As Rich pointed out, Jacksonville’s defense is a descendant of Pete Carroll’s cover 3. Defensive coordinator Todd Walsh was in Seattle during the early years of the Legion of Boom, and his current unit in Jacksonville bears resemblance to the Seahawks formidable defense. Of course, no defense is exactly the same, but the general concepts are comparable. New England will likely attack Jacksonville in a similar way they’ve attacked Seattle in the past: exploit the middle of the field with crossing routes and take advantage of favorable matchups with Rob Gronkowski.
As good as Jacksonville’s defense has been in 2017, they aren’t perfect. Below are three areas where the Patriots can exploit some of Jacksonville’s weaknesses, both subtle and obvious.
Third and Manageable
The Jaguars’ defense finished the season ranked fourth in third down conversion percentage, which is good. But not all third downs are created equal. Jacksonville’s defense dominates offenses in obvious passing situations, but the Jags are more vulnerable when the offense is in manageable third downs. The below data, per Pro Football Reference, compares offensive third down conversion percentage based on “yards-to-go” against Jacksonville’s defense, along with the Jaguars’ rank in each category:
Below is a chart that compares quarterback performance in the same scenarios:
Every defense is better in third-and-long situations, but Jacksonville transforms from an elite team to an average team when the offense is in manageable third downs. A great stat from Sharp Football Stats: when targeting the shallow middle with five or less yards to go, quarterbacks have posted a QB rating of 114.
Patience on early downs will be critical for New England. Rewind back to the fourth quarter of the Seattle Super Bowl; Brady loosened up the Seahawks’ cover 3 by targeting Shane Vereen on early downs. Vereen finished the quarter with four catches for 22 yards, all on first or second down. Five yards per catch might seem paltry, but early down yardage leads to manageable third downs. This doesn’t mean New England will dink and dunk all game. But Brady should be willing to check down and “pay it forward” on early downs.
This isn’t news to most people at this point, but Jacksonville’s run defense isn’t nearly as good as it’s pass defense. They finished the regular season just 26th in both run defense DVOA and yards per attempt and finished 21st in total rush yards allowed per game.
It seems peculiar that the Jaguars’ run defense is so bad given the amount of talent on the roster. I looked at Pro Football Focus’ run grades for Jacksonville’s front seven and found some interesting nuggets. Predictably, both Calais Campbell and Telvin Smith grade as elite run defenders, while Malik Jackson is above average. But beyond those players, performance drops off precipitously, especially on the edge. Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler are graded as two of the worst edge run defenders in the entire NFL.
Football Outsider’s data supports PFF’s grading: Jacksonville ranks 31st defending runs to the left edge and 26th on runs to the right edge. Sharp Football Stats’ directional running production data also supports PFF’s conclusion. They show Jacksonville allowing five yards per carry on the edges, with 17% of all edge runs being big plays (10 yards or longer).
When you’re that bad, it’s probably a combination of factors, including technique. But Jacksonville’s aggressive style might be backfiring and compromising edge discipline. Below are some examples on tape. The first is a clip of Ngakoue exploding past the line of scrimmage and basically taking himself out of the play, giving the tackle an easy block and losing the edge (near-side DE):
It’s not just aggressiveness getting Ngakoue in trouble. Below is a clip of him getting manhandled by a tight end in Arizona (near-side DE):
Last but not least, below is a clip of Fowler with poor discipline on the edge, similar to the first clip of Ngakoue (near-side DE):
Dion Lewis has been wildly underrated all season, and his vision as a runner is comparable to Le’Veon Bell. I have no doubt Josh McDaniels will attack Jacksonville’s edges with designed runs, and Lewis will happily bounce to the outside if the Jaguars’ edge discipline breaks down. Ngakoue and Fowler are both excellent pass rushers, but both can be exploited in the run game.
It is necessary for the Patriots to avoid third-and-long situations. Given Jacksonville’s vulnerable run defense, particularly on the edge, New England should have opportunities to exploit early downs for positive gains.
Defending Tight Ends and Running Backs in the Passing Game
It’s been well documented that Rob Gronkowski is the X-factor in this game. The tight end position is typically the destroyer of cover 3 defenses, and Gronk is the best at the position. Jacksonville has struggled all year at defending tight ends, finishing just 20th in DVOA against tight ends. The Jags are particularly vulnerable on third downs, allowing a conversion rate of 49% on tight end pass attempts, compared to just 35% to wide receivers, per Sharp Football Stats.
Jacksonville will surely game-plan around Gronk, but New England moves him around too often to get comfortable. The question for Jacksonville is how far are they willing to change their defense to cover Gronkowski. If they are comfortable sitting in zone, New England will exploit the middle of the field like Arizona did below:
Jacksonville could attempt to cover Gronk man to man, but Gronk’s unique size, speed, and route running ability would exploit whatever advantage he has, whether it’s a cornerback, safety, or linebacker in coverage.
There is no easy way to cover Gronk, but you can at least make life difficult for the tight end by pressing him at the line of scrimmage to slow down his route. This contact can come from press man coverage or simply a linebacker checking him before falling back into zone. If he’s able to get clean releases into his routes, it will be a long day for Jacksonville.
Not to kick a man while he’s down, but Mike Tomlin provides a great example of what NOT to do. He inexplicably allowed for the corner assigned to Gronk to blitz late in the fourth quarter, leaving Gronk running freely down the field:
New England’s passing game is predicated on timing, slowing down Gronk on his route may give Jacksonville’s defensive line the time it needs to pressure Brady.
The Jags also struggled to cover running backs relative to their overall performance, ranking 15th in DVOA against running backs. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, New England has arguably the best depth of pass-catching running backs in the NFL.
In a sense, Jacksonville’s cover 3 invites completions to running backs. With the outside covered, quarterbacks will naturally dump the ball to running backs in the flats, where Jacksonville’s fast linebackers eliminate yards after the catch. This is especially true with QB’s eyeing Jacksonville’s ferocious pass rush. With that said, screen passes are an area where teams can exploit Jacksonville’s aggressiveness. Below is a clip of a well-designed screen pass by the recently deposed Darrell Bevell. The Jaguars overreact to the bootleg and leave the backside wide open:
Below is another screen example from Jacksonville’s Week 17 loss to Tennessee:
San Francisco provides the best example of a team exploiting Jacksonville’s aggression. The 49ers threw a variety of screens and shallow crossing routes at Jacksonville, who routinely over-pursued to their demise.
New England uncharacteristically struggled with the screen game this year but executed to perfection against Tennessee with Dion Lewis. Expect to see some screens with all three pass-catching backs. And, although he isn’t a running back, perhaps we’ll finally see the elusive Brandin Cooks shallow crossing route on Sunday.
Jacksonville’s defense is very good. They are opportunistic and thrive off turnovers. They also have individual athletes who can ruin a play single-handedly. But, they aren’t quite as a good as some of the vintage Legion of Boom defenses they have been modeled after. New England should have success running the ball, especially on the edge. Throwing the ball will be difficult, but Brady has carved up cover 3 defenses before, especially in the middle zones. The Patriots would do themselves a favor by running a few screens or shallow crossers (Cooks?) to exploit the aggressive scheme. If New England avoids third-and-long situations, they will be able to move the ball consistently.
Ultimately, this matchup will likely come down to turnovers and Gronkowski. If the Jaguars can turn takeaways into points while limiting Gronkowski’s production without sacrificing their defensive integrity, they have a chance. I just wouldn’t bet on it.