The New England Patriots defense had one of their best games of the season against the Tennessee Titans because they were outstanding on first down. Tennessee averaged a mere 3.52 yards on first down, which was the Patriots third-best performance of the year, behind their first games against the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins (3.35 yards on first down in both).
This early down success made second and third down defense much easier for the Patriots, too. When you add in penalty yardage, the Titans averaged 10.7 yards to go on second down- the Titans two best plays came on first down for a combined 58 yards- and that meant that Marcus Mariota would have to pick up the yards for a first down, taking the offense away from star running back Derrick Henry.
And that set up even more possible wins for the Patriots defense as the Titans 16 third down plays required an average of 11.25 yards to go.
“I think the run defense, there was some good and some plays that I think that we’ve got to do better on,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said after the game. “So we looked at those on the sidelines and tried to get those improved as we went through the game.
“That was kind of a focus for us there. It’s a good run team. They do a really good job up front like similar to what we’ll have to face this weekend too. But I think those guys really tried to come out and play aggressively in the run game, tried to play physical and really make sure everybody was disciplined with their assignments. So I think that was something as the game went on that we got a little bit better with.”
Patricia volunteered the insight that the Jacksonville Jaguars offense will operate in a similar way to the Titans due to their reliance on their running back. Derrick Henry was clearly the most important part of the Titans offensive game plan, so the Patriots erased him with three defensive tackles on the field.
Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette has a similar importance to Jacksonville.
Fournette lead the Jaguars with 1,342 yards from scrimmage in the regular season, a needed offensive weapon for a team that lost its top three wide receivers at various points during the year (Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns have since returned) and with the inconsistent Blake Bortles at quarterback.
And while the other receivers on the roster are coin flip players, like Keelan Cole (51% catch rate) and Dede Westbrook (53%), Fournette is the engine for the rest of the team. The offense goes as he goes.
“Obviously where we are right now in the season with Fournette, [he’s] just a big, strong, physical runner,” Patricia said. “A guy that really can get the ball vertical into the defense quickly. He has a great combination of size and power and athleticism that makes him very difficult to bring down. So I think his run game obviously fits the style that they block in front of him.
“His ability to continually just be that workhorse for the offense definitely just pops out on tape. The speed and his ability to make big plays are a big problem so if you don’t have a – if you’ve got an easy play he can just get outside or get through the line of scrimmage quickly and into the secondary then he’s very dangerous in those situations.
“[He’s a] really, really good player that has just been very explosive for them and been able to kind of carry their offense. So big challenge for us there. I would say from the preseason it was just such a long time ago. We’re trying to – I think everybody has kind of changed. They’ve changed. We’ve changed. Hopefully everybody has kind of evolved from there so we’re just trying to really take a look at what he is now and try to defend that first.”
Fournette averaged 20.6 carries per game in the regular season, the third-highest rate in the league behind Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott and Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell, and his efficiency is closely linked with the Jaguars’ success.
When Fournette averages 3.8 yards per carry or more, the Jaguars are 5-1 including their two huge wins over the Steelers. When Fournette averages less than 3.8 yards per carry, the Jaguars are 4-5.
Jacksonville’s ideal offensive game involves a 50/50 split of pass plays versus run plays and they bolstered their average passing game with an NFL-best 2,262 rushing yards.
“We know what they want to do,” Patriots free safety Duron Harmon said. “They want to run the ball. They average 141 yards of rushing a game, which is a lot and it shows you how much they want to stick to the run, and they should stick to the run. They have really good running backs. Their top three running backs are all big, strong and physical – run really well. Their running backs are the strengths of their offense, so they rely heavy on them.
“We just have to come ready to set the edge, play physical in the run game, take on blockers, shed blockers, tackle and just try to play physical. This is going to be a physical game – probably the most physical game we’ll play this year. But we’re going to need our physicality to win this game.”
And that is why the Patriots want to copy their plan from the Titans game and apply it to the Jaguars.
They want to remove Fournette (and Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon) like they removed Henry and force Bortles to throw the football. This can be accomplished early by dedicating resources to clogging the middle and late if the Patriots build up a double-digit lead so Bortles will have to throw to catch up.
Jacksonville is winless in their six games when they fall behind by 10 or more points and have a 1-4 record when they rush for fewer than 100 yards as a team (and that solitary win came against a hapless Indianapolis Colts team).
New England was able to accomplish their defensive goal in the divisional round. They should be able to do it again in the conference title game.