The Jacksonville Jaguars have the best defense in the AFC and they’re neck-and-neck with the Minnesota Vikings for the best unit in the entire league. They ranked 2nd in points and yards allowed per game and had the best passing defense by a country mile.
But as the New England Patriots prepare to face the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, it’s important to highlight that this Jacksonville passing defense is not without a fatal flaw- and that the Patriots are perfectly equipped to exploit it.
According to some incredible research by Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars passing defense is the best in the league when teams use three or more wide receivers on the field. They hold opposing quarterbacks to 5.0 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 59. Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer finished last in the NFL with a passer rating of 60.5; the Jaguars make opposing quarterbacks look worse than the worst quarterback in the league when playing against three or more wide receivers.
That’s an incredibly high performance level.
But Sharp also discovered that the Jaguars defense plummets to a bottom 10 unit when playing against one or two wide receivers. They rank 28th in yards allowed per attempt at 9.6 and 18th in passer rating at 99. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a passer rating of 102.8, for context.
This discrepancy in how the Jaguars defend two or fewer receivers versus three or more is incredible- it’s the difference between making opposing quarterbacks look like Tom Brady or DeShone Kizer- and the Patriots have the personnel to take advantage.
“The Patriots used 11 personnel [3 receivers] the 6th least of any team in the league,” Sharp writes. “They also used 21 personnel [two backs] (the same formation that the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo used to torch this defense) more than any team in the league.”
For context, Sharp finds that the most common NFL personnel package is “11” or one running back, one tight end, and three receivers and it’s used on nearly 60% of plays. The Titans, which swept the Jaguars in the regular season, and the Cardinals, which also defeated the Jaguars, use 11 personnel the least in the league at roughly 39%.
Meanwhile a team like the Steelers, which the Jaguars swept in both showing, used 11 personnel the fourth-most in the league.
This makes sense, too. The Jaguars are great against three-receiver sets, but struggle against two-or-fewer-receiver sets, so teams that rely on three receivers will struggle and those that use two or fewer will thrive. The Patriots just happen to be one of those teams that doesn’t rely as heavily on 11 personnel and that’s definitely in New England’s favor.
According to Sharp, the Patriots used a fullback more than any other team in the league at 26% and two tight ends on 15% of snaps, totaling just two receivers on roughly 41% of snaps. And Sharp finds even more advantages for New England when he parses the data.
“[On first and second downs] the Jaguars are quite weak in 12 personnel to WRs, allowing a 60% success rate, 11.7 YPA and a 104 passer rating.” Sharp finds. “On early downs in 12 personnel, the Patriots WRs have posted a 73% success rate, 17.7 YPA and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. It was the best personnel grouping to target WRs from all season for the Patriots.
“On early downs, the Jaguars were very weak against RB targets in the passing game from 11 personnel, allowing a 52% success rate, 6.4 YPA and a 103.9 passer rating. The Patriots delivered almost identical results from 11 to RBs: 51% success rate, 6.3 YPA and a 100.4 passer rating.
“The Jaguars were at their weakest on early downs to TEs from 12 personnel. Jacksonville allowed a 55% success rate, 12.6 YPA and a 99.6 passer rating. As it turns out, passing to Gronkowski in 12 personnel was the Patriots most successful time to target him (from formations with at least 3 targets). Brady posted a 56% success rate, 9.1 YPA and a 126.6 passer rating when targeting Gronkowski on early downs in 12 personnel.”
This means that the Jaguars struggle against two tight end sets on first and second down, allowing opposing quarterbacks to look like 2017 Tom Brady, while the Patriots dominate in 12 personnel on first and second down, with Brady looking like 2007 Tom Brady.
Players like Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola thrive in two receiver sets, while Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead are much more potent as receivers with either James Develin or a second tight end on the field. Even tight end Rob Gronkowski averages nearly two yards more per catch with two receivers versus 11 personnel.
And I would expect Develin to play a large amount of snaps because while this Jaguars to two-receiver sets was buried in the numbers, Jacksonville’s struggles against the run are well documented.
The Jaguars finished 26th against the run by DVOA and ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed per play. The Patriots should definitely try to pressure a Jaguars run defense that gave up yards no matter the formation.
According to Sharp, “in the game’s first 3 quarters, the Jaguars defense gave up a 52% success rate and 5.4 YPC to runs from 11 personnel,” while also noting that “targets to RBs and TEs from 11 personnel have substantially higher success rate, YPA and passer rating” versus passes to wide receivers.
So the takeaways are simple. When the Patriots play three receivers on the field, they should run the ball, throw to Gronkowski, or throw to the running back. But if New England wants to consistently move the ball through the air, then they should use a two-receiver set by adding either Develin or Dwayne Allen and using the play action to counter the aggressive Jaguars linebackers and open up passing lanes down the field.
This is still a great Jaguars defense, of course. But it’s not perfect- and the Patriots are built to exploit the flaws.