Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker knew the challenge ahead of him last offseason. With the lockout consuming the entire offseason, Tucker and his staff spent the time hunkered down at EverBank Field. The goal was simple: improve a defense that had finished 28th in 2010.
And don't enter the meeting room with excuses. The staff devised plans, studied opposing offenses and prepared for every scenario as months went by without any contact with players.
There was a major unknown.
Tucker didn't have an idea of who his personnel would be, if and when there was a season. One thing was certain; there would be a free agency period whenever the lockout ended.
But Tucker and his staff forged ahead with the assumption that the players they had in May will be the players they had when training camp finally begins.
"I told the coaches to assume we are not getting anyone," Tucker said on Tuesday. "We don't know who, how many, what position, it was just an unknown. There would be no excuses or built-in explanations for what we don't have in terms of OTAs, minicamps, players, time to get ready, whatever.
"You have to be confident in your plan. The plan of action was very well thought out and very sound. We spent months and months, starting like I'm doing today."
There was no secret Jaguars general manager Gene Smith was going to improve the defense but the impact had to wait until free agency kicked off. The Jaguars used their first two draft picks on the offensive side of ball in quarterback Blaine Gabbert and guard Will Rackley, and both started 14 games as rookies.
The NFL and NFLPA agreed on a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement on Monday, July 25 and what followed was a frenzy of activity across the NFL. More details began to unfold almost by the hour. Training camp was being set and teams were notified of the starting date for free agency. The Jaguars made 51 transactions in a five-day period.
Preparation in the offseason had the staff ready for any scenario.
"We started to formulate how many practices is that going to be," Tucker said. "What can we get installed? What can we have ready to play against Tennessee (opener) with whoever we have? We had to ask ourselves some hard questions. There were things we wanted to install but we had to figure out how we are going to rep it.
"Are we going to be able to get the time on task to get the guys to be able to execute it as well? It takes repetitions to take it from the classroom on to the field. We made those hard choices and then we stuck to the plan throughout the preseason."
The Jaguars essentially signed four defensive starters on July 29 and July 30 with the additions of linebackers Paul Posluszny and Clint Session along with safety Dawan Landry and starting nickel back Drew Coleman. Defensive end Matt Roth was added on August 12.
Adding the players was nice but it didn't translate on the field right away. The players had to wait until August 4 to hit the practice field for the first time, the date the CBA was ratified by the NFLPA. In the meantime, the players took mental reps at practice and attended meetings throughout the day.
Tucker and his staff were anxious to find out what the new additions could do and how to integrate them into the scheme. It helped that the staff simplified the defense in the offseason, in part because of the lockout but also part of a plan they had moving forward.
"It (lockout) wasn't going to be a disadvantage for us," Tucker said. "We wanted to make it an advantage."
Seven days after the free agents hit the practice field, the Jaguars' new look defense opened the preseason at New England. It was fair to say the preseason wasn't a work of art but it was a start. The Jaguars concluded the preseason ranked 31st in total defense.
Advice from one of Tucker's coaching mentors kept Tucker at ease. Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who Tucker worked under at Michigan State and Louisiana State, always emphasized the importance of only judging a unit's performance by how the starters play.
"We played well when our starters were in there," Tucker said. "We knew we had good players and we knew there were certain things we needed to prepare these guys for. I knew we had a pretty strong group."
Tucker's confidence never wavered heading into the regular season opener against Tennessee.
"We knew that when we played against Tennessee we were going to be able to execute at a high level," Tucker said. "We knew we had good players and we knew there were certain things we needed to prepare these guys for. I knew we had a pretty strong group."
The Jaguars held the Titans to 292 yards in the season-opener and that was a sign of things to come. In nine of 16 games, the Jaguars held opponents under 300 yards. Only Pittsburgh held opponents under 300 yards in more games. The Jaguars held 11 of their 16 opponents below their 2011 yards per game average.
Tucker's unit finished sixth in the NFL in total defense, the highest ranking for the club since 2006. The Jaguars were one of only four teams (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston) to finish in the top nine in both rushing and passing defense, only the second time in franchise history the club had done so.
The success of the defense didn't come without adversity. The unit used 14 different starting lineups in 16 games because of injuries, including the loss of their two starting cornerbacks, a starting defensive end and a linebacker to season-ending injuries in consecutive weeks. Only five players started all 16 games on defense and only eight players played in all 16 games.
"We aren't focused on what we can't do," Tucker said. "We are focused on what we can do. That's our approach."
Here's a look at the Jaguars defensive totals and rankings from 2011 compared to the 2010 season.
* 2010 (Rk) 2011 (Rk)*
Yards per game 371.8 (28th) 313.0 (6th)
Rushing 121.6 (22nd) 104.2 (9th)
Passing 250.3 (28th) 208.8 (8th)
Sacks 26 (30th) 31 (25th)
Takeaways 18 (30th) 28th (11th)
Fumble recoveries 5 (31st) 11 (7th)
Interceptions 13 (23rd) 17 (13th)
Completions of 25-plus yards 38 (30th) 29 (11th)
Passer rating 98.5 (31st) 83.7 (16th)
Touchdown passes 28 (26th) 21 (9th)
Rushes of 10-plus yards 54 (23rd) 40 (6th)
Rushes of 20-plus yards 14 (23rd) 8 (6th)
Average yards per rush 4.68 (30th) 3.83 (5th)
Third down conversion pct. 41.3 (27th) 36.2 (15th)
Offensive points allowed 398 (28th) 311 (10th)
Points per game 26.2 (27th) 20.6 (11th)