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Week 3 in the NFL

New Bullies

Jaguars' defenders were impressive in shutting out the Steelers, but even they are leery as they face Manning's high-powered Colts

September 24, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

So this was what Jack Del Rio was talking about.

Hired to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars in January 2003, the former USC linebacker and Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator said that under his leadership the Jaguars would be defined by their defense.

How's this for a defining moment: a 9-0 victory Monday over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first goose egg for a defending Super Bowl champion since 1981?

In the Jaguars' first Monday night appearance in five years, their "Teal Curtain" defense was dominant in limiting the usually ground-munching Steelers to 26 yards rushing, an all-time low for a Jaguars opponent and the lowest Steelers total in 15 seasons under Coach Bill Cowher.

The Steelers, held to 153 yards total, did not make a first down by rushing, crossed midfield only once and never got closer than 46 yards from the Jaguars' end zone. Ben Roethlisberger's quarterback rating was 38.7.

How'd the Jaguars do it?

"We think there's a party at the ball and everybody's invited," veteran safety Donovin Darius said in a phone interview, describing their approach. "We get to the ball as fast as we can and we get there with bad intentions."

Or, as linebacker Mike Peterson shouted on his way back to the locker room late Monday night in Jacksonville, "There's some new bullies in town."

Of course, even bullies sometimes get their comeuppance, and few would be terribly surprised if the Jaguars got theirs today when they take on Peyton Manning and the high-powered Colts at Indianapolis.

The Jaguars, trying to unseat the three-time defending champions atop the AFC South, are 2-8 against the Colts and lost both meetings last season.

So even they are leery.

"If we go out and flop against Indy, the other night's going to be looked upon as a fluke," three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud said in a separate phone interview. "It's going to be like, 'Hey, those guys played one good game and then went up to Indy and gave away 45 points,' you know?"

On the other hand, the Jaguars might be poised for a breakthrough. They've built toward this day since Del Rio replaced former coach Tom Coughlin, fortifying their defense by adding key pieces through free agency and the draft.

In 2002, their last season under Coughlin, they ranked 20th in the league in total defense. In their first three seasons under Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith, brother-in-law of Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick, they ranked sixth, 11th and sixth.

This season, "We want to be No. 1," Darius said.

They've gone from 5-11 and 9-7 in their first two seasons under Del Rio to 12-4 last season, when they ended a five-year playoff drought.

This season, they're 2-0.

"You've got to remember, when Jack first got here he wasn't so far removed from playing himself, so he still had that desire and competitive fire," Darius, in his ninth season, said of the Jaguars' 43-year-old coach. "He was able to understand players and what we go through -- and that's credibility.

"Any time you take a head coach who's played before, there's a lot more credibility than a guy who, his whole life, stood in front of a chalkboard and wrote up Xs and O's and said, 'This is the way it's supposed to happen.' "

In other words, the Jaguars play the way Del Rio did at USC, where he was a Lombardi Award finalist as a senior, and in 11 NFL seasons: with abandon.

Said Stroud: "Jack lets us pin our ears back and attack."

Led by their massive tackles, the 6-foot-6, 312-pound Stroud and 6-7, 328-pound John Henderson, the Jaguars ranked first in the NFL in sacks per pass play last season. They ranked third in third-down defense.

This season, they twice sacked Drew Bledsoe of the Dallas Cowboys in their opener two weeks ago, intercepted three of his passes and rallied from a 10-0 deficit for a 24-17 victory.

Then, in the lowest-scoring game in the history of "Monday Night Football," they shook the Steelers.

Roethlisberger, making his season debut two weeks after an emergency appendectomy, was sacked twice and knocked down more times than he'd care to remember. Two of his fourth-quarter passes were intercepted by Rashean Mathis, the defense enabling the Jaguars to win with three field goals.

"Come to Jacksonville and you're going to get 60 minutes of hell, pure and point blank," Jaguars running back Fred Taylor told reporters afterward.

That's the idea, anyway.

"We take pride in our physical play," Stroud said. "We ain't going out there to try to be no bullies or nothing like that, man, but we want to go out there and impose our will on people, and that's what we do."

Of course, it's still early. The Jaguars, unlike all but one other NFL team, have yet to play a road game.

"The sky's the limit for us," Darius said, "but by no means did we take the other day to say, 'Let's pop champagne bottles, let's celebrate.' ...

"Was it a secret to us that we could be successful? No. But by no stretch of the imagination have we come to the point where we can say, 'We've arrived.' "

The Steelers might disagree.

*

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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