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Why the Jaguars need to shy away from Leonard Fournette in Sunday’s AFC title tilt against the Patriots

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The Jaguars will need to buck an interesting Patriots defensive trend to get their ground game going on Sunday in Foxborough.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Since August of 1995, and each summer since, hundreds of thousands of people have converged upon the Detroit metropolitan area for the Woodward Dream Cruise — the world’s largest single-day car festival.

Droves of enthusiasts line Woodward Avenue for miles, north to south, as tens of thousands of freshly-waxed cars join together in a massive, slow-moving caravan. It’s one big party. But the event that was once a commemoration of the classics — painstakingly-preserved Ford Model Ts, restored fifties-era Thunderbirds, and pristine sixties and seventies-model Chevy Corvettes — has since expanded its reach. These days, the Dream Cruise is an all-encompassing celebration of the automobile. Onlookers can now witness a 1965 Chevy Camaro flanked by a $4,000,000 Bugatti on one side, and a tricked-out Honda Civic with a body kit and a wildly expressive paint job on the other.

While the common auto-aficionado’s passion and appreciation allows for a modest amount of genre crossover, at their core, each truly belongs to one of two sides: vintage or modern. One representing classic, rugged power. The other; sleek, contemporary, high-velocity performance.

If Jacksonville Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell were a “car guy”, it sure seems as if he would lean towards the former.

As evidence, take his selection of 235-pound, throwback-style tail back Leonard Fournette. As the draft’s fourth overall pick, Caldwell’s new tackle-shedding bruise inducer from LSU personifies good ole’ American muscle.

Through 15 games played, the rookie has delivered seventies-era production, amassing a Riggins-esque 1,206 yards on 314 carries — a drab 3.84 yards per tote. But, as the bell-cow of the league’s top rushing attack, and a decisive force between the tackles, Fournette keeps the Jaguars’ offense on schedule. He’s their bread-and-butter.

With over 100 laborious yards on the ground and three touchdowns in an impressive Divisional-round victory over Pittsburgh, no one could blame Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone for burning through every bit of remaining tread on Fournette’s tires. But as the rookie revs his engine in the garage of the visitors locker room at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, it would be wise of Marrone to shy away from Fournette’s brawny power, and opt instead for the sleeker, better-handling performance option — T.J. Yeldon.

This isn’t to say that Fournette shouldn’t see the field. But in order to buck an interesting Patriots defensive trend, the involvement of a quicker, shiftier Yeldon will likely prove critical.

The trend? When it comes to the impact of opposing running backs against New England’s defense, bigger is seldom better.

In the past 36 games since the start of the 2016 season (32 regular season, four playoff), 65 different running backs have logged a total of 722 carries against the Patriots for 2,969 yards. When using the listed weights on Pro Football Reference to split those carries into three separate player weight categories — less than 210 pounds, 210-220 pounds, and over 220 pounds — the trends in yards per carry, chunk plays on the ground, and cumulative production become clear.

Yards per carry:

  • Sub-210-pound category - 19 players, 4.52 - (664 yards on 147 carries)
  • 210-220-pound category: 19 players, 4.26 (1,278 yards on 300 carries)
  • 220+ pound category: 27 players, 3.73 (1,027 yards on 275 carries)

When it comes to chunk plays in the ground game, or carries of 10 yards or more, the largest opposing running back class accounted for just 18 of the 62 allowed plays. In addition to that, the Patriots defense has only allowed 13 carries of 20+ yards over the past two seasons, and only two of those came from backs weighing more than 220 pounds:

  • The Cardinals’ David Johnson’s 2016 week-one 45-yarder.
  • C.J. Anderson’s 21-yard first quarter scamper in week-ten of this season.

Eight of the nine running backs to total over 100 yards rushing against the Patriots over the past two seasons are of the sub-220-pound variety, with Le’Veon Bell the sole outlier.

  1. LeSean McCoy (two games) - 51 carries, 234 yards
  2. Le’Veon Bell (three games) - 51 carries, 218 yards, one TD
  3. Lamar Miller (three games) - 54 carries, 209 yards
  4. Kenyan Drake (four games) - 40 carries, 156 yards, one TD
  5. Kareem Hunt (one game) - 17 carries, 148 yards, one TD
  6. Devonta Freeman (two games) - 23 carries, 147 yards, one TD
  7. Bilal Powell (three games) - 36 carries, 142 yards
  8. Melvin Gordon (one game) - 14 carries, 132 yards
  9. Mike Gillislee (two games) - 18 carries, 115 yards, one TD

The Patriots have only lost five games over the past two seasons, and only two teams have deployed a primary running back over 220 pounds in a victory over them:

  • Seattle’s 2016 week-ten victory in Foxborough. The Seahawks’ attack was spearheaded by 225-pound rookie C.J. Prosise, who ran for 66 yards on 17 carries while adding seven catches for 87 additional yards.
  • Carolina in week-four of this season. 230-pound veteran Jonathan Stewart ran for 68 yards on 14 carries, and lost a fumble. Cam Newton pitched in 44 yards and a touchdown on the ground in the contest.

Of course, weight categories with such strict parameters do not tell the whole story. Players carry weight differently, and have varying skill sets. But they do help to paint an adequate picture of what kind of personnel can have success on the ground against New England.

The bottom line is that Patriots opponents must be able to consistently gain the edge — much like Prosise in 2016, Kareem Hunt in week-one of this season, and Kenyan Drake this past December.

From a Jaguars personnel perspective, former second-round pick T.J. Yeldon affords them the best opportunity to do just that. While Yeldon himself tips the scales at 220 pounds, he possesses a vastly different frame and skill set than his fellow backfield-mates Chris Ivory, who was a healthy scratch last weekend, and the aforementioned Fournette. The difference in burst and short-area quickness was on display in spurts against Pittsburgh as he filled the early-down role while Fournette had his ankle tended to in the locker room.

The skills Yeldon is capable of displayig are the reason he was Jacksonville’s primary pass-catching threat out of the backfield in 2017, and why the Jaguars will need to deploy him earlier and more often on Sunday. Particularly if they want to exploit the edges of the the Patriots run defense — and achievement larger backs like Derrick Henry have been unable to attain with consistency. A few Patriots analysts agree.

“This is a Yeldon game,” Patriots.com and PFW in Progress Andy Hart said on this week. “(The Patriots) have had more trouble with edge guys — players who can get out on the edge.”

Hart’s on-air colleague Paul Perillo agreed in principle, stating the Jaguars need to modify their approach.

“I don’t think you need to take Fournette off the field necessarily,” Perillo said in response. “but, if you’re Jacksonville, you can’t take the approach that you’re going to come out, line up, and run it into the ground like they have against everyone else. Especially not for 3.8 yards per carry.”

It speaks to the developing phenomena of teams attempting to limit the Patriots’ offensive possessions by playing with a conservative, cautious offensive approach — the idea that if they can just keep Tom Brady off the field and limit their own mistakes, perhaps they will squeeze out a late victory. However, more often than not, it simply prevents them from keeping up — a reality the Titans can certainly attest to.

To beat the Patriots in Foxborough, the Jaguars will need to take an early lead, and keep their foot on the gas pedal — assuming they choose the right vehicle in the first place.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter — @BPhillips_PP

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Posted by Pats Pulpit: For New England Patriots News on Wednesday, January 17, 2018