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Jaguars camp report: Rushing to overcome sack shortage


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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you want to make a Jacksonville Jaguars defensive lineman get uncomfortable, walk up behind one of them and blurt out the number fourteen.

It will make their blood boil a bit. That's because they hear it every day out of the mouth of bombastic defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who won't let them forget it.

"He's yelling about that number," defensive tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton said. "We'll be sitting in a meeting watching some tape and he'll just blurt it out. 'Fourteen is unacceptable. We can't have that again.'"

That 14 number is the Jaguars' sack total in 2009. The Jaguars were so bad they threatened the league record of 10 sacks in a 16-game season (held by 2008 Kansas City Chiefs). In a passing league, you won't win many games knocking down the quarterback the fifth lowest total since 1982, the year sacks became an official statistic in the NFL.

"Yeah, it's embarrassing," Knighton said. "There were players who had more sacks by themselves than we did as a team."

There were only two players who had more sacks than the Jaguars, Elvis Dumervil of Denver (17) and Jared Allen of the Vikings (14½), but that's bad enough. That's why the Jaguars made improving that pass rush a main priority this offseason. They signed Aaron Kampman as a free agent from Green Bay, giving him a four-year, $26-million deal. They then drafted defensive tackle Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick, a move questioned by many.

Adding those two to Knighton and left end Derrick Harvey on the starting line has the coaches really excited at the prospects of an improved line.

"We will be better," coach Jack Del Rio said. "The players are better, but I like the way Joe Cullen is coaching them up. He's in their face, but he also has their back."

Cullen is a high-energy coach whose screams can be heard clear across the practice field. He is passionate for sure, but his hiring was controversial. He was out of the league last season, working at Idaho State, after two off-field incidents when he was an assistant with the Detroit Lions. Both were alcohol-related, including one where Cullen allegedly drove naked through a fast-food drive-thru.

Cullen told the Florida-Times Union that he is sober now, and Del Rio stands by his decision to hire him. He said he's been impressed so far. One incident really got Del Rio's attention. During a practice, one of the defensive linemen was doing a drill the wrong way. Del Rio lit into that player.

Cullen intervened.

"That was my fault," Cullen told the coach. "He was doing what I told him. That's on me."

Looking back on that, Del Rio beamed when telling the story.

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"Players like to see that their coach has their backs," Del Rio said. "They know Joe has theirs."

Cullen has screamed so much that he actually lost his voice during training camp, which ended up being fodder for the team's annual rookie show.

Make no mistake about it: He is getting through to his players.

"He's always on us," Knighton said. "Non-stop."

He even changed the placard outside the linemen's meeting room. It now reads: Rushmen.

The potential for improvement is there, and so far the team has eight sacks in two preseason games, even though the starting front has worked very little together.

"You can see the progress," Del Rio said. "I like what we're doing."

Kampman is coming off a tough 2009 season for the Green Bay Packers. He was asked to move from being a down end to an outside rusher in the team's move to a 3-4. He said he never felt comfortable. Then he suffered a torn ACL in the ninth game.

Despite the injury, he's back practicing and played in his first preseason game last week. He did have some swelling early in camp, but he said the knee isn't an issue and he doesn't even think about it now.

"Not one bit," he said. "It doesn't even enter my mind when I'm on the field."

If he can revert to the same form he had when he played end in Green Bay, he should be in the double-digit sack range. But that's a big if, especially since he's 30 years old.

Harvey, who plays left end, was drafted with the eighth pick in the first round in 2008 with the idea he would be a star edge rusher on the right side. The Jaguars traded up to get him, putting even more pressure on him to become an elite rusher. That hasn't been the case, which has led to a ton of criticism.

The reality is he probably will never be that, which means he was over-drafted, but Harvey can be a good, solid defensive end, which he was late last season. He has dropped his weight down to the low 260s to improve his speed and Kampman said he's been impressed with Harvey's desire to be good.

"You can see he wants it," Kampman said. "I've helped him with some of the things I've learned and he's picked it all up. He can be an effective pass rusher from the left side."

It's the young tackle tandem that really has the team excited. Knighton has a chance to be Pro Bowl player this season. He came in as a rookie third-round pick last season and started all 16 games. The coaching staff raved about his play, especially in a late-season game against New York Jets Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold. They say Knighton more than held his own against Mangold.

Knighton reported to camp this summer overweight, living up to the "Pot Roast" moniker. He was said to be as high as 370 at one point this summer, but is now down close to his playing weight of 330 pounds.

"Let's just say I got caught up in being an NFL player in the offseason," Knighton said. "I learned a valuable lesson. I know I have to eat right and do the right things, not just for football but for quality of life. But it's tough some times. I'm a steak and potatoes kind of guy."

Oh, and he likes pot roast. The nickname was given to him on a team flight last season. Former Jaguars linebacker Clint Ingram was sleeping on the plane when he heard the flight attendant calling for the person who ordered the pot roast.

It was Knighton. Ingram, coming out of his slumber, then dealt out the nickname.

"You are Pot Roast," Ingram said. "That's your name. Pot Roast."

It is a name that has stuck.

"The coaches and players and everybody calls me that now," Knighton said.

If he plays as expected, it will be a nickname that will help increase his popularity around the league. This is a player who could be special.

Next to him, Alualu is a smaller tackle who plays with quickness. When Jacksonville drafted him with the 10th pick, the draft critics cringed. Several personnel people I've talked to on my camp tour asked me how they could have drafted him so high.

Here's how: They love him. The other players have raved about him since he arrived, which is usually a pretty good sign for a rookie.

"His hands are impressive for a young player," Kampman said.

Alualu was slowed by a calf injury the first couple of weeks of camp, but played for the first time last week against Miami. His first play was a combo sack with Kampman. Not a bad start.

There's got to be a lot more of that if the defense is to improve over their bad statistical numbers from 2009.

Ask any of the players about the number 14, and they wave it off. They all insist it will be better.

"It'll be a lot higher than that," Kampman said.

Maybe then, they'll stop hating -- and hearing -- that damn number 14.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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