Mike Mularkey is a fan of the Jaguars' defense. These days, the feeling is mutual.
That's not just because the defensive players have bought into the good feeling around the organization, though they have done so. And it's not just that they like what the new head coach has brought to the team, though they do.
We're talking a more basic, Xs-and-Os thing here.
Think the Jaguars' defense is the afterthought story of the offseason?
Think the league's No. 6 unit last year is just reviewing and refreshing while the offense installs Mularkey's new system?
Think again. No, the defense under coordinator Mel Tucker isn't make drastic changes, and yes, there is a confidence that Tucker's simple approach remains the best way to be effective.
But the defensive players will tell you they're getting a lot of out of the off-season, which will end for veterans at the team's three-day mini-camp next week. And they'll tell you this, too: That offense Mularkey's running on the other side?
Playing against that offense is going to help the defense. Immeasurably.
"Mike has all kinds of different formations, and different ways he runs plays," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "It's a lot of stuff I haven't seen before, but it doesn't seem new to the offense. They're running it very well."
You heard a lot of happy talk from the Jaguars during organized team activities, which concluded Friday. A notable storyline came early, as defensive players talked extensively about the improvement of an offense that ranked No. 32 in the NFL last year.
What you didn't hear as much about was Mularkey's thoughts on the defense, but late in OTAs he reiterated something he said when he took over as head coach in January – that he very much liked the simple approach used by Tucker, and nothing in three weeks of OTAs changed his mind.
"It's not very complicated and there's a lot to be said about that," Mularkey said, adding, "That makes me more nervous, when I look at a team that just lines up and says 'Bring it on.' That's exactly what you have to do."
It's not surprising Mularkey would like the style. Tucker's philosophy is to make sure players know exactly what they're doing so they can play as fast as possible. It is a philosophy believed in strongly by disciples of former Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Chuck Noll, for whom Mularkey played from 1989-1991. The philosophy, as Mularkey put it this week: "Do a little and do it really good."
"Defensively, they do," Mularkey said. "They're very sound. There's not a lot of mistakes. There's not a lot of guys out of place. You don't see a lot of mental errors from our defense in practice."
Mularkey said the defense has been impressive in OTAs for a couple of reasons. One is it's facing a different offense than it did last year in practice. Another is that the Jaguars' offense now features more pre- and post-snap looks. Even with those changes, Mularkey said the defense has proven effective.
"It's harder to do that when you have so many looks offensively because you have so many adjustments you have to deal with," Mularkey said. "So what we do here is very sound and guys believe in it and they're very good at it because of their confidence in it."
That's not to say the defense is simply status quo this off-season.
The Jaguars made significant personnel changes last season, adding key players such as middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, safety Dwight Lowery and outside linebacker Clint Session. While those parts meshed well in 2011, Lowery said the extra time this off-season can allow more meshing.
"The time allows you to add a little more flexibility to the defense," Lowery said. "You don't really have a grasp of a guy's skill set when it's, 'training camp, play games, go play.' When you have this time to learn and understand what guys can do, you can tweak different fronts and different coverages based on strengths and weakness. That can be a big plus.
"Regardless of what your team is like from one year to the next you can self-scout and understand what it is you show as a defense, and how an offense attacks your defense and how to counter that. All that happens in the offseason."
Mincey said while that's true, when asked for one word to describe what, exactly, the defense was gaining most from OTAs, he offered two. One was awareness, and the other was experience – and he said an offseason playing against Mularkey's offense will help the defense in both areas.
"We were already accustomed to the previous system with (former Head Coach) Jack (Del Rio)," Mincey said. "After a while doing it, you've seen it. With this, everything's new."
The Jaguars' offense under Mularkey is similar to that played by Minnesota, the opponent in the opener, so without question the Jaguars' defense is getting work this off-season for the short-term goal of preparing for the September 9 game in Minnesota.
But Mularkey said for an already solid, sound defense, the biggest positive may be in more general terms. Tucker, Mularkey says, is a coach who believes that the more a team sees in practice the better it will be in games.
To hear players and coaches tell it, defensive players are seeing plenty this off-season.
"They're getting a lot out of it because we're giving them a lot to work on," he said. "We're giving them a lot of looks; a lot of movement; a lot of different personnel. We're doing a lot of things in an early part of a camp that typically even in Atlanta defensively they didn't want all that early. They wanted to get simple looks. Mel (Tucker) wants it as much as they can so they can get as much work on it as they can. So it's been really good for both sides of the ball."
Good enough that even for a defense that ranked No. 6 in the NFL last year the off-season is about a whole lot more than review.