By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (10-4) head down to Florida this week to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12) in their last road game of the regular season. The Patriots lost on Sunday night to San Francisco 41-34 and can’t be happy with the way they played, especially in the early going of the game.
For the Jaguars, this is just an opportunity to play for pride and possibly a job next season as they run out the string in another season of disappointment and empty seats in the stadium. The QB they drafted in 2011 with the 10th overall pick (Blaine Gabbert)on IR and Maurice Jones-Drew hurt, things are looking bleak for the Jaguars.
This is a contest that could have been somewhat of a trap game had the Patriots beat Houston and the 49ers back to back. With the Pats playing poorly last week, this should be an angry New England team looking to get back on track on Sunday, which doesn’t bode well for the Jaguars. On to the matchups:
Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots running game had their issues running against the 49ers which wasn’t a big surprise given that SF has one of the best run defenses in the NFL. But Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Bolden should get plenty of work this week as the Patriots will attempt to assert their will on the Jaguars 31st ranked run defense.
The Patriots offensive line has been banged up and if things go well we should see some of the back-ups get some playing time as the starters get healthy. The Patriots will probably run more to the right in this one, DE Jason Babin just brought in from Philadelphia is known more as an up-the-field pass rusher than a run stuffer and I expect Josh McDaniels will attempt to take advantage of that.
The Jaguars play a 4-3 and can boast MLB Paul Posluszny as their best player against the run in this one, but the Jags are leaky against the run everywhere else so the Patriots should have no problem running the ball at will against them. This is one game where the Patriots average of running the ball (136 yds per game) is less than the opponent’s defense (Jags 148 yds per game allowed). This is a big mismatch for the Patriots.
Jaguars Running Game:
Jacksonville is averaging on 82.9 yards per game running the ball this season and having Maurice Jones-Drew out for such a long time hasn’t helped those numbers and puts more pressure on an already overtasked passing offense.
Jones-Drew was going to attempt to test his leg out late this week in an attempt to play on Sunday but he remains doubtful for this one. In his stead, the Jaguars will trot out Rashad Jennings, Montell Owens and FB Greg Jones.
Averaging only 3.7 yards per carry, the Jags running backs should find little room against the front seven of the Patriots. Vince Wilfork has played outstanding in the middle this year and no doubt he’ll be doubled by RG Uche Nwaneri and C Brad Meester, but the rest of the Patriots front seven should have no problem shutting down the run of Jacksonville without Jones-Drew.
Patriots Passing Game:
This is another area where the Patriots have a big advantage, Jacksonville has struggled to bring any kind of pass rush this season generating only 15 sacks on the season. So if Tom Brady gets the time to throw, there should be no shortage of targets available open.
Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez should be big targets in this game against a suspect secondary. Jacksonville will probably line up Rashean Mathis against Brandon Lloyd who has turned it up a notch lately and has 18 catches in the last two games. Derek Cox will draw Welker and when the Patriots spread them out, with the dearth of a pass rush, Hernandez should find plenty of room to roam.
TE Rob Gronkowski, out for the past four weeks with a broken arm has been back to practice the past week and a half and could return for this one, however I would imagine the team will opt to err on the side of caution with this one and I wouldn’t expect Gronkowski back until the Miami game. It shouldn’t make a big difference; the Patriots should have their way throwing the ball easily against Jacksonville, something Brady has traditionally done.
Jaguars Passing Game:
If there is a glimmer of hope for Jacksonville, it is in the passing game. With rookie Justin Blackmon is leading the team with 51 catches for 707 yards and Cecil Shorts has 49 catches for 925 yards and 7 TDs averaging nearly 19 yards per catch and is a dangerous threat. TE Marcedes Lewis has chipped in with 41 catches.
Bill Belichick in a press conference on Wednesday spoke highly of Shorts saying, “he competes well in the running game, he’s a good blocker, excellent downfield receiver, he’s got really good quickness off the line of scrimmage against the press coverage.”
But the QB play this season has been less than stellar, prior to Gabbert going down with an injury, he was starting to slip into bust territory. He’s been replaced by Dolphins castoff Chad Henne who has played well in spurts but remains prone to make poor decisions and untimely mistakes.
Patriots fans remember last year’s opening game on Monday Night Football when Henne threw for over 400 yards, but that was his point and soon found himself benched and ultimately out of town.
Henne can get in a hot streak as evidenced by his game against Houston this year where the Jaguars ultimately lost in a shootout in overtime. But overall, although possessing some weapons, this is a team the Patriots should shutdown.
One area where Jacksonville is solid is in the kicking game, the Jaguars have two very good kickers in Josh Scobee and P Bryan Anger. Scobee has been close to automatic making 22 of 24 field goal attempts this season. Anger has been booming punts to a 47.5 average with a 42.2 yard net. He’s also put 28 inside the 20 yard line with only five touchbacks in 82 punts.
The Jags are only so-so in the return game and have had good coverage units on both punts and kickoffs. Jennings is their leading kick returner with a 24.1 yard average with only a long of 29 for the season.
The Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, while having some issues in the kicking game, has been outstanding of booming kickoffs into the end zone while Zoltan Mesko is getting better as the season goes on with a 43.4 yard average. He’s also had 21 punts pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line with only 6 touchbacks.
The Patriots coverage units have been solid overall however, last week at perhaps the worst possible time, they had a breakdown allowing the 49ers LaMichael James to return a kick 65 yards to set up the game winning score. That will bear watching this week and beyond.
Wes Welker and Devin McCourty remain the Patriots main return men and while they both give the team dependable sure hands, the return game remains middle of the road.
This was a game that could have been circled as a classic trap game, especially with the Patriots coming off big prime time matchups against the Texans and 49ers. But with the way the team played last week, I really don’t think that will happen.
Jacksonville has risen to the occasion playing both the Texans and Packers tough, and will be looking to do the same this week, such has been the refrain coming from FL, that they are looking for respect this week.
But the Patriots still have a shot, albeit a long one now of getting a first round bye and they won’t want to waste the opportunity playing against one of the league’s worst teams. Forget all the silly talk of the Patriots tanking the last two games by playing all the backups and resting his starters.
Bill Belichick is a historian of the game and one can see that it is a slippery slope going there. One needs to look at how Indianapolis fared doing that on more than one occasion as well as Green Bay last year. They rested their starters down the stretch and came out during divisional weekend and laid an egg. They went home for the rest of the playoffs well rested. Not going to happen here unless the team gets out to a big lead.
Normally this is the area where the scale goes back and forth and you try to wait for it to settle, but this week the scale tips firmly in favor of the Patriots. They are clearly the better team on both sides of the ball and should have no problem in taking this game.
Missing their best weapon in Jones-Drew, the Jacksonville running game has been stagnant this season, the Patriots have been pretty solid at stopping the run all season and in this one, I expect that will be their focus. That will force the ball into Chad Henne’s hands and make the Jaguars a one-dimensional team.
With the Patriots offense putting pressure on Jacksonville’s offense to score to keep up, this is the area where Henne has traditionally made mistakes and turned the ball over. I would expect that trend to continue this week.
With the Jaguars allowing over 148 yards per game on the ground, the Patriots should have no problem establishing the run in this one. Expect to see all four running backs get some touches as they want to erase the bad taste of last week’s game.
The flip side of the running game is the play-action passing and that should benefit as well. Jacksonville has had big issues of rushing the passer and Tom Brady spreading them out, the running game will open huge gaps over the linebackers. Brady has routinely tortured the Jags and I expect this one to be no different.
Brady will pass for about 250-275 yards but 3 touchdowns and the running game will have a big day mixing it up and the Patriots finish their regular season road schedule with a convincing win. Patriots 41-14