From the moment Urban Meyer was hired as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he has preached the importance of the defensive line.
“I always believe you build your team around the defensive line and you move backwards, so that’s what we’re going to do. Our defensive line, we feel good about it, a few of our players are pretty good,” Meyer proclaimed, back on March 9.
The new head coach wasn’t just offering lip service either when it came to that particular unit. The Jaguars held over their entire starting front seven from last season. For those that make up the group, hearing their new coach’s motto inspires confidence and excitement that has been lackluster in recent years.
“That's what you want to hear,” defensive lineman Adam Gotsis tells Jaguar Report.
“You want to hear that the coach is putting a lot on your shoulders and a lot of the responsibility on the direction of the team. I firmly believe that as well.”
Gotsis, the former Denver Bronco second-rounder who came to Jacksonville in the 2020 offseason as a free agent, relishes that responsibility, taking ownership of what is for all intents and purposes, a new team. The defensive line admittedly saw a drop off in production last season.
With veterans like Lerentee McCray and Al Woods opting out due to COVID-19 concerns, Calais Campbell being traded to the Baltimore Ravens, and injuries to end Josh Allen, amongst others, decimating the pass rush, the unit floundered, unsuccessful in getting any pressure. But the unit is also one of the more experienced groups on the new look Jaguars, and with guys returning, Gotsis sees that playing in their favor.
“I’ve played in games where, if we're being dominant up front, it makes it easier for the guys on the back end, it makes it easier for the offense to go out there because we're getting three and out’s, offense’s getting in more rhythms. So, you know we can dominate up front, not just in the run, but in the pass…turnovers and all that stuff, you know, that wins games," Gotsis said.
“Coach Meyer has repeatedly said that, so that’s on us to own that now, that's on us, [to] put the work in and be the best D lineman in the league.”
When Gotsis arrived in 2020, it was on a one-year free agent deal. After making 14 starts at defensive end (and appearing in all 16), Gotsis accumulated 37 tackles, four for loss, three passes defended and forced a fumble. When the free agent market opened, Gotsis tested it before electing to re-sign with the Jaguars. The trust and confidence Meyer and new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen are putting in the unit is a large reason Gotsis wanted to stay in Jacksonville.
“Hearing the mentality of the staff, talking to Coach Cullen, talking to [defensive line] Coach Lupoi, Coach Meyer, all those guys, you know, you hear the mentality, the mindset, things like that. I know we have great players on the team…we’ve got a great coaching staff and we've changed things in the building that make things around us great," Gotsis said.
“They’re adding value to us as players and it's on all of us to own that and to dominate that now. So for my decision, it was pretty, you know, pretty easy once I heard Coach Cullen and I saw the type of scheme they ran in Baltimore and I was really—I liked their defensive scheme, have played in a similar one with Denver. So I know I fit that defense and to hear that I’m wanted there, to hear I add value to this defense, that makes me want to be there; that makes me want to play hard.”
In addition to returning the front seven from the 2020 season—albeit while denying the fifth year option on defensive tackle Taven Bryan—the staff also brought in more linemen in free agency and the draft, creating a depth ideal for rotation.
In free agency, the Jaguars re-signed Gotsis and Dawuane Smoot, while also bringing in Roy Roberson-Harris and Jihad Ward. The club traded for tackle Malcom Brown. In the recent 2021 NFL Draft, the staff drafted tackle Jay Tufele and Jordan Smith.
With the defense set, now comes the implementation. There has long been a clamoring for the Jags defense to switch out of the 50-under that has been run and instead run a 3-4 or 4-3; something that provides more flexibility to deal with the advent of spread and option offenses in the NFL.
“It's like a 3-4 hybrid,” explains Gotsis. “So it's pretty similar to, kind of, what a lot of teams are running now in the league. A lot of is based off personnel just like any team, you know, you're just trying to match what's best for who you're playing and put your guys in the best position. So I think most teams [are] based out of the 3-4 now.”
Gotsis points out a few teams that play a true four-down defensive, like the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, but “a lot of teams are in this like, 3-4 hybrid and then have a lot of different packages.”
The defense rose out of the college ranks, placing a linebacker/defensive end on the edge. The hybrid player has the ability to pass rush or drop into coverage, while also covering the run. It’s the position that made Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson first-round draft picks out of college and what they’re best suited to play.
“When you have guys up front that can play multiple positions and play them well, I think the 3-4 adds a bit more flexibility, allows you to move guys around a bit more, allows guys to use their athleticism a little bit more,” says Gotsis.
And after watching film of what Cullen ran in Baltimore as the Ravens defensive line coach, the excitement has multiplied.
“All those guys just dominating, it makes you feel good about what we're watching and you know it makes you feel good that ‘hey we're gonna put this work in and go out there and dominate.’”
Putting the work in means the extra hours, the off hours and the willingness to do it themselves. With COVID-19 protocols greatly limiting what athletes can do in team facilities for the time being, players are having to take it upon themselves to prepare for the season. There is a risk factor involved, evident in the recent injury to Bronco’s lineman Ja’Wuan James, who was working out offsite and could therefore lose his entire 2021 salary (a base of $10 million).
The Jaguars are set to open OTA offseason workouts on May 24. Until then though, the desire to improve is driving the unit that Meyer is holding responsible for the success of the team; and they are taking it seriously.
A recent video on social media showed the majority of the defensive line all together at a park working out. It’s the mentality that Gotsis sees growing out of the all-important defensive line unit and throughout the entire Jacksonville Jaguars organization.
Explains Gotsis, “It’s hard to turn down so you know it's good that we're getting a lot of guys down there and we're working hard together and we're putting this thing together because you know you can't just be great on Sundays. You got to be great every day, you have to win every day. And that's the mentality, you know, attack every day, dominate every day and you know when season time comes, we're going to be in a real good spot.”