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Jaguars defense full of unsung heroes

Posted Aug 14, 2012

“Overlooked” Jacksonville Jaguars defense aiming to be one of NFL’s best in 2012, Jeremy Mincey says.

Jeremy Mincey is many things. Shy and soft-spoken are not among them.

Unsure of himself is another thing Mincey isn’t, so when asked Tuesday how much he believes a defense that already was very good can improve this season, the veteran defensive end’s answer wasn’t  surprising.

“No. 1,” Mincey said. “You shoot for No. 1 in everything you can do in life.”

The Jaguars ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense last season.

“Six,” Mincey said, “is not good enough.”

What you are reading is a relative rarity this August. That’s because this is a story about the Jaguars’ defense. Remember? The defense?

The unit was the overriding storyline a year ago in Jaguars training camp. It also was a group that improved dramatically last season, ranking No. 6 in the NFL after being 28th in 2010. This season, amid a slew of stories about holdouts, rookie wide receivers, second-year quarterbacks and new offensive schemes, the group has been . . .  well, if not overshadowed, at least a bit overlooked.

And for this group, that’s OK.

“We have no problem being an unsung hero,” cornerback Will Middleton said. “That’s the mentality that Coach Tuck (defensive coordinator Mel Tucker) has built in us. We don’t need anybody to say, ‘Hey, you’re doing this,’ or anybody writing anything.

“We’re just going to keep working. Good things will happen.”

Tucker, entering his fourth season as defensive coordinator and second with full control over the defense, said the final part of what Middleton said – *we’re just going to keep working* – is the key to what’s going on around training camp.

Tucker’s view is last season matters little this season, and that while a slew of returning veterans has helped the team be further along in installation, there still is plenty of progress to be made.

“We’re just trying to get lined up,” Tucker said, smiling.

That’s Tucker’s standard line saying there’s work to be done, and in a more serious moment, he said his coaching philosophy and his approach to this year’s defense is very simple: Whatever is to be accomplished this season, he said, must be earned this season. Toward that end, he said the unit started at “Square One” in late July, stressing fundamentals, winning one-on-one battles and improving daily.

 “We have a lot better understanding of why we do what we do,” he said. “That allows guys to play faster. But this is a new team. We have to prove ourselves every day, coaches and players. It’s about what we’re doing now. Are we improving? Are we developing?

“If you can execute across the board with good players, that’s when you have a chance.”

Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey largely has left the defense in the hands of Tucker, and has said often since taking the job in January that retaining Tucker was critical. Mularkey on Tuesday said he likes where the defense is as the second preseason game approaches.

“Mel feels like we’re ahead of where we were last year,” he said. “Obviously, the offseason helps that.”

Mularkey said the defense’s approach could be seen Tuesday in a late-practice red-zone drill. While the offense had a strong day, the defense controlled that particular drill, improving in an area Mularkey said needed to progress following the first preseason game.

“They dominated that period, which we’ve got to do,” Mularkey said. “We’ve got to be better in the red zone and I think we did that.”

Tucker, who stressed simplicity last season to allow a group of players unfamiliar with each other or the scheme to play fast, joked Tuesday that the Jaguars have more blitz schemes than he can call in a given practice. His point?

That whatever complexities are installed, defense still comes down to one basic premise.

“It’s a matter of winning,” Tucker said. “Can you execute that at a high level when the other team is trying to execute at a high level, too?”

Tucker said the high number of returning players has indeed instilled a confidence that most of the players on defense know where to be, and how the coaches want them to play. A focus now, he said, is working several new players – rookie defensive end Andre Branch and veteran cornerback Aaron Ross among them – into the scheme, determining their strengths and seeing how they can contribute.

“These guys we have here have been through a lot,” he said. “I know what they’re all about. They know what I’m about. They know what our staff is about. The newcomers, we’re finding out about them. What we have to do is become a cohesive unit with the guys who are already here.

“It’s a new team. We have to create the identity for 2012. There’s no team that’s ever the same. That’s why when we come out here we’re pushing as hard as we can every day, because you have to find out.”

That’s an approach the players echo.

“Last year was last year,” Middleton said. “That’s why they call it last year. But as of right now, we have the mentality that we’re going to be the top defense. This goes back to being an unsung hero defense. We don’t care about that. We don’t say, ‘We have to be No. 1.’

“We just do what we do. It’s a simple term, but that’s what Tuck instills in us: do what we do and that will get it done.”

Still, while being No. 1 isn’t something a lot of the defensive players talk about, there’s at least one player on the front line who doesn’t mind stating it as an objective.

 “That’s our goal, to be No. 1, and try to get to the Super Bowl,” Mincey said. “We’re definitely better, and like I always say, a year more mature. It’s good. Guys are learning what we’re doing and they’re doing it with confidence.

“Guys understand the balcony view instead of the basement view of football. They understand the whole picture. That’s going to make us a lot better.”

And as Mincey and a lot of people around the Jaguars’ defense see it, either view this season could be pretty good.

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