The Patriots are in for a serious test on Sunday as they travel to Jacksonville looking for their second win of the season. This rematch of the 2017 AFC Championship game is a tough early season matchup for both teams as they start their journey to return to the top of the AFC.
The Jaguars had a decent offseason, keeping most of their team intact while adding a few key pieces. The signings of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Donte Moncrief provide more weapons for Blake Bortles, particularly after the departure of Allen Robinson. In addition, the team signed former offensive guard Andrew Norwell. The former Panther was a first-team All-Pro last season, and according to Pro Football Focus, he was the only offensive lineman to not allow a quarterback sack or hit in 2017. Alongside Cameron Robinson, the left side of the Jaguars offensive line is now one of the best in the league. The Jaguars also added to their already potent defense by signing former first-round pick DJ Hayden.
Jacksonville had one of the best defenses in the league in 2017. Their passing defense, in particular, ranked in the top five in the league in nearly every single category, thanks to an All-Pro secondary consisting of Jalen Ramsay, AJ Bouye, Barry Church, and Tashaun Gipson. They held opposing passers to just 190 yards per game. Their defensive line was also extremely adept at rushing the passer, having the second highest sack percentage in the league. Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, and Yannick Ngakoue are one of the most fearsome pass rush units in the NFL. However, the team was comparably not as successful against the run, ranking in the bottom half of the league in opponent rush yards per game with 111. Despite this, the Jaguars are still an impressively stifling defense.
The Jaguars offense was more of a mixed bag. Their running game was stacked behind Leonard Fournette, averaging over 140 rushing yards per game. Their passing game did not perform nearly as efficiently, only producing just over 200 yards per game, which was good for 17th in the league. Blake Bortles is a mobile quarterback with accuracy and decision-making issues. He is also not surrounded by the most talented group of offensive skill players, which forces teams to rely more on skills that he doesn’t quite have.
This is likely to be one of the toughest matchups of the season for Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Without Julian Edelman, and potentially without Rex Burkhead due to a concussion suffered in week one, the Patriots skill positions are going to be extremely thin. New England was without Edelman in the AFC Championship game last season, but they had Danny Amendola around to make absolutely crucial plays for them. This year the team will have to rely on Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarelle Patterson to make plays against a ridiculously talented secondary.
Hogan will likely be largely ineffective. While he is a good receiver with impressive footwork and above average route running skills, he does not quite have the physical tools to consistently beat Bouye or Ramsay. Patterson will likely struggle as well, as he has never had the pure receiver skills necessary to take on number one corners. Dorsett could be one of the keys to the Patriots success in the passing game. With Bouye likely matched up on Hogan or Patterson, and Ramsay spending time on Gronk, Dorsett could get some favorable matchups with a cornerback like Hayden or one of the Jaguars linebackers. Dorsett has the speed and agility to win these matchups. Gronkowski will likely have a difficult day as well. Due to scheme and arrogance, the Jaguars will probably place Ramsay on Gronk for much of the game on Sunday. Ramsay has the size and quickness necessary to compete with Gronk and could limit his ability to get open. Jacksonville will likely double team him as well, knowing that they have favorable man coverage matchups elsewhere on defense. The best tight end in football will not be able to be completely eliminated from the game, but his effectiveness will certainly be decreased.
Despite the hopes of Patriots fans, newcomers Bennie Fowler and Corey Coleman will likely see little, if any, playing time.
The Patriots running game will be crucial to their success. They ran the ball well against the Texans in week one, averaging four yards-per-carry. However, with Jeremy Hill out for the season, and Burkhead potentially sidelined for the game, James White will have a heavy workload. This will be a monumental test for him as he will be an every-down back for the team. While there may be some doubts due to his lack of experience being the Patriots main back in the past, his development as a runner makes it possible that White has a surprisingly successful day against the Jaguars. He may be helped by newcomer Kenjon Barner, but likely only in a very limited role. One major benefit of having White as the three-down back for the Patriots on Sunday is that the Jaguars will not be able to automatically assume that New England is running a pass play, which they have done in the past. This will force them to stick with their reads; if they do not, the Patriots will be able to complete some shots down the field.
If Burkhead is not available, this could also mean that Patriots fans finally see the debut of Sony Michel. The Patriots have been hesitant about putting him on the field, likely to give his knee as much time as possible to completely heal. However, if the running backs corps is so thin that they have to rely on a player who was just acquired this week, then having Michel make his first appearance may be the best option, even if it is only on an extremely limited basis to give White rest.
The Patriots defense should be in a much better position than they were in the AFC Championship game last season. Blake Bortles was highly effective for most of the game because the Patriots were able to put almost no serious pressure on him. This gave him time to make easy throws, and move out of the pocket when necessary to keep plays alive.
That will not be quite as easy this season. New England’s defensive line was extremely impressive in game one against Houston, keeping Deshaun Watson contained in the pocket for most of the game. They also sacked him three times and had a pressure percentage over 50. They did all of this mostly with a four-man rush, which allowed the Patriots to drop seven into coverage and make it harder for Watson to make throws. If Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, and Adrian Clayborn can get the same amount of pressure on Bortles that they did on Watson, then they should be able to keep the Jaguars passing game in check, and potentially even cause some turnovers.
Defending the run will also be vital in keeping the Jaguars offense in check. The Patriots were mildly successful at this in the AFC Championship game, holding Fournette to just over three yards-per-carry. They may also not have to face Fournette on Sunday, as he is dealing with a hamstring injury suffered last Sunday. TJ Yeldon is a capable backup, however, and the Patriots interior defensive line with Malcolm Brown, Danny Shelton, and Lawrence Guy will need to find a way to prevent the Jaguars dominant offensive line from taking control of the game.
The Patriots linebackers and defensive backs should be able to cover a weaker group of Jaguars skill players, especially after doing so successfully against the Texans. Stephon Gilmore should have no trouble with any of the Jaguars receivers after playing competitively against DeAndre Hopkins. Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones also played well in the opener and should be able to carry that over into this week. Combined with the Patriots improved pass rush, New England should be able to do some damage against the Jaguars offense.
The Patriots are in for a true test come Sunday. Jacksonville’s defense will be aggressive and hard to beat, especially with their limited weapons. It will be very difficult to score points. However, the Patriots improved defense should be the difference maker. Their improved pass rush should be able to get enough pressure on Blake Bortles to limit the Jaguars offense significantly. This should allow Brady to score enough points to earn the Patriots second victory of the season.
New England 17 Jacksonville 13
Until next time – B$