The New England Patriots run defense was not great in the season opener against the Houston Texans, although a couple personnel changes could provide a quick fix, and they’ll have their hands full again on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While the status of Jaguars star running back Leonard Fournette is up in the air- he did not practice on Wednesday and was not expected to practice on Thursday- the Patriots will be preparing as if he’ll play.
And if Leonard isn’t ready to go, T.J. Yeldon is another talented runner ready to play.
“It’s a tough combination,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the Jaguars backfield. “Both are really good- different, but explosive. Tackling is going to be a big issue for us this week. Those guys are hard to tackle. They make a lot of yards on their own with their running skills, and so defeating the blocks and getting into position is half the battle and then the other half of it is actually making the tackle and getting them on the ground, so it’ll be very challenging for us. These guys are good.”
Belichick noted that Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles added 42 rushing yards in the season opener, and added Corey Grant as another “challenge.”
Fournette’s the big, bruising back, while Yeldon is the change-of-pace to give Fournette some rest. Grant is a gadget player that has specific plays drawn up when he’s on the field.
Fournette had an ankle injury when he faced the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, yet still mustered up 76 rushing yards, 13 receiving yards, and a touchdown on 27 opportunities (rush attempts + targets). Yeldon added 31 yards from scrimmage on 8 opportunities in that game, while Grant exploded for 61 yards from scrimmage on 4 opportunities.
While the Patriots contained Bortles as a rusher in that game (2 rushes, -2 yards), the oft-inaccurate passer had a great game throwing the ball, completing 63.9% of his passes for 293 yards and a touchdown. So everyone in the Jaguars backfield presents an issue, one way or another.
New England should dedicate their defensive resources to slowing Jacksonville’s rushing attack and expect their defensive backs- Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, and Jonathan Jones- to be effective at stopping the Jaguars receivers.
Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, and Danny Shelton will be used in rotation to clog the middle of the field, while Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, and Adrian Clayborn should prevent the running backs from hitting the corner. Dont’a Hightower should shed some of his rust, Ja’Whaun Bentley should build off his strong debut performance, and Kyle Van Noy will be as consistent as always.
The Patriots have the pieces to slow the Jaguars running backs, whichever ones take the field. Bill Belichick, Brian Flores, and the defense just have to put together a 60-minute performance and make sure the Jacksonville backfield never gets into a rhythm.