- It will be Tom Brady going up against a predictable defense, but Jacksonville has the pure talent to keep the Patriots in check. That leaves it up to Blake Bortles and the offense to put enough points on the board
The adage that defense wins championships will be put to the ultimate test Sunday at Foxboro, where the AFC’s best defense (and one of the most talented of this century) faces football’s most complete and accomplished offense. The Saturday night Divisional Round game was like a short journey back in time for the Patriots. They destroyed Tennessee with the spread formations and horizontal passing of the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman years. Tom Brady was magnificent with pre-snap formation adjustments and quick post-snap decisions, exploiting Titans linebackers and safeties who had struggled much of the year in coverage.
On Sunday against Jacksonville, expect the Patriots to reclaim their 2017 identity as a run-oriented, deep vertical passing offense. Jaguars linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are simply too fast and dynamic to consistently dink and dunk against. Danny Amendola and James White will beat them on a few underneath option routes, but that can’t be New England’s foundation. One reason Jacksonville’s defense is special is the chemistry and spatial awareness of its back seven defenders in zone coverage—particularly inside.
Of course, two bigger reasons for Jacksonville’s specialness are its front four (led by superhero Calais Campbell) and the perimeter downfield coverage of first-class corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. A vertical aerial assault is a less-than-ideal approach for attacking this sort of talent. Pittsburgh posted big yards with deep shots against them, but that was thanks to a handful of unbelievable contested catches versus tremendous coverage. Let’s assume lightning won’t strike twice there—especially given how poorly New England’s undersized wideouts match up downfield against those lanky, physical corners. That’s why the Patriots’ aerial assault must be intertwined heavily with the ground game. You naturally get downfield throws out of running formations, where there’s a more crowded box and routes have more time to unfold. New England’s downfield routes will attack Jacksonville’s safeties.
Aside from a few wrinkles with Quarters coverage and the occasional man coverage blitz, Jacksonville plays a predictable Cover 3. The focus is on out-executing opponents, not out-scheming them. The Cover 3 look becomes all but guaranteed against running formations on early downs. Coaches will tell you, there’s nothing scarier than Tom Brady knowing what coverage you’re in. Rob Gronkowski will be big; much of New England’s play-action game, especially on fake “power” runs with a pulling guard, centers around hitting him against linebackers and safeties inside. That’s one way Brady will attack Jacksonville’s Cover 3.
New England’s other area of opportunity will be in the hurry-up game, where predictable defenses become even more predictable. Brady will be eager to test a Jaguars defense that substitutes a little less than others and is unaccustomed to playing this late into a season.
It should take no more than 24 points to beat Jacksonville. Because on the other side, it’s unlikely the Jaguars will run roughshod over an always-prepared, fundamentally sound Patriots defense the way they did against the over-confident Steelers. The Patriots might not have the Steelers’ D-line talent, but they’re a sure-tackling, gap-disciplined unit, which is why they quietly allowed the NFL’s fewest points per game over Weeks 6-17.
Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia know Jacksonville will run the ball to hide Blake Bortles and keep Brady off the field. Leonard Fournette is as strong of a finisher as football has. So much of New England’s run defense is built on setting the edge; it’ll be interesting to see whether outside line of scrimmage defenders James Harrison, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Eric Lee are more aggressive with crashing down inside this week, given that Jacksonville’s smashmouth ground game so rarely goes outside by design.
If first down play-action passing is important for the Patriots, it’s vital for the Jaguars. Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett want Bortles dropping back and working through traditional full-field progression reads only sparingly. They know New England will force Bortles to hold the ball late into the down (where mistakes become more likely) and that Jacksonville’s receivers and tight ends do not match up well against New England’s man coverage secondary.
With play-action, you not only get the predictable looks from a run defense, you also slice the field in half, presenting either/or decisions for the quarterback. Bortles’ execution on Jacksonville’s well-designed play-action game helped build an early lead at Pittsburgh, and his 14-yard play-action touchdown to fullback Tommy Bohanon late in the fourth quarter cemented it. (That was a particularly brilliant play design. Most defensive calls do not account for a fullback running a vertical route inside. There’s usually too much traffic to work through, plus the fullback’s backfield alignment makes it hard for his vertical route to get very far. The only way the play works is if you patiently set it up with similar looking run plays earlier, which Jacksonville did—not just against Pittsburgh, but all season.)
A steady rushing attack, successful play-action game plus adherence to the warning that might one day be inscribed on Bortles’s tombstone—Avoid turnovers and limit mistakes!—is Jacksonville’s recipe for pulling off a second, and this time much bigger, playoff road upset. Though this isn’t to say it will happen.
Prediction: Patriots 20, Jaguars 10
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