FOXBORO - The football world knows the only way the underdog Jacksonville Jaguars can beat the undefeated juggernaut that is the New England Patriots Saturday night is to run the ball, move the chains, control the clock, and keep Tom Brady and Randy Moss off the field.
The challenge for the Patriots to stop the AFC's top rushing attack will be up to the defensive linemen. This job means stopping the second best running tandem in the league. Fred Taylor, a 10-year veteran, and Maurice Jones-Drew, combined for 1,970 yards rushing. This was second in the league only to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor.
Let's start with Taylor, who ranked fifth in the AFC in rushing in 2007 with 1,202 yards on 223 carries and led the AFC with a 5.4 average per rush. He tied for first in the NFL with four rushes of 50-plus yards and finished with two of the four longest rushes in the NFL this season. He ranked fourth in the NFL with 36 rushes of 10-plus yards. Taylor also ran for 100-plus yards in five consecutive games to close out the regular season, the only player to accomplish that feat this season.
Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said Taylor is dangerous anytime he has the ball. "Fred Taylor is one of the best running backs in the league. He's got as a great combination of quickness, power, vision, he's a very good technique runner and I think he's got exceptional vision. He finds and sees holes as well as any back we play. He's got the speed to go the distance, he's got the power to run over people and he's got the quickness to make defenders miss in the hole. He breaks a lot of tackles. He's good in the passing game."
|Fred Taylor runs against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Getty images)|
During the Wild Card game last weekend in Pittsburgh, Taylor rushed for a season-high 147 yards on 25 rushes, his most since he had 165 against the Rams in October 30, 2005.
Maurice Jones-Drew is a tough, explosive all-purpose back and has a propensity to dishing punishment to would-be tacklers. He also has a history of laying a lick as a blocker against on-coming pass rushers. This season, he rushed for 768 yards on 167 carries with nine touchdowns and 4.6 yards per carry average. He also is dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. He snagged 40 receptions for 407 yards and a score. He also made an impact on the kick return game with 811 yards and a touchdown.
"Jones-Drew is a little different style of runner, but very effective," said Belichick. "He's a very powerful guy for his size, has great lower body strength, runs through a lot of tackles, has good speed, can go the distance. We saw that in the kickoff return last week against Pittsburgh, saw it against New Orleans, and saw it against the Colts. [He makes] long runs, very good in pass protection, he's probably as good a pass protector as we've seen this year for his position at running back, plays a lot on third down, catches the ball out of the backfield, runs good routes, [he is] hard to tackle when he catches it, good screen and draw guy."
Both backs have different running styles and will give the Pats lineman a big challenge. Pats defensive lineman Richard Seymour said "they're a great one-two punch and defensively we're going to have our work cut out for us because we can be in the hole, we can be in the gap [and] know what to do, but they do such a good job of making you miss."
Seymour said the key to the Patriots stopping the run starts with nose tackle Vince Wilfork. He said Wilfork make his, Ty Warren's, and Jarvis Green's jobs on the line easier. "Vince is kind of like that centerpiece in the middle that doesn't move; that constant force that's always there. What it does is, as long as we take care of our responsibilities outside we can turn the ball in to him and there aren't many centers in this league that can block Vince. He's a strong guy, he [has] a low center of gravity, he has a high football IQ and he does a great job. We're definitely going to need that in the biggest game of the year."
|Vince Wilfork is the man in the middle for the Patriots defense. (Getty images)|
The Jags second best ground game in the NFL poses a formidable threat to the Patriots rushing defense that ranked 10th in the league. Overall, the Patriots defense is the fourth best defense in the league, which is up against the Jags seventh best ranked offense.
The key to the game will come on the line-of-scrimmage. The Jags will have a work-pail bunch of experienced and tough offensive linemen trying to open holes for their two star backs. At left tackle is Khalif Barnes. He is a 6-foot-5, 320 pound tackle, who started 41 games the last three seasons; Vince Manuwai is a 6-foot-2, 325 pound left guard, who started 68 consecutive games before sitting out the regular season finale at Houston; Center Brad Meester, 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, has started 119 games since being drafted in the second round in 2000; right guard Maurice Williams is a 6-foot-5, 300 pounds converted tackle and has started the last eight games at guard; and left tackle Tony Pashos, 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, brings a lot of experience and size to the line.
The Patriots don't have slouches on the defensive line with Wilfork at 6-foot-2, 325 pounds; Seymour at 6-foot-6, 310; Green at 6-foot-3, 285; and Warren at 6-foot-5, 300. Seymour has been selected to five pro bowls, while Wilfork received his first pro bowl selection this year. The hallmark of this line has always been its versatility. They are capable of playing 4-3 and 3-4 defensive fronts.
Warren said this week that "Everybody's pushed in the circle where we all compete as defensive linemen, from Richard to me to Vince to Jarvis - whoever's out there, so you always look to go out there and put on your best performance It's always a competitive deal, but at the same time it's always fun, and it's important to be having fun when you're out there playing."
Warren said he expects the Jags' running backs to be physical and tough and the Patriots defensive line will need to match that physicality at the line-of-scrimmage.
"It's going to be a physical game," said Warren. "We all know that. We know what Jacksonville brings to the table That combination of backs they have I think they have no weakness, really. They block well on blitz pick up, they run well, they both can be elusive; they both are home-run backs. If you let them get through the line, they can go the distance. The offensive line, they play physically, too."
There is no secret to what the Jacksonville offensive game plan will be. "It's our team philosophy to try and establish the run," said Taylor this week. "We just go into the game with that mindset, play our style of football and play within our game plan. You change nothing. We got to this point by doing the same things consistently through the course of the season. I don't think it's the time of year to try and change things."
The Patriots defensive line knows what the rushing storm rolling into Gillette Stadium; it's now just up to them to stop it.
"It'll be exciting come Saturday night," said Seymour.
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