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Jags' rebuilding efforts start with front four

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Alex Mayster
Editorial assistant

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Posted Oct. 07, 2010 @ 2:49 p.m. ET
By Alex Mayster

Since they entered the NFL in 1995, the Jaguars have been built around defense.

Under the guidance of head coach Tom Coughlin, it took Jacksonville just five years to become the league's top team, finishing 14-2 in 1999 while holding the opposition to an NFL-best 13.6 points per game. The Jags tied for the league lead in sacks that season with 57, and with DEs Tony Brackens (12 sacks) and Gary Walker (10 sacks) leading the way, the D-line took down the quarterback 34½ times.

Things faded from there, and three consecutive losing seasons meant a regime change in Jacksonville. Jack Del Rio took over Coughlin's post in 2003, and with it came a pair of first-round defensive tackles in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.

Coughlin had been stockpiling defensive bodies throughout his term and Del Rio kept the trend going with the addition of free-agent DE Reggie Hayward in '05.

The former Denver Bronco proved to be the final piece of the puzzle as the Jags' defense returned to dominance. Jacksonville qualified for the postseason after a five-year hiatus that season, doing so behind the NFL's sixth-ranked defense. Led by its front four, the Jags tied for third in sacks with 47. The team would go on to record 119 sacks from 2005-07.

But that's where the success story ends. Add in failed draft picks like DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, and the Jags really found themselves in a rut.

Stroud left the team via trade in '08 and, after back-to-back losing campaigns and Henderson was cut and later signed with the Raiders following the '09 campaign.

This season, Del Rio has faced the challenge of revamping a defense that got to the quarterback a franchise- and league-low 14 times last season, and ranked 30th in the league.

Gene Smith was promoted to general manager in 2009, which gave the GM final say on personnel choices and took decision making power away from Del Rio. Sticking with tradition, he started up front by signing DE Aaron Kampman, who had piled up 54 sacks in eight seasons in Green Bay, including a high of 15½ sacks in 2006. In the draft, Jacksonville selected DT Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall selection and proceeded to select more defensive linemen with its next three picks.

With the players in place, the Jaguars enlisted the help of defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who came to the team from Idaho State. Cullen, who has 20 years of coaching experience with 17 coming at the collegiate level, had spent three seasons (2006-08) with the Lions as Detroit's defensive line coach.

A quarter of the way through the 2010 season, Cullen has begun to turn things around. The Jags' front four is responsible for six of the team's eight sacks, and is well on its way to surpassing the 9½ QB takedowns recorded by Jacksonville D-linemen in '09.

"In any organization, it all starts up front," Cullen said. "The D-line has to be the mainstay and the dominant force to be a great defense. … We're making progress toward that goal."

It started in Week One, when the new-look Jaguars "D" consistently bothered Broncos QB Kyle Orton, taking him down three times.

Kampman, who had 1½ sacks in that contest, said the success on the field was a direct result of the hard work the Jags had put in all offseason.

"It's kind of great flying under the radar," he said after the 24-17 win over Denver. "Just being able to come to work every day and work hard and get better. I think we saw some of the fruits of our labor … and by no means does that mean that we have arrived — but it does give us confidence that we're headed in the right direction."

Alualu recorded his first career sack in Week One, but personal achievements aside, the rookie is keeping his mind on the overall goal.

"I was brought in to help improve the pass rush, the D-line, and that's what I intend to do," said Alualu, who had 16 sacks at the University of California and built a reputation for being a tough, high-energy, hardworking player. "Come in and give it my all, whether run or pass. And be relentless."

Relentless is a word that comes up a lot in Jacksonville. It's something Cullen preaches to his players, and above that, something the organization teaches to its entire roster.

The D-line coach describes relentlessness as playing with a ruthless attitude and a high energy level. As members of the defensive line, Cullen also wants his players to display the necessary leadership qualities to achieve greatness.

"At times we have done that," he said. "We're trying to put that into their minds each and every day. We're still not where we need to be, we have to keep pushing forward and getting better everyday in practice."

Jacksonville got to the QB just once in a 38-13 loss at San Diego in Week Two, and although the Jags lost again in Week Three to the Eagles, it wasn't because of a lack of pass pressure.

Jacksonville had three sacks in that contest, two coming from the front four, and the "D" was able to hit Eagles QB Michael Vick 10 times.

The defensive line was held to just one sack last week against the Colts, but not much more could be expected against a stingy Indianapolis offensive line that has a history of successfully protecting its quarterback and has surrendered four sacks in '10, including only two the past three weeks.

Through the first four games of the '09 campaign, the Jaguars had just three sacks and 14 quarterback hits. This season over the same four-game span, Jacksonville has eight sacks and 25 QB hits.

The personnel changes came from Smith and company. But the change in attitude? Kampman credits the 42-year-old Cullen for turning things around.

"He understands how offensive linemen want to block, how protections are run, and how they want to try and get after defensive linemen," the nine-year veteran said. "You can never be great if you don't understand your opponent, so he's very good with that aspect.

"But from a personality standpoint, he brings a lot to the table. His emotion and intensity are the same every day, and I think that really allows a great trust to be built by us, his players, knowing he's the same guy every day."

With one-fourth of the season behind them, the Jaguars are sitting at 2-2 with an average winning percentage and an average amount of sacks (they rank 12th in the league in that category).

While average may be an improvement from last season's No. 30 ranking in overall defense, Cullen expects more.

"We have to be disruptive," he said. "Get off the football, play really good run defense.

"Each team, each year has its own identity. We're still trying to get and develop that but it's coming together."

Players like Alualu can recall the standout Jags' defenses of the past and are doing all they can to restore the program to being an annual playoff contender once again.

"We definitely have that mindset of coming in and taking this organization back to where it used to be," he said. "(But) our goal is not to be that team but to surpass everything that they accomplished."

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