The 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars are a hell of a team. They marched into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers in their house twice. They have a mean defensive line that looks to knock the crap out of you from the opening quarter. They have two premier cornerbacks on the outside and start three inside linebackers that are better than any linebacker on the Patriots’ active roster. Despite having a weak receiving group following Allen Robinson’s week one injury, Blake Bortles and company have put together an offense that can surprise you.
What can the Patriots learn from the last matchup?
Like last week, the Patriots really can’t ascertain much about the Jaguars from their previous matchups. In the last regular season meeting, the Patriots blew out Jacksonville at home to the tune of 51-17 dominating victory. Luckily for the Jaguars, they have Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye covering wide receivers and Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell rushing the quarterback instead of Davon House, Nick Marshall, Dan Skuta and Ryan Davis. Gus Bradley is long gone.
In my opinion, the preseason game the Patriots played against the Jaguars this year should not be used as significant data for anything other than scheme, and the Patriots adjusted their scheme for half of the game with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Keelan Cole isn’t going to just run past Cyrus Jones for a 97-yard touchdown. Austin Carr isn’t going to be high-pointing a touchdown in the end zone over Tracy Howard Jr.
What the Patriots can do on the other hand is use their scouting reports on Paul Posluszny, Aaron Colvin, and A.J. Bouye; key players on the Jaguars’ defense that the Patriots have significant game experience against. Other than that, we’re looking at a brand new Jaguars team infused with loads of talent at all positions.
The player out of that trio to exploit is Posluszny, who has always been a mediocre at best coverage guy. Now in his 11th season at the age of 33, he’s a rotational player for the first time since his rookie year. He played just 46.2% of defensive snaps this year. Here is Posluszny losing Rob Gronkowski on a seam route from back in 2015. Although it’s zone, he really does nothing to help on this play and doesn’t even entertain the idea of carrying Gronk up the field. Posluszny remains a useful player against the run, as he has been his entire career, but the Patriots can definitely exploit his coverage.
Whether it’s zone or man, he simply doesn’t have the speed to stay with guys. Gronk runs right through his zone untouched and Posluszny does nothing to deter a throw.
Matchups the Patriots can exploit
Spread the Jags out defensively
When I began writing this article, I was trying to think of a historical comparison for this ferocious Jaguars defense. The immediate comparison that I thought of was the 2015 Broncos, with the dangerous pass rushers and cornerbacks. But the 2015 Broncos didn’t have Telvin Smith and Myles Jack, inside linebackers that are wizards in coverage. I then thought of the 2015 Carolina Panthers defense with their front four to go along with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and Josh Norman on the back end, but that doesn’t really equate because the Jaguars mix coverages a lot and are not a rigid Tampa 2, but more of a hybrid Cover 3.
Ultimately, I gave up this useless exercise and began to analyze the defense as its own unique unit, a unit where the Patriots can exploit the Jaguars in space. I’m talking four wide receiver formations, empty backfields, shallow crosses. The Patriots must make the Jaguars defend the entire 53-yard width of the field. Exploiting their defense with quick throws in the flats and option routes from the slot have succeeded throughout the year.
What stood out to me when studying the Jaguars’ snap counts is how little they relied on their backups in the secondary. Outside of their top three cornerbacks and their top two safeties, no secondary player played more than 5% of the snaps. Essentially, the 2017 Jaguars didn’t have a dime defense.
At times, the Patriots absolutely need to force the Jaguars to take off one of their stud linebackers and force them to use a sixth secondary member. I fully expect the Patriots to activate Malcolm Mitchell for this game for this reason. An offensive skill group of Gronkowski, Cooks, Hogan, Amendola, and Dorsett/Mitchell is electric; unless the Jaguars feel comfortable with Jack or Smith against a slot wide receiver (and they shouldn’t) the Patriots will force the Jaguars defense into uncharted territories. And given the fact that the Jaguars might try to shadow Gronkowski with a cornerback (more on that later) they might not even need to go empty in the backfield to force a dime defense.
According to Sharp Football’s personnel tracking, the Patriots have only played one offensive snap this season without a running back on the field, and had zero last year. It may be time to unlock that part of the playbook.
Try to force the Jaguars to play with one cornerback
While the last strategy aimed to force the Jaguars to take a linebacker off the field, this kind of formation would try to get them to take one of their cornerbacks off the field. A 13-formation with Hollister or a 22-formation with Develin will force the Jaguars to match up one of the Ramsey/Bouye duo on a tight end and would allow the Patriots to try to isolate Posluszny in coverage. The Patriots would have a definite advantage over the defense in the running game if they kept two cornerbacks on the field and if they do take one of them off the field, then the plan has succeeded.
While the Jaguars defense is formidable, they were mediocre against tight ends (20th ranked DVOA) and running backs (15th ranked DVOA). The return of Rex Burkhead and the depth the Patriots have at tight end should make them confident. After all, Vance McDonald had 10 catches for 112 yards last week, imagine what Gronk could do. The Jaguars defense is decidedly worse if Bouye and Ramsey aren’t on the field together.
Utilize play action passing
If there was a schematic weakness to the Jaguars defense this year, it’s that they were susceptible to play action, especially off of stretch runs. When the Jaguars traveled to San Francisco and faced off against Jimmy Garoppolo, they kept losing guys off of fakes.
The screenshot below is one where the Jaguars defense gets totally faked out. Both inside linebackers are still moving forward towards the line of scrimmage and the 49ers get a wide open receiver despite having only two receivers running routes.
Garoppolo missed the throw but that’s a whole lot of green grass in the middle of the field.
Both of these plays are off of play actions on stretch runs to the outside, one of the main play action plays Brady has executed for decades. The Patriots run a different protection scheme with the center circling around to avoid having Brady run a rollout, but the same concepts remain. The Patriots can run these plays from both 13- and 22-formation to utilize play action and try to take advantage of a bigger, slower defense alluded to in the last mismatch.
Be aware of who is covering Gronkowski in man coverage
Despite having two of the best coverage linebackers in the game, the Jaguars cannot expect them to hold up in man coverage against Gronkowski. They’ll likely feed Gronk a heavy dose of double teams and zones, which will lead to open receivers elsewhere, but there will be times where they will have to single up on him in man coverage. I believe that the guy to draw that assignment will be A.J. Bouye for the majority of the game.
Bouye has a history of lining up against tight ends in man coverage; he did so in the regular season game against the Patriots when he was a member of the dime defense. Obviously his role grew in Houston last year and by the end of the year he was their number one cornerback, but he was used as a versatile chess piece for a good part of the year.
Bouye lines up across from Martellus Bennett on the first crucial 3rd down of the game. Based on the initial traffic, it’s unclear if he really does have him in man coverage but that becomes clear upon the snap of the ball. Bennett stay in to pass protect and Bouye goes to rush the quarterback accordingly.
Bouye only played 17 snaps in this game, but I found that he was matched up with non-wide receivers several times.
This evidence is strong that Bouye is clearly viewed as more than just a rigid cornerback, but there is also some lingering doubt on whether he will guard Gronk. For one, there is the system difference and the fact that he’s emerged as a real dominant outside cornerback. And then there’s the fact that the one time the extremely limited Gronk went out for a pass route that game (top of the screen), the Texans opted to put Bouye on Malcolm Mitchell.
Despite that, Bouye clearly makes the most sense as a Gronk defender. Matching up Barry Church or Myles Jack in man coverage is a disaster waiting to happen for the Jags. Bouye has size and plays with great technique. When that happens, the Patriots need to be prepared to respond in two different ways: iso Gronk outside or motion him inside and run the ball. Bouye’s strong coverage should hold up against Gronk in many situations, but jump balls on the boundary are not one of them. And in the run game, Bouye is no match for Gronk, the blocker.
Trust me, there are many flaws in Blake Bortles’ game, but he is much, much better than what the consensus makes him look like. I’ve long been a Blake Bortles believer, even back to his draft year and before he improved this season. I stand by these hot takes even to this day. He took a huge step forward this year and he’s no longer a clear liability.
That being said, the way he’s playing right now can be exploited. In the second half of the season, Bortles turned into a game manager where he would only complete a few throws past 10 yards per game and he would lean on his running ability. Against the Steelers, Bortles completed just three passes past 10 yards on nine attempts and he struggled mightily against man coverage. Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has helped the offense play to the strength of Fournette and Bortles, but the Patriots should be familiar with his concepts. Hackett was the offensive coordinator for the Bills from 2013-14.
Against the Steelers, it seemed like the offensive plan for Bortles is to dink and dunk against the zone and look to tuck the ball and run against man defenses. As a team, the Jaguars utilize a lot of multiple tight ends and multiple back formations, which would force the Patriots into base more often. To me, that signifies that the Patriots should utilize their normal defensive game plan that they have used against Alex Smith. Play man coverage with a spy and force the quarterback to make tight window throws.
While Bortles played pretty well in the cold against the Steelers, it’s important to remember that many of the cold-related concerns that Mariota had also apply to Blake. Growing up and playing college football in Florida, Bortles famously never saw snow until this year, in a game at Cleveland. I wouldn’t bet on Bortles being at the top of his game in the bitter cold.
Not even taking into account the advantage the Patriots have on special teams, the Patriots match up very well with the Jaguars. Behind their young defense, the Jaguars should be legitimate AFC contenders for years to come. But it’s not their time yet. I expect a win and a cover for the Patriots en route to their fourth Super Bowl appearance in the last seven years.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Jaguars 23