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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

Picking apart the Patriots’ defensive game plan

There was a lot to like about the play of rookie Jordan Richards, including a heads-up play on the Jaguars’ Allen Robinson.
There was a lot to like about the play of rookie Jordan Richards, including a heads-up play on the Jaguars’ Allen Robinson.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Obviously, when the Patriots beat a team, 51-17, it’s hard to nitpick with the performance. The Patriots are simply in a different class than the Jaguars.

But I’ll be honest — I didn’t love the Patriots’ defensive game plan.

The Patriots played a lot of zone defense in Sunday’s win, with Malcolm Butler at left cornerback and Logan Ryan at right cornerback. And they allowed the Jaguars to dictate a lot of the matchups, putting the defense in some bad spots.

The Jaguars did a nice job of this on their 17-play drive in the second quarter in which they chewed up 8:34 of clock and went 4 for 5 on third down. For example, on second and 10 early in the second quarter, the Jaguars got their big-play receiver Allen Robinson lined up one-on-one on rookie safety Jordan Richards, playing in his first NFL game. Robinson easily beat Richards off the line of scrimmage and hauled in what should have been a 30-yard pass play inside the 10-yard line, if not for an incredibly heads-up play by Richards to shove Robinson out of bounds before he could tap both feet inbounds.

Later in the drive, the Jaguars got running back Corey Grant one-on-one on linebacker Dont’a Hightower in the slot. Grant burned right past Hightower for a fade route, and should have had a touchdown catch, but Blake Bortles’s perfect pass went right through Grant’s hands.

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The Patriots were also pretty obvious with their blitzes. They brought an extra rusher or a zone blitz eight times, and all eight came on third down. And it wasn’t just third and short, either — the Patriots uncharacteristically blitzed Bortles on third and 7, third and 10, and third and 15.

Jamie Collins and Jabaal Sheard produced a sack on one of these blitzes, and the Patriots also forced the Bortles fumble that resulted in a Jaguars first down, but Bortles also picked apart the blitz for a couple of big third-down conversions and almost had a touchdown to Allen Hurns.

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Again, it’s hard to talk negatively after a 34-point win, but this wasn’t an A-plus type of day from the defensive coaches.

Other thoughts and observations after reviewing the game tape:

When the Patriots had the ball

■  The Jaguars play mostly zone defense — Cover 3 is their base alignment (a deep safety and two deep cornerbacks), but they also switched it up to some Cover 2 (two deep safeties).

And how do you beat a zone defense? By attacking the middle. And that’s exactly what Tom Brady did.

He shredded the Jaguars over the middle, connecting on 16 of 19 passes with a touchdown between the numbers, plus a 52-yard pass interference to Aaron Dobson. Brady was 10 for 10 on passes in an even smaller area — right between the hash marks, exactly down the middle of the field.

Brady completed his first 16 pass attempts that were either down the middle or designed screens, and he and Rob Gronkowski destroyed the middle of the Jaguars’ defense, averaging 25.3 yards per catch.

Brady was much less successful throwing to the outside, completing just 8 of 16 passes outside the numbers, with a touchdown and a 24-yard pass interference. Brady was just 2 of 9 throwing outside the numbers in the first half but picked it up in the third quarter.

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Overall Brady completed four running back screens, four wide receiver screens, 10 passes between the hash marks, seven more passes between the numbers, and eight passes to the outside.

■  The Patriots didn’t use the “empty” formation nearly as much this week — just 12 times against the Jaguars, compared to 24 times against the Bills. They went under center 34 times compared to 23 last week, and used a shotgun single-back formation about the same (31 this week, 32 last week).

■  Gronkowski also didn’t move around as much as he did last week, though the Patriots still moved him plenty around the formation. He was an in-line tight end on 22 snaps, aligned in the right slot 14 times, slot left seven times, right boundary five times, and left boundary once.

■  Gronkowski once again was dominant as a run blocker. He had a key block on Dion Lewis’s 8-yard touchdown run, blocking Jared Odrick and then Paul Posluszny. He helped spring LeGarrette Blount for 22 yards, and stayed in twice to block on passing plays — a slant pass to Keshawn Martin and a 16-yard catch for Julian Edelman that both went for first downs. Not only is Gronkowski the most dominant pass-catching tight end in the league, but Pro Football Focus has him rated as the No. 1 run-blocking tight end in the NFL, as well. Gronk is a special, special talent.

■  The Patriots ran many of the same plays that they did in the Super Bowl against Seattle — which makes sense, since Gus Bradley used to coach Seattle and the teams run the same defense. On Danny Amendola’s touchdown, Edelman was the intended target, and he ran the same inside-outside route in which he caught the Super Bowl-winning touchdown. But the Jaguars defended it well, and Brady noticed Amendola streaking alone across the back of the end zone — which, in fact, is how Amendola scored his touchdown in the Super Bowl, as well.

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■  The Patriots didn’t change any offensive personnel until their third drive. They went no-huddle with Gronk, Edelman, Amendola, Lewis, and Aaron Dobson for their first 14 plays, racking up 10 points and 136 yards. Their versatility and ability to create mismatches on offense is devastating.

■  Edelman dropped his third pass in two weeks. Now, he has 30 catches and 279 yards this year, so you put up with it. But his hands have been a little inconsistent lately.

■  The Jaguars suffered so many injuries in the secondary — both before the game and during — that Nick Marshall was forced to play cornerback for a snap. Marshall played quarterback at Auburn last year, and is raw as a defensive back, to say the least.

■  Rookie Tre Jackson had a nasty block on an 18-yard run by Blount and a great block on Lewis’s touchdown run, but he missed a pull block that forced Lewis to get dragged down for little gain. Shaq Mason looked really athletic pulling through the hole and had a really nice block on the second level, but he continues to struggle with consistency when blocking from the fullback spot. Josh Kline had a nice game, and also looked really good getting to the second level and blocking the linebackers. Mason, Kline, Sebastian Vollmer, and Mike Williams made some huge holes for Blount on the right side. Both sacks were the result of good coverage by the Jaguars, and perhaps a little miscommunication between Mason and Nate Solder on one of them.

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When the Jaguars had the ball

■  With a second-year quarterback at the helm and new pieces across the board, the Jaguars simply don’t execute with enough precision to compete with the Patriots. But Bortles made some big-time throws, and I think the Jaguars may have found their future quarterback. He made a beautiful 26-yard throw down the seam to Clay Harbor on third and 10, threw a perfect deep corner pass (the toughest pass in the NFL) to Bryan Walters for 23 yards . . .

. . . and zipped a really nice 12-yarder to Hurns to convert a third and 10.

Bortles sells his play fakes well and does a good job of running the offense. But he’s still young, and does things like not recognizing the Cover 3 defense, and almost throwing a bad interception to Butler. The Jaguars just needed to be better than perfect to hang with the Patriots, and obviously they weren’t, committing too many bad penalties and drops.

■  Really liked what I saw out of Richards, the rookie second-round pick. He played 30 snaps, showed good range in taking away half of the field in deep Cover 2, was sound in his assignments and stayed in his lanes in the run game, and made a veteran play to knock Robinson out of bounds to prevent the 30-yard catch. Add in the bad angle taken by Duron Harmon on Hurns’s 59-yard catch-and-run TD, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of Richards.

■  Also liked what I saw out of new No. 3 cornerback Justin Coleman, who found himself matched up on Robinson for a handful of snaps and held his own. Butler needs to work on his hand-eye coordination, as he keeps whiffing on potential interceptions and pass breakups. He also needs to know when to gamble and when to play it safe – Hurns’s TD was a bad gamble.

■  Great job by DT Alan Branch to shed the guard and bring down T.J. Yeldon in the backfield. Branch jokes that we never write about him, so there you go.

■  Why did Bill Belichick decline the holding penalty on third and 15 that would have pushed the Jaguars back to a potential 50-yard field goal? He declined, and Jason Myers easily booted a 40-yarder.

■  DT Dominique Easley played 32 snaps and didn’t show any signs of his hip injury. He was really firing off the snap — did he somehow know the snap count? — and made a great play to smother the screen pass at the end of the first half.

Special teams

■  The Jaguars were just itching to try something tricky on special teams, and the Patriots knew it. They kept seven defenders up on the front line on kickoff returns (one more than usual) to defend the surprise onside kick. And they didn’t just put any old player on the line. In the first half, it was special teams captain Matt Slater lined up right in the middle of the front line. In the second half, it was Edelman. Running back Brandon Bolden, a core special teamer, was also on the front line.

Inevitably, the Jaguars tried to pull off a fake punt. Of course it was Slater who sniffed it out.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.