The New England Patriots are a reasonable pick to win over the Jacksonville Jaguars as the team is 5-1 in conference title games at Gillette Stadium. There is also Bill Belichick’s track record of success against the style of defense that the Jaguars run.
Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator is Todd Wash, who runs a similar style of defense to Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. Wash served under Carroll in 2011 and 2012 before joining former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley with the Jaguars in 2013. Bradley used the same Seahawks defense in Jacksonville and Wash has kept the tradition alive under head coach Doug Marrone.
Carroll, Bradley, Wash, and Atlanta Falcons head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn use a similar Cover Three defense that asks the sideline corners and the deep free safety to cover one-third of the field, while the strong safety is in the box. Wash has a wrinkle that allows the strong safety to drop deep into a cover two and allow the cornerbacks to take more risks.
“There’s some similarities in their overall concept and so forth,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said when comparing the Jaguars to the Seahawks and Falcons. “But, the players are different and therefore everything’s, you know, different players; even if it’s the same scheme, it’s different. We’ll have to really spend a lot of time here and study over the next couple of days of making sure that we completely understand, completely, what Jacksonville is and how they do things – if it is the same or if they have variations and differences. We’ll have to really dig in and find all of those things out.”
Belichick is right, too. The players are all different, even if there are echoes of similarities across the roster, and Wash allows the players to play to their strengths.
Strong safety Barry Church is smaller than Kam Chancellor, so it was a wise schematic move to allow him to use his versatility to drop out of the box. Calais Campbell is what Red Bryant and Michael Bennett would be if they fused together into one player: a pass rushing fiend that can also be an elite run stopper.
Even the cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye remind more of the Denver Broncos All Pro duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris than they do of Richard Sherman and whatever cornerback lined up opposite of him.
“We’re built to match up with any team,” Church said via the New York Times before wild card weekend. “From Tom Brady, where they like to do quick stuff and crossing routes, to a guy like Ben Roethlisberger, who likes to develop things and let the play extend, like Russell Wilson as well. We’re going to get tested in the playoffs, but we’re excited for that.”
This Jaguars defense has already been tested in the playoffs and the Patriots don’t represent any reprieve. The Jaguars ranked 26th in the NFL in yards allowed per rush and the Buffalo Bills took advantage in the wild card round with 130 rushing yards. The Pittsburgh Steelers flipped the script as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The Patriots will likely go to the film room to see what the Bills were able to accomplish on the ground and the Steelers through the air, and they’ll likely watch old friend Jimmy Garoppolo as the 49ers posted 44 points against the Jaguars in week 16.
And, of course, New England can also dip into their lengthy history against Pete Carroll-style defenses.
Since Carroll was named head coach of the Seahawks in 2010, the Patriots have played Carroll or his acolytes six times with a 4-2 record, with both losses coming to the Seahawks in the regular season. The final score is in the Patriots favor with an average victory of 30.5-21.8.
In those games, the Patriots relied heavily on receiving backs to counter the strong run defense and tight ends and slot receivers and horizontal routes to capitalize on the vertical cover three defense.
- Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead combined for 50 catches, 344 yards, and 2 receiving touchdowns in those six games.
- Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, Scott Chandler, and Martellus Bennett combined for 44 catches, 595 yards, and 2 receiving touchdowns
- Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Keshawn Martin combined for 64 catches, 747 yards, and 6 touchdowns.
And while the likes of Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan, and Brandin Cooks had success against the Falcons (combined 18 catches for 253 yards and 1 touchdown in the past two games), outside receivers weren’t really a part of the strategy against the Seahawks or Jaguars.
So the Patriots are likely to look towards Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead out of the backfield to test the Jaguars linebackers in coverage; they’ll ask Rob Gronkowski to play at his typical All Pro level against the Jaguars safeties; and Danny Amendola will need to have an impressive encore performance out of the slot one week after tearing up the Tennessee Titans defense for 112 yards on 11 catches.
Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan are likely to have a quiet day, especially as the Jaguars play press coverage, forcing the duo to run deep route after deep route, while also clearing out room for the receiving backs and Amendola.
Tom Brady knows what it takes to pick apart this style of defense and he’ll be patient enough to get the job done. Very few teams change their defensive style if it was good enough to get them to the final four, so any wrinkles the Jaguars add will be minor- and the Patriots have had plenty of practice against this type of defense over the years.