The Jacksonville Jaguars insist their defensive progress started weeks ago. They talked about it in meetings, felt it in practice and relived it on video.
They showed everyone else Sunday.
The Jaguars (6-4) enjoyed their best defensive performance of the season — one of the franchise's best in years — in a 24-20 victory against the Cleveland Browns.
The defense bottled up running back Peyton Hillis, harassed rookie quarterback Colt McCoy and held the Browns to 283 yards — 108 of them coming on the final two drives.
"That's what we expect to become defensively," coach Jack Del Rio said Monday. "We expect to have better days than that defensively. It was a very good day defensively. We have high expectations, the guys are working hard, and when we do things right, it can be pretty good. What we need to do right now is build on that and grow from there."
It's not farfetched to believe the Jaguars, even though they're playing without star defensive end Aaron Kampman, will continue to get better. After all, six of 11 starters are in their first or second seasons.
"I think we're on our way up," said defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who had two sacks in his second career start. "It's a huge stepping stone. It feels like years back when the Jags had that swag. Guys were going so hard that the effort was making up for the mistakes. It's coming together."
Jacksonville held Hillis to 48 yards on 21 carries and sacked McCoy six times. Even more impressive, the Jaguars kept the Browns out of the end zone after four consecutive turnovers in the second half.
Cleveland couldn't run and couldn't give McCoy enough time to find open receivers. The Browns had minus-4 yards after the four turnovers, the kind of stands that would raise any defense's confidence. It worked wonders for Jacksonville's young group.
"We always talk about doing well in adverse situations," linebacker Justin Durant said. "Yesterday, we were faced with a lot of them. We all just stuck together and made plays that we had to make. ... It's everybody growing together. Sometimes it takes time to get to that level. We've been taking steps throughout the whole season, and these past few games it's been showing."
Jacksonville has won three in a row and five of seven, moving from last to first in the AFC South. The Jaguars are tied with Indianapolis atop the division, but they are healthier than the Colts and Houston, and have fewer distractions than Tennessee.
"We're aware of what's taking place in the division, but that's not where our focus is," Del Rio said.
It's the first time the Jaguars have been atop a division this late in the season since 1999, the year Jacksonville advanced to the AFC title game.
"It's fun to be in the locker room now," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We've got some momentum going."
Jacksonville used to have one of the more stout defenses in the league, but it slipped drastically in recent years. Del Rio and general manager Gene Smith spent much of the offseason revamping the defense with free agents and draft picks.
It took several games for Del Rio to finally settle on a starting lineup, but now that he has, the defense is starting to figure some things out.
Especially against the run. After allowing a season-high 236 yards rushing at Kansas City, Jacksonville benched defensive end Derrick Harvey and has been stout ever since. The Jaguars allowed 50 yards rushing against Dallas, 81 against Houston and 88 against the Browns.
"Hopefully some of the mistake we made early in the year we can learn from," said Del Rio, whose defense ranks 27th in the league and 19th against the run. "Statistically, it's going to be very difficult to go from where we are to anywhere that other people may understand how much better we've become. But in our room, we know.
"We need to focus on that and be that type of defense that steps up and plays at a high level to give our football team a chance to play at a high level. ... Certainly that was a step in the right direction."