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Patriots vs. Jaguars preview: How New England will find success in Week 17

After losing two straight games, the Patriots will try to return to the win column against Jacksonville. Here is how they can do it.

Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Losers of two straight games, the New England Patriots need to build some momentum again with the playoffs only two weeks away. Luckily, the Jacksonville Jaguars present the perfect opportunity for that.

The team is not only entering the contest with a 2-13 record while being led by an interim head coach — offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell — it also is struggling with a Covid-19 outbreak; numerous starters and key reserves in all three phases are currently on the Coronavirus reserve list and questionable to play on Sunday.

Accordingly, the Patriots are currently listed as 16-point favorites (via DraftKings Sportsbook). In order to live up to those expectations and come away victoriously on Sunday, though, there are a few key things they have to do.

Let’s take a look at them.

Take advantage of the Jaguars’ Covid-19 situation

Players and coaches often talk about controlling what they can control. Obviously, the Patriots have no control whatsoever over the Coronavirus outbreak that hit their opponent over the last week. That does not mean they cannot adapt to it, though.

The Jaguars are currently missing a significant portion of their roster and practice squad due to Covid-19: a total of 27 players are on the appropriate reserve list; at the moment the team has only 33 players on its 53-man roster. While some of them are eligible to return under the NFL’s new Coronavirus rules, Jacksonville is in a tough situation.

Even if most of the players on the Covid-19 list are cleared ahead of the game, their impact can be questioned. Take Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne as an example: he missed all of last week’s practices after testing positive and was a virtual non-factor against the Bills. One has to think that even those that do return in time for the game are not at 100 percent due to the missed practice time alone.

Competitive fairness aside, the Patriots can only play who lines up on the other side. That means they will have a considerable advantage going against backup players at a number of positions.

The Jaguars are currently down four fifths of their starting offensive line, their top tight end and two of his backups, their number two wide receiver, their top two defensive tackles, virtually their entire linebacker room, and two members of their three-player safety rotation. On top of it all, Jacksonville will be without running back James Robinson who leads the team in touches, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns.

New England had the better team to begin with, now the difference in talent is downright comical. But still, you can only play who is out there.

Expect the Patriots to challenge the communication along the makeshift offensive line tasked with protecting rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence; expect them to try to get their interior run game going again; expect them to relentlessly attack the linebackers in coverage and through their run-game recognition.

Still, the Patriots know they cannot take the Jaguars lightly. They are an unpredictable team at the moment, to say the least. And also, the foundations of their scheme do not change only because a significant portion of players is out.

“I think they have a good scheme,” said wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. “They kind of mix it up over there, running a bunch of different coverages on different downs. I think it’s just about being aware what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do — if they’re bringing pressure, if there’s more space in the middle to run certain routes. ...

“Knowing the personnel and knowing the scheme; if you know the player and how they operate in the scheme you can have a little head start on whatever they’re good at or most of their biggest strengths. I think just knowing that gives us players the best chance.”

Neutralize an aggressive defensive front

Defensive coordinator Joe Cullen spent the last five years as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive line coach, and it shows. His scheme has been influenced by the one run in Baltimore: like Ravens DC Don Martindale he uses an attacking approach from a multi-faceted front, aiming to disrupt the communication and timing up front.

The Jaguars use their fair share of line stunts in order to create disruption in the trenches, and to keep their undersized off-the-ball linebackers clean to make plays. This approach can work with high-quality players like those under contract in Baltimore, but Jacksonville — especially given its current Covid-19 situation — is not on that level.

The leader and arguably most consistent player up front for the Jaguars is linebacker Myles Jack. Him being out sends a trickle-down effect through the linebacker corps, and that was obvious versus the New York Jets last week.

Take the following play, which sees a breakdown of the attack elements mentioned above:

Jacksonville aligns in a 4-2 front with the off-the-ball linebacker spots being filled by Chapelle Russell (#49) and Damien Wilson (#54). While Wilson is also on the Covid-19 list, Russell — at least right now — is expected to play against New England. He and whoever lines up alongside him should be susceptible to be attacked in the ground game given their lack of in-game experience and poor tackling form.

Here, Russell is able to get into the hole to possible stop New York’s rushing play. However, he takes a bad angle and eventually is unable to slow down the ball-carrier enough to prevent him from gaining plenty of yardage after contact.

On the year, Russell has played only 83 defensive snaps (8.5%). With Myles Jack, Damien Wilson and K’Lavon Chaisson all currently sidelined after testing positive for the Coronavirus, he should see a lot of action versus New England and will be asked to participate in the line games that Joe Cullen likes to call up front; the same is true for fellow rotational linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, who has played 118 defensive snaps this year (12%).

The key to stopping stunts and the like has always been communication up front. If the Patriots’ experienced O-line will be on the same page it should be able to find success against the Jaguars’ backup players at linebacker and along the defensive line. If that happens, it would not be a surprise to see Damien Harris and company break multiple second-level runs.

Get the misdirection game going

Just like in New England, the linebackers are a key to much of what the Jaguars are doing on the defensive side of the ball. The group will likely not have all hands on deck against the Patriots, though, but even at full strength it has not been particularly impressive in one area: defending misdirection concepts in the passing game.

The second-level linebackers in particular have been susceptible to giving up big gains versus such play designs, particularly when faced with crossing routes against moving pockets. The Los Angeles Rams took advantage in Week 13 and successfully executed such plays on multiple occasions.

This pass from Matthew Stafford (#9) to Odell Beckham Jr. (#3) is just one example:

The Rams move the pocket to their left, with Stafford faking the hand-off before rolling to his right. Beckham Jr, meanwhile, is running a simple over route from the other side of the formation to find a hole in the Jaguars’ Cover 3 defense.

This hole was created in large part due to the off-the-ball linebackers falling hard for the play-fake and quickly moving up to disrupt a potential run. With Stafford keeping the ball, however, they were out of position which in turn created a massive hole for Beckham Jr. to exploit for a 27-yard catch and run.

L.A. moved the pocket on play-action multiple times, and the team was usually able to find success versus the Jacksonville’s single-high safety coverage shells. But even when the Jaguars moved to two-deep looks, they struggled versus simple misdirection:

This play is a breakdown on multiple levels. From the corner blitzes taking forever to get home, to the defensive line’s rush-lane integrity breaking down, to off-ball linebacker Damien Wilson (#54) being left in no-man’s land versus wide receiver Ben Skowronek (#18) running a seam route against their Cover 2 defense, the Jaguars were in a bad position to defend this play to begin with.

Likewise, Matthew Stafford (#9) and Skowronek read it perfectly to find the weakness in coverage. If the Patriots can do just that — diagnose looks and react accordingly — they should be fine against a Jacksonville defense lacking serious talent especially at the moment.

Using misdirection concepts should help with that. Whether it is play-action, motion runs or RPOs, putting pressure on the linebackers to make the correct read quickly should be high up on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ to-do list.

Limit the mental errors

Granted, this is something that could be said every week. However, it is worth particularly emphasizing this week given that the Patriots struggled in this department against both the Colts and the Bills.

New England’s margin of error is not big enough to allow for unnecessary mistakes, especially on the offensive side of the ball. And yet, the team is putting itself in too many unfavorable situations.

Take last week’s game versus Buffalo as an example: due to penalties or simple bad play the team had to travel an average of 7.8 yards per third down attempt. The Patriots ended up converting just one of those 10 plays throughout the game, plus a second due to penalty. This is not a winning recipe, and New England found out last week.

It all starts with the early downs, though, and making sure the mental errors are kept at a minimum. Going up against a shorthanded Jaguars team with considerable deficits on both sides of the ball should give the Patriots a perfect setting to try to smooth out their operation a bit and get back on track.

Mix up your defensive looks

Statistically speaking Trevor Lawrence has had a rough rookie season so far. The first overall selection in this year’s draft has completed only 58.7 percent of his passes so far for 3,225 yards with nine touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

However, don’t let the number mislead you: Lawrence has played some good football this season, and time and again showed why he is one of the better quarterback prospects to come out of the college ranks in recent years. Some of his throws are outstanding — showing off his immense arm talent — while his pocket presence and feel for his surroundings is already at a very high level.

Lawrence is a very good quarterback who has all the tools to find success in the NFL. So, why has he not done that consistently so far this season? And why are his stats so bad?

There are two main reasons for that.

The first is the surroundings. Lawrence is basically the anti-Mac Jones in that regard. While Jones joined one of the best-run organizations in sports this offseason and has been inserted into an offense tailored to his skillset with solid talent both at the skill positions and along the offensive line, Lawrence has joined possible the worst-run team in the league.

His head coach, Urban Meyer, not even making it through his first season in Jacksonville is only one part of the problem. Lawrence also has to play with a sub-par supporting cast, especially at the receiving positions: the wide receivers have struggled, while the tight end group, particularly since losing Dan Arnold, is approaching 2020 Patriots levels.

This week could potentially be even worse for Lawrence. As noted above, his offensive line is down four starters while only one of the team’s top-five performers in yards from scrimmage — wide receiver Marvin Jones — is currently on the active roster.

The other reason for Lawrence’s struggles are tied to his experience: he is still a rookie at the end of the day. This is exactly where the Patriots should attack.

New England is well-equipped to make life hard for the young QB by mixing up its looks and forcing him into difficult decisions and tight-window throws on a consistent basis. The Patriots, after all, have built a hybrid defensive unit capable of disguising its intentions — both up front and in the backend — before the snap.

Challenging his reads will be key on Sunday, and something other teams have done well against him this season. Take the following play from the Jaguars’ loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 13:

The Titans ran a similar Cover 0 look against Lawrence earlier in the game and had success with it. The rookie held the ball too long — a cardinal sin versus an all-out pressure package such as Cover 0 — and allowed the pass rush to get home for a sack. Lawrence is aware of that when he takes the snap on this particular play; he also knows the structural weakness of the coverage in the middle of the field.

The problem is that Tennessee anticipates him having learned from his earlier mistake. Instead of sending an all-out blitz with one-on-one coverage behind it, the team dropped two of its linebackers back to cover the underneath zones.

Knowing he has to distribute the ball quickly and ideally to the middle of the field, Lawrence takes the bait. The rookie fires directly to Javon Brown (#55) for an interception.

Plays like this are part of the rookie learning experience, but they are also an area for the Patriots to exploit this week. Don’t be surprised if they show a wide range of defensive looks to never let Lawrence get comfortable.

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