Here’s how the Patriots will play the Jaguars
Even though the Jacksonville Jaguars came to Foxborough for three days of practice in August, Bill Belichick still doesn’t know too much about them.
They haven’t faced the Patriots since 2015, when they were coached by Gus Bradley. And the Jaguars were not on TV much in New England this season. The Jaguars didn’t play a single prime-time game — no games on Thursday night, Sunday night or Monday night. Their only moment in the spotlight was a 9:30 a.m. London game against the Ravens in Week 3.
“Well, we’re kind of working our way through it here,” Belichick said on Monday. “We’re not where we’re going to be on Wednesday. We have a lot of work to do. We haven’t seen them in quite a while.”
The Jaguars are a surprise entrant in the AFC Championship game, knocking off the Steelers with an impressive 45-42 road victory on Sunday. And it continued a season of surprises, where the defense turned dominant, Blake Bortles turned competent, and Doug Marrone’s Jaguars improved by seven games over last year’s team, finishing 10-6 and winning the AFC South title.
How did the Jaguars pull off the upset over Pittsburgh? And what should the Patriots expect on Sunday? To get a feel, we watched the All-22 tape of the Jaguars-Steelers game, and got invaluable insight from Jaguars beat writer Ryan O’Halloran from the Florida Times-Union:
Coordinator: Nathaniel Hackett (first season)
Key players: QB Blake Bortles, RB Leonard Fournette, RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Dede Westbrook, WR Marqise Lee, WR Keelan Cole, TE Marcedes Lewis.
Notable injuries: Fournette suffered an ankle injury against Pittsburgh, but returned to the game. Punt returner Jaydon Mickens is struggling with a hamstring injury, and was replaced by Westbrook. Otherwise, the Jaguars are fairly healthy. WR Allen Robinson has been out all year with a torn ACL.
What to expect: The Jaguars know they are limited at quarterback. And they have done an impressive job of minimizing Bortles’s impact on the game, and putting him in manageable situations.
The Jaguars run the football — a lot. They led the league in rushing attempts (33 per game) and were 21st in pass attempts (also 33 per game). They have a physical offensive line – rookie left tackle Cam Robinson has been excellent — and feed Fournette early and often. He had 25 carries for 109 yards against the Steelers despite missing a couple of series with an ankle injury. Fournette has an impressive combination of speed and power, and this will be a big game for Patriots Trey Flowers, James Harrison, and Kyle Van Noy in setting the edge and funneling Fournette’s runs inside. The Steelers lost the edge on Fournette, and he made them pay with an 18-yard touchdown romp in the first quarter.
Bortles also is an above-average athlete. On third and 8, the Steelers blitzed and forgot to spy Bortles, and he scrambled for 16 yards. The Jaguars also run the option with Bortles, and he had a nice 9-yard gain after Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree bit hard on the fake.
It was part of a noticeable trend for the Steelers, who were incredibly undisciplined when it came to setting the edge and defending the back-side of runs. The Patriots usually don’t make those mistakes.
Running early and often also puts Bortles in manageable third-down situations. The Jaguars were 8 of 14 on third down against the Steelers, and the average distance to go on third down was 5.57 yards.
The Jaguars then use the run to set up the pass. They utilize a ton of play-action to create time for Bortles. He does not have a big arm, and his deep passes are wobblers, but two or three times per game he’ll attempt a deep shot out of play-action, and Cole came down with one for 45 yards against the Steelers.
They run a lot of play-action bootlegs, which cuts the field in half and gives Bortles three passing options — deep, medium, and checkdown. They ran this play on the second snap of the game, and the Steelers simply lost track of TE Ben Koyack, who was wide open for an easy 21-yard catch-and-run. They use a lot of two- and three-tight end sets, and the play-action protects Bortles, as he was sacked just 24 times this regular season, third-fewest in the NFL.
The Jaguars also had a great sequence late in the fourth quarter, using the same formation two plays in a row. The first play was a dive to Fournette up the middle.
The next play was a play-action fake, and fullback Tommy Bohanon was wide open for the game-clinching touchdown.
Bortles is wildly inaccurate and can barely function as a pocket passer, but the Jaguars definitely keep you on your toes. They like to max protect and throw it deep with only two receivers in the route. You have to watch out for tight end James O’Shaughnessy, who faked like he was blocking, then leaked out into the flat for an easy 19-yard gain.
You have to watch out for a tackle eligible play on the goal line, which the Steelers defended on Sunday. The Jaguars had a 40-yard gain late in the fourth quarter when the Steelers forgot to cover Yeldon leaking out of the backfield on a checkdown. They run the option, and screen pass you into oblivion. You can’t let down on special teams, as the Jaguars were successful with three fake punts this season.
The Steelers were sloppy and unprepared for the Jaguars’ misdirection, but the Patriots won’t make the same mistakes. Expect the Patriots to employ a similar game plan from the one they used against Tennessee. The focus will be on keeping Bortles inside the pocket and making him function as a passer. You do that by playing a lot of zone coverage — don’t give Bortles any escape lanes, and force him to read the coverage — and by using Van Noy and Marquis Flowers as spies when you go with man-to-man coverage.
The Patriots need to stack the box to stop Fournette, protect against bootlegs and play-action with disciplined back-side responsibility, and drop seven and eight into coverage. The Jaguars might hit a couple of big plays, but there is no way the Patriots will have as many defensive breakdowns as the Steelers did.
Coordinator: Todd Wash (second season)
Key players: DE Yannick Ngakoue, DE Dante Fowler, DT Marcel Dareus, DL Calais Campbell, DT Malik Jackson, LB Myles Jack, LB Telvin Smith, CB A.J. Bouye, CB Jalen Ramsey, FS Tashaun Gipson, SS Barry Church.
Notable injuries: Gipson hurt his right foot, missing the final 34 snaps of Sunday’s game. He was in a boot on Monday, and if he can’t play, he will be replaced by second-year S Jarrod Wilson.
What to expect: A vanilla defense that shows its hand and doesn’t do much to confuse you . . . and still dominates the opposition with elite athletes at all three levels.
With this defense, you get pretty much the same look every time — four down linemen, two or three linebackers, and a Cover 3 coverage scheme. The results were impressive — No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense (170 yards per game), and No. 2 in yards allowed, points allowed, sacks and takeaways.
The Jaguars are stout up front with Dareus and Jackson, and their defensive linemen accounted for 46 of the team’s 55 sacks. Campbell (14.5 sacks) plays defensive end on base downs and moves inside on pass rush downs, and Ngakoue (12 sacks) sometimes moves around before the snap and disguises which gap he is going to rush.
The Jaguars play with a wide alignment, and their speed off the edge will test LT Nate Solder and RT Cam Fleming.
Surprisingly, the Jaguars were 21st in rush defense (116.2 yards per game) and 26th in rushing average (4.3 yards per carry). The Steelers played from behind and only rushed 16 times, but Le’Veon Bell hit a couple of nice runs out of shotgun spread formations.
The Jaguars have speedy linebackers — Jack and Telvin Smith don’t come out of the game, and Paul Posluszny is really just a first-down player. Occasionally Jack or Smith (or nickel cornerback Aaron Colvin) will blitz, but they are almost strictly a four-man rush team. O’Halloran charted the Jaguars as blitzing just 18.4 percent of the time this season. Expect to see Jack covering Rob Gronkowski for much of the day, and Smith is a relentless ball-chaser who had a 50-yard scoop-and-score. The Patriots will try to get the Jaguars in their base personnel, and get Gronkowski matched up on Posluszny, who is not the coverage linebacker he used to be.
In the back end, the Jaguars’ coverage scheme is similar to the Seahawks and Falcons. For the most part, they utilize a single-high deep safety, the strong safety comes down in the box to cover the tight end or provide run support, and the cornerbacks on the outside either drop into man or Cover 3 zone (playing the deep boundaries).
Bouye was generally at left cornerback and Ramsey at right cornerback, and both are rangy, physical corners who should provide a lot of problems for the Patriots’ receivers.
And Tom Brady needs to be careful, because the Jaguars will occasionally show a Cover 3 before the snap, but then drop into a Cover 2 or Cover 4.
Gipson and Church, the two safeties, are interchangeable and can be used in a variety of roles.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns (on 60 passing plays, of course), and discovered an interesting flaw in the Jaguars’ defense. The Jaguars didn’t always match up their cornerbacks, and on fourth-and-11 late in the second quarter, Roethlisberger noticed tight end Jesse James being covered by Bouye, and Jack covering Martavis Bryant in the slot. Bryant ran a deep post, and Jack handed off Bryant to Gipson. Bryant against a safety 1-on-1 is a great matchup, and Bryant hauled in a 36-yard touchdown catch right before the half.
A similar opportunity might be available for Brandin Cooks or Chris Hogan, if the Patriots work the matchups right.
Otherwise, Roethlisberger’s success probably won’t translate to the Patriots. The Jaguars were giving the Steelers’ excellent receivers big cushions at the line of scrimmage, and Roethlisberger did a nice job of finding the receivers underneath.
And the Steelers had four incredible touchdown catches on deep balls among Antonio Brown, Bell, and Bryant. The Patriots’ receivers aren’t nearly as dynamic.
For this game, expect the Jaguars to press the Patriots at the line of scrimmage. Cooks with his small size and Hogan with his bad shoulder might not be able to do much against Bouye and Ramsey.
But this should be a big game for Gronkowski and the Patriots’ running back trio. Expect the Patriots to try to spread out the Jaguars, then run Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead between the tackles or hit Gronk and the running backs with quick passes to negate the pass rush. And when the Patriots do take deep shots, it will be out of heavy packages, with two or three tight ends.
The Jaguars are stout, but they can be had. Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers hit them for 44 points in Week 16, and the Steelers just put up 42 points and 545 yards. The Patriots might have to grind it out a bit, but Gronkowski, Lewis, Burkhead, and James White should carry the Patriots to victory.