices have
to go someplace and play."
The End Zone
RUNNING THE TABLE
With a 31-16 loss to the Bucs on Sunday, the Saints fell to 1-7.
"We're behind the eight ball," said New Orleans center Jerry
Fontenot. "Actually, we're in one of the corner pockets, and
we've got to find a way to get out of the hole."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Linebacker Brant Boyer had two of Jacksonville's team-record nine sacks against the Falcons.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Errict Rhett got the Ravens' offense on track with 117 rushing yards against the Browns.
Two of the league's most maligned quarterbacks had good games.
The Bucs' Trent Dilfer bounced back from his benching the
previous week to throw for 227 yards and three touchdowns in a
win over the Saints, and Kordell Stewart led the Steelers to
scores on their first three drives to beat the 49ers. Stewart
hasn't thrown an interception during Pittsburgh's three-game
2. Trouble in Titletown
The Packers have lost two in a row at Lambeau Field for the
first time since 1991, and Green Bay fans are starting to wonder
if letting coach Mike Holmgren leave was such a good idea. In
the last four games Brett Favre has completed just 50% of his
passes and has been intercepted nine times. "I have to be
realistic and say this team is not as good as I thought it was,"
Packers general manager Ron Wolf said after a 14-13 loss to the
3. Sign of the Times
As bad as Ryan Leaf's play and behavior have been, the sad truth
is the Chargers could hardly do worse with a healthy Leaf under
center. Jim Harbaugh and Erik Kramer have combined for 18
interceptions in eight games, which is three more than Leaf
threw during his 10-game train wreck of a rookie season, and
during one stretch this year the team went almost 13 quarters
without an offensive score.
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read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.