Patriots Already Have Winning Formula With Respect to Jaguars
By Dave Fletcher
Give the Jacksonville Jaguars some credit.
They beat the Patriots to the punch in the tiresome battle for rights to the "No Respect" card this week leading up to Saturday night's Wild Card Playoff matchup in Foxboro.
Several Jaguars said it looked like the Patriots lost to Miami last week on purpose. In response, Tom Brady intimated that the two-time defending champs have not been shown the proper reverence.
With all due respect to the Jaguars (12-4), the Patriots (10-6) are indeed better off hosting the Jags in the first round instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Don't expect the Pats to come out and say it, but they can't be too upset at drawing the relatively young, inexperienced Jaguars for the first round.
Of all the teams the Pats have faced this season, Jacksonville may most closely resemble the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost 28-0 at Gillette Stadium last month. Offensively, the Jaguars rely heavily on rushing the ball to set up a passing game built upon high-percentage passes that minimize the chance for turnovers. On defense, the Jaguars play a balanced 4-3 front that pressures quarterbacks mainly with quick edge rushers.
The Jaguars might just be the AFC's version of the Buccaneers. And the Patriots already have the blueprint of how to beat them lying around somewhere.
Defensively, the Patriots face a team that has been solid rushing the football all season. The Jaguars are 10th in the NFL with 122.4 yards per game on the ground in a mainly zone rushing scheme. The attack has relied mostly on repetition rather than big plays as Jacksonville's leading rusher, Fred Taylor, averages a solid but not explosive 4.1 yards per carry. Greg Jones (3.8 yards per carry) should see some action on Saturday as the change of pace back.
The Patriots will need to continue their dominance defending the run over the past month. Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren have anchored the line of scrimmage well enough to disrupt running backs during a late season stretch that saw the Pats improve from 27th against the rush to 8th (98.8 yards per game).
"On the zone run, pretty much everybody is at the point of attack," said Bill Belichick. "Even if the ball starts (on one side), it could just as easily end up on the backside, (which) is as much of a point of attack as the front side. A lot of those plays cut back more than they hit the hole that they originally look like they're going to enter."
New England's front seven will need to play disciplined up front and let the play develop toward them. The Patriots tackled much better in the second half of the season than they did in the first half, especially after Bruschi returned from a stroke and Vrabel made the transition to the inside. Meanwhile, Monty Beisel is still whiffing on too many tackles. Bruschi's return to the field will undoubtedly be crucial to the Pats' ability to stuff rushes up the middle, where the Jags run most frequently.
If the Pats have trouble stopping the Jaguars rushing attack, quarterback Byron Leftwich will have an easier time finding his groove in his first start in six weeks. Leftwich compiled an 89.3 passer rating with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions in 11 starts this season. Against the Patriots in December 2003, he was 21-for-40 for 288 yards and two interceptions. But this season, he has more receiving weapons than just Jimmy Smith.
In addition to the steady veteran Smith (70 receptions, 1023 yards, six touchdowns), rookies Ernest Wilford (seven touchdowns) and Matt Jones (5) have emerged as dangerous red zone threats. Wilford's 16.6 yards per reception average makes him a nice complement to Smith. The Jaguars receiving corps should test just how far the young Pats secondary has come.
"This is as good a team as we've seen in quite a while. We'll find out (how much the secondary has matured)," said Belichick. "I hope we've improved and I hope that the game experience has helped them work together. This is where we'll really find out where we are."
Offensively, the Patriots face a Jaguars defense that has held opposing passers to a 78.0 rating this season. But with Brady at the helm, New England has to feel good about its chances to put up points.
The Jaguars allow an average of just 184.1 passing yards per game (7th in the NFL), but Brady is at his best in January. The Pats quarterback is 9-0 and has thrown just three picks in postseason play.
Quick passes to Deion Branch, David Givens and Troy Brown will be essential against a Jacksonville defense that leads the league in sacks (47) per pass play (277). If the Jaguars' front of Reggie Hayward (8.5 sacks), Rob Meier (6), Paul Spicer (7.5) and Marcus Stroud are winning their battles early, look for screen plays to Kevin Faulk and Corey Dillon.
As for the ground game, the Patriots are 8-0 when Dillon carries the ball at least 15 times. It is no secret that New England will stick with the ground game as long as they can. Dillon's light workload to this point in the season may have infuriated numerous Fantasy Football owners, but the Pats should benefit from his fresh legs during the postseason. Against a similarly fast and aggressive Tampa Bay defense, Dillon ran for just 49 yards, but he still had 19 carries. Hammering the Jaguars in the same way will go a long way toward helping the offensive linemen protect Brady when he does drop back to pass.
In the red zone, Belichick will likely need to get creative with his play calling and personnel packaging. The Jaguars lead the league in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (four). Dillon has scored on several short runs this year en route to a team-leading 12 touchdowns, but New England may find more success with play fakes near the goal line. A score to one of their unconventional pass catchers (Mike Vrabel, Tom Ashworth) would not come as much of a surprise.
The key to the Patriots' success on the ground might come down to how effectively linebacker Mike Peterson can play with his strained wrist. Peterson has been a terror for opponents with a team-high 132 tackles and six sacks. If Peterson is limited, the Patriots will be able to attack the middle of the field with more success.
"I remember playing them a few years ago and how physical they were," said Brady. "They have big, physical guys on the defensive line and their linebackers are very active and athletic. Their secondary is very active and athletic at the corner spots and they have big safeties. It's hard to run against them so when you throw it, you're throwing against linebackers who are disruptive."
Jacksonville's defense may not be as talked about as some others around the NFL, but Brady knows the Patriots cannot take anything lightly.
"(Playoff) games usually come down to one or two plays. You could throw an interception, you could get strip-sacked and that could be the difference. You make a bad read on a red zone pass and instead of getting touchdown, you get three points and you lose by a field goal and that's the difference."
What to look for: Can Leftwich shake off the rust? The Jaguars quarterback could have played last week but coach Jack Del Rio decided to hold him out as a precaution. Playing on a sore ankle for the first time in six weeks at Foxboro will be a tall task for Leftwich. Meanwhile, his replacement, David Garrard, had a 58.3 completion percentage, four touchdowns and just one interception as Jacksonville went 5-1 without Leftwich. Del Rio has insisted that Leftwich will start unless something unexpected happens. If New England blitzes the immobile Leftwich and forces mistakes, Garrard could come into the game to throw the defense out of rhythm. Garrard also ran for 172 yards and three touchdowns.
Notes: The Jaguars have thrown a league-low six interceptions. ... The Patriots set a franchise record with their third consecutive division title. ... Opponents are 4-for-14 against the Jaguars on fourth down (2nd in the NFL). ... Jacksonvilles kickoff coverage is 26th in the league, yielding a 23.7-yard average. ... The Jaguars have a +10 turnover differential. Hayward (hamstring) and Spicer (hand) are both listed as questionable on the injury report, but are expecting to play. ... Adam Vinatieri ranks second on the all-time list for postseason field goals with 24. Gary Anderson is first with 32. ... Belichick on Wednesday when asked about the teams perceived lack of respect: "I'm not really losing too much sleep over it. It doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks about our team."
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