The main talk this week has been Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense and how they match up against the Jacksonville Jaguars defense. It’s the marquee match-up in the game since those two units feature the most star power on the two teams. The other side of the ball for the two teams is where I think the game will ultimately be decided, but the offense will need to have their best game of the year to advance to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
The Jaguars defense is arguably the toughest the Patriots will face all season. There are Pro Bowl caliber players at every level of that defense, starting with a front 4 that is excellent at generating pressure. Marquee signings Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson have been great additions to their defensive front along with 2nd year edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue providing heat from the edge. After you get past the defensive front 4, the Jaguars have an excellent pass defense with their boundary corners. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are both #1 corners with the ability to shut down their receivers when on an island. With the best pass rushing unit and two excellent boundary corners, the Jaguars aren’t a team the Patriots want to fall behind.
The Patriots do have experience facing defenses that brought a similar challenge. Three years ago, they faced the #1 scoring defense in the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots used the quick passing game in lieu of a running game, with Brady throwing the ball 50 times. Brady completed 37 passes for 328 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The Patriots struggled to block Michael Bennett, whose pressure nearly singlehandedly won the Seahawks the game before the Patriots erases a 24-14 deficit in the 4th quarter. The Patriots targeted replacement corner Tharold Simon repeatedly in the game to great success as Brady burned Simon for 2 touchdowns.
In 2015, the Patriots played the Broncos on the road. That year, they had a banged up RB corps with Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount on Injured Reserve, relying on washed up veteran Steven Jackson as their main running threat. Unfortunately for the Patriots, they fell behind 14-6 and faced an uphill climb the rest of the way. Brady had to throw 56 passes and was under relentless pressure all day. Despite that, the Patriots had their chances. A missed PAT by Stephen Gostkowski and some questionable 4th down decisions by Bill Belichick forced the Patriots to have to go for 2 to send the game to overtime. That attempt was intercepted and the Patriots ended up losing 20-18. The Broncos were able to shut down the Patriots passing attack by keying in on the snap count and overwhelming an injured Patriots offensive line.
The common theme in both games was the Patriots turning to their quick passing game instead of using their running game. In 2017, the Patriots have a more dynamic set of backs with a healthy Lewis along with Rex Burkhead and James White. Lewis will be the key player for the Patriots as the early down back and a possible mismatch in the short passing game against the Jaguars’ linebackers in 1-on-1 situations. The Jaguars defense does have some weaknesses, teams can run on them successfully and that helps the Patriots in the sense of building a quick lead and keeping the Jaguars pass rush honest all game. The Jaguars aren’t a heavy blitz team, which means the backs should be releasing into their patterns.
The Patriots can create advantageous match-ups in the passing game using their backs and All Pro TE Rob Gronkowski. As good as Jacksonville is covering receivers, they do struggle against TEs and RBs that are legitimate receiving threats. Lewis, Burkhead, White, and Gronk are very capable route runners and electric in running after the catch, so I expect the Patriots to rely on them to move the ball for most of the game. By flexing them out into a receiver alignment (split wide, slot, tight split, etc.), the Patriots can force the Jaguars to declare their primary coverage and allow for Brady to decide his progressions pre-snap. If Brady can isolate the Jaguars linebackers and safeties in 1-on-1 situations with the backs or Gronk, that’s Brady’s top read at the snap.
I expect the Jaguars to take lessons from last year’s Super Bowl to try to stop the Patriots quick passing game. The Falcons used a lot of Man-Free Robber coverages and trap coverages to take away the middle of the field. The Patriots were able to adjust by targeting the boundary of the field. Whether it was out-breaking routes from the slot or sideline routes against the Falcons lesser coverage players, the Patriots were able to move the ball on the boundary to great success and that led to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. The game is about adjustments and the Patriots are the best in the league at making those adjustments. If the Patriots find success isolating lesser coverage players on the boundary and/or out-breaking routes from the slot, it puts the Jaguars defense in a pick your poison situation.