When the Patriots run
There’s been a lot made of the Patriots’ fumbling issues after Stevan Ridley lost one (and had another overturned) and Shane Vereen also coughed the ball up in last week’s loss to the 49ers. Two lost fumbles in horrid weather conditions should not be reason to panic. A 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound, hard-charging, high-energy back, Ridley should bounce back with a big effort Sunday. He is a rhythm back who thrives on work and contact. He never seems tired and has good vision, speed, and power. Vereen (5-9, 205) is a bit quicker than Ridley and is an effective cutback runner. He is stronger than he looks but is by no means a bulldozer. Danny Woodhead (5-8, 200) is a slippery little dude who possesses excellent instincts, vision, and patience. He runs low, sifts through traffic, and can be hard to locate. Oh, and he’s the best blocker of the bunch. The offensive line has shown it can open holes and manhandle defenders. Guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell work hard from snap to whistle. The Jaguars have a solid linebacking corps led by tackling machine Paul Posluszny in the middle. The 6-2, 242-pounder is tremendous at reading plays, finds the ball in a flash, and never takes a play off. Outside linebackers Julian Stanford (he’s swift and strong) and Russell Allen (he’s big and aggressive) feed off Posluszny’s enthusiasm.
When the Patriots pass
If Tom Brady is recovered from his shoulder injury (wink, wink), the Jaguars will struggle mightily. Jacksonville simply doesn’t have the resources to match up with Brady and all the weapons at his disposal. Brady’s presnap recognition skills are second to none. Once the ball is snapped, he goes through his progressions quickly, finds the mismatch, and delivers on-target passes. The Jaguars don’t generate much of a pass rush, but end Jason Babin must be respected — and blocked. Wes Welker continues to excel out of the slot, finding soft spots quickly, gathering Brady’s darts, and taking off upfield. Hard to believe he’s been dealing with a balky ankle for weeks. Brandon Lloyd is coming off his best performance as a Patriot. He excels at working the sideline, has excellent body control, and is the only true deep threat on the roster (sorry, Matthew Slater doesn’t count). Was Deion Branch (good quickness and hands) really gone for a month? Aaron Hernandez is a handful because of his quickness, speed, and versatility. He lines up everywhere, catches nearly everything thrown his way, and is a demon after the catch. Danny Woodhead is an exceptional receiver out of the backfield. The Jaguars will be without their leader in the secondary, safety Dwight Lowery. Chris Prosinski will start. Corners Mike Harris (he can play outside or defend the slot), Rashean Mathis (he’s physical), and Derek Cox (he’s big) are inconsistent.
When the Jaguars run
This attack has suffered greatly without the mobile little monster that is Maurice Jones-Drew, who has missed the last eight weeks with a sprained foot and likely won’t suit up again until Week 1 of 2013. How much is Jones-Drew missed? He’s still Jacksonville’s leading rusher (414 yards). Minus Jones-Drew, Rashad Jennings would normally get the majority of the totes. But the powerful inside banger is out. He passed his most recent post-concussion test but has a shoulder injury. Montell Owens, who can push the pile, will get his third straight start. Keith Toston (he’s big but slow and has zero carries on the season) and Richard Murphy (he shows surprising pop) also are options. Fullback Greg Jones is a tremendous lead blocker. Center Brad Meester still is playing at a high level in his 13th season. He has tremendous lower-body strength and takes good angles. He has the unenviable task of swapping paint with mighty Vince Wilfork. New England’s gargantuan nose tackle seemingly gets better every week. He uses speed and power to tie up opponents (often two at a time) and disrupt blocking schemes. Rotating linemen Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick are big and strong and excel at run stuffing. High-energy linebacker Jerod Mayo has been making big plays all season.
When the Jaguars pass
Chad Henne is a good-sized quarterback with a big arm and deceptive mobility. The 6-3, 230-pounder has the ability to pick defenses apart when given a fighting chance in the pocket — but that hasn’t been very often. He can zip tight spirals into tiny spaces and throws a decent long ball. Because his line has been in shambles, Henne is almost always under pressure — he’s been sacked 20 times (and hit a lot more) in eight games since taking over for Blaine Gabbert. Henne struggles when the heat is on, forcing passes. He also has a tendency to lock on to his primary target, and that leads to turnovers. Underrated left tackle Eugene Monroe (great balance and strength) protects Henne’s blindside. He doesn’t get much help, however. Expect Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to generate plenty of pressure. Henne does have some talented pass catchers in Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts, and Marcedes Lewis. Blackmon has excellent hands, runs tremendous routes, and is highly competitive. Shorts is enjoying a breakout sophomore season. The former Division 3 star has good size, soft hands, and excellent body control. He lacks speed and strength, however, so jamming him at the line is a good strategy. Lewis is a big, athletic target who has gotten better with age. He’s not a great blocker, but he has strong hands and good speed. New England’s secondary gave up some bad plays last week but this unit has made great strides.
Jaguars’ key player: Justin Blackmon
This 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound rookie moves like a polished veteran. He is fluid in and out of his breaks, runs precise routes, and will fight for the ball. He is a superstar-in-waiting.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With great physical skills. Blackmon is quick off the line, snatches the ball with his strong hands, and uses speed and power (watch for the stiff-arm) to make yards after the catch.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By mugging him at the line. If he gets a clean break, he will gobble passes and move the chains. You can’t let this guy get into a rhythm or he will dance all over your defense.
JAGUARS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Take some shots: Quarterback Chad Henne is more of a caretaker than a risk taker. He has to gamble a little Sunday and let his receivers challenge the secondary.
2. Crowded house: Play eight men at the line to take away the running lanes and make Tom Brady and his banged-up receiving corps work a little harder.
3. Pound cake: Fullback/tailback hybrid Montell Owens has fresh legs, so give him some carries and see if he can move the rock and kill the clock.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Grind time: With the playoffs fast approaching, the Patriots have to get their running game back on track, so feed Stevan Ridley to build his confidence.
2. Fast times: Get out of the gates quickly. Establish a lead against the fragile Jaguars. If you let them hang around, they just might.
3. Kick in the pants: The special teams have to shake off last week’s effort and return to the stellar level of play they’ve performed at most of the season.