The defensive line sets the tone of the game. That’s the mantra Urban Meyer and the Jacksonville Jaguars are living by as they prepare for the 2021 NFL season. The new head coach has made it a cornerstone of the program he’s building and no where has it been more evident thus far than in the Jags free agency acquisitions.
The Jags added defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Malcolm Brown (via trade) as well as defensive ends Roy Robertson-Harris and Jihad Ward last week. The goal, according to Meyer, is simple.
“I expect them to look really big, I mean like, big, big,” Meyer told local media last week after the Jaguars rush of free agency settled down.
"If you look at the size of the guys we found—and [Jaguars Defensive Coordinator] Joe Cullen is a d-line guy and so is [Jaguars Defensive Line Coach] Tosh Lupoi, obviously, there’s a reason why I hired those two coaches, too. I’ve always had excellent defensive line coaches and I listen to their expertise, but I’ve also got a vision of what it’s supposed to look like. And once again, don’t put the car before the horse and expect—I know what the expectation is and that better be—I expect the defensive line to be one of the strengths of our team.”
Meyer deferring to his coaches expertise brought in a couple of free agents, like defensive end/outside linebacker Jihad Ward, who played under Cullen with the Baltimore Ravens.
“Joe Cullen, who I’ve known forever, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a coach pound the table as hard for a guy.”
And the Jags value scale led to signing ends like Roy Robertson-Harris.
“He was high on the list and when you talk about value, which in the process we use, we assign value to players as we watched them, as we ranked for the last over a month, and he came in at an extremely high value for his potential, the fact that we still feel his best football is ahead of him.”
For those that joined the Jaguars, knowing the message from the top was to build the trenches helped make it an easy decision to move to the First Coast.
“Being in this league for a while, you hear that a lot and it’s very true. The big guys set the tone of the game. Everybody goes off of those guys, whether it’s offensive line or defensive line, they start it all,” explained Malcolm Brown, who joined the Jaguars via a trade from the New Orleans Saints. “It feels good that we’re building something strong on the defensive line and I just hope we continue to grow and get better together.”
Added Robertson-Harris, “We’re going to be stout upfront, stop the run. Obviously, that’s your main goal first and second down, being stout upfront and then being able to earn the right to rush the passer.”
The defensive line hasn’t necessarily been a weakness of the team—in fact the new staff retained defensive end Dawuane Smoot who was set to become a free agent—but on a 1-15 team, every unit needs a facelift. But in 2020, the Jaguars defensive line experienced attrition due to COVID opt-outs, injuries and just—frankly—sub-par play from former starters. Creating a cohesive unit is the first step to creating a stout one according to Ward.
“As a defensive lineman, it always starts upfront, but the main thing is, like I said again, is about brotherhood as the d-line. We have to rush, we have to have good communication with our rushes and also dominate in the front, setting the edge, setting the vertical edge, and basically getting vertical and stuff like that.”
If they go find that link, then Ward believes the pieces are in place to be the unit that Meyer knows can change a team.
Said Ward, “Once we have good connections right there, I think we have a dominant d-line as I look at this roster that we have going on. I feel like I’m so excited about this whole group of men that we have coming on board.”
With each new defensive lineman that walked in the building, Meyer’s plan became more and more clear. While this roster is far from finished, the head coach kept to his word and started up front, building the defensive line in order to build the Jacksonville Jaguars.