(The first of two stories talking to Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker as coaches wrap up their off-season preparation for the 2011 season) . . .
As Mel Tucker sees it, progress has been made.
Tucker, entering his third season as the Jaguars' defensive coordinator – his first since assuming play-calling responsibility early this off-season – said without question the 2011 off-season would have felt more normal if not for the ongoing lockout.
But Tucker said that doesn't mean work hasn't been done.
And he said it doesn't mean the coaching staff isn't ready for the 2011 season.
Mostly, Tucker said it won't keep the Jaguars from implementing the wrinkles and changes being planned for next season, and it certainly won't prevent the improvement Tucker said is expected and necessary from the defense in the coming season.
"I feel ultra-prepared," Tucker said. "We used the time to do studies we needed to do, to analyze our system the way it needed to be analyzed. We went into great detail and asked the hard questions. Then, we took the time to listen to the response."
The toughest questions, Tucker said, involved, "Why?'' With more time to plan than normal off-seasons, Tucker said an extra effort was made to determine the reasons for the Jaguars' defensive struggles in recent seasons.
The Jaguars, after being one of the NFL's best defensive teams in the middle part of last decade, last season finished 28th in the NFL in total defense, 28th against the pass and 22nd against the run.
"You have time to evaluate many things – whether it's how you're using a player, or a certain scheme,'' Tucker said. "The biggest thing I asked was, 'Why are we doing this?' I think you have to do that. The next things are, 'Is this going to help us play faster? Is it going to help us be more certain? Is it going to allow us to be more aggressive and more consistent?'''
Tucker and Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio each early in the off-season extensively discussed the emphasis on simplifying the defense, with the idea being to allow players to play a half-step faster and therefore to be a more confident, aggressive unit.
As the off-season wore on, Tucker said that continued to be a preparation theme, and developed into perhaps the most important off-season emphasis.
"We have to find a way to play as fast as we can, to put our guys in position to be a better-tackling defense," Tucker said. "We have to put our guys in a position to be more aggressive and to be more physical and to get more takeaways. The process starts when you look at the film.
"You look at every play. You look at every defense. You pull out missed tackles and mental errors, and at the end of the day, you see areas you need to improve. Along the way, you're asking questions, 'Why are we doing this? Why is this guy making this mistake? He's a good player, a smart kid – why are we getting mental errors on that play? We understand it. Why doesn't he understand it?'
"Those are the questions you ask. 'Because we always have done it like that' is not an acceptable answer.''
Tucker said while a simpler approach would be beneficial whatever the off-field environment, it should help as the Jaguars prepare for the 2011 on a lockout-shortened schedule.
"In my mind, it's not just a lockout strategy," he said. "It's a basic football philosophy on my part. We want to be sound and solid. We want our guys to be able to play fast. We need to be able to identify the techniques guys need to be able to play in our defenses and we need to streamline those and keep it to as few as possible so we get good.
"We want to be able to play whatever technique we're asked to play better than anyone else in the league."
Tucker said as the staff reviewed last season, questions of detail and specifics took on the same tone, with the themes being speed, speed and speed.
"How can we get a defensive end half a step close to the quarterback?" Tucker said. "How can we get a linebacker or a corner and a safety in a little bit better position?"
The simpler a defense , Tucker said, the faster it plays and the more confidence with which it plays. When that happens, he said tackling improves.
"You're going to get more guys at the point of attack," Tucker said. "They play faster, so if a guy does miss a tackle, the next defender is at close proximity. That minimizes the additional gain. That's the end result of streamlining and guys being certain about what they're doing and being able to do it aggressively and being able to do it with confidence – and being consistent."
Tucker said being simple does not mean being "vanilla," or playing schemes that are easy for an opponent to attack. Rather, he said it's about "letting our guys play as fast as possible."
"That's the bottom line," Tucker said. "We want to make sure we're comprehensive enough that we can handle things people throw at us, but simple enough to play fast. Lockout or not, we would be emphasizing simplicity. This is about being able to get our best guys on the field playing to their ability as fast as possible. That's the bottom line. You go into it with a player saying, 'He will be able to . . .' We need to shrink down the time where it gets to, 'He can and he does.'
"When you make things simple, you can feel confident that when you evaluate a player – whether it's college or free agency – you see what he can do and once you get him here, you can get him to do it."