Heading into 2012, the Jaguars have plenty of momentum with which to build on the defensive side of the football. The vast improvement they showed in 2011 flew somewhat under the radar, thanks in part to the division-champion Texans' miraculous defensive turnaround and also because so much of the focus was on the struggles of rookie QB Blaine Gabbert.
But Jacksonville finished the 2011 season ranked sixth in total defense and 11th in points allowed, up from 28th and 27th in ’10, respectively. New head coach Mike Mularkey wisely retained defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, Jacksonville’s interim head coach after Jack Del Rio was fired in Week 11 last season, and his club returns all 11 starters on defense.
The one area preventing the Jaguars from making the step up from a good defense to a dominant one could be their porous pass rush — Jacksonville logged just 31 total sacks last season, tied for 25th in the NFL.
The re-signing of DE Jeremy Mincey, who got to the quarterback a team-high eight times last season, was absolutely the right move, but the club is counting on additional pressure coming from other areas. Following the unsurprising release of Aaron Kampman, it would appear the spotlight will be on second-rounder Andre Branch to help fill the bill.
Branch drew fairly positive reviews this spring, showing the desired length and quickness to wreak havoc off the edge. However, it’s a major transition from Clemson, where he spent a lot of time rushing from a two-point stance, and word is expectations must be tempered for Branch initially.
The good news is that Mincey played plenty of right end last season and, with the return of Austen Lane, a natural left end who was a quick study and promising rookie in 2010 before losing most of his second season to a shoulder injury, the Jaguars have options. However, Lane is known for his ability to hold the point — not be a penetrator and disruptor — thus the Jaguars need other players to get in the backfield. One source pointed to Jacksonville’s talented DT tandem, Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu, to create some of the havoc. Alualu is finally expected to be 100 percent after undergoing offseason knee surgery and Knighton has recovered quicker than expected from his eye injury sustained in a nightclub this spring. If the pairing can turn potential into production, it could help alleviate some of the pressure on Branch in Year One.