New England Patriots

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots and Jaguars may still be figuring things out, along with the rest of the NFL. But they can’t avoid the major test that they’ll bring to each other in Week 2. The key situations of the game could come down to what happens when the Jaguars have the ball, but Tom Brady vs. the Jacksonville defense is going to be the matchup everyone wants to see. The question for New England is how to put points on the board against such a deep, skilled group.

Jacksonville does one thing better on defense than anything else, and do it better than any unit in the NFL. They limit your space. Even if you get enough protection to make a clean throw, you can be sure that someone in the next two levels is going to close rapidly on your target.

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots certainly know this, having played the Jaguars just three games ago in a hard-fought AFC Championship Game. There’s not much to study in terms of new faces out there. But there’s plenty of talent and speed for the Patriots offense to prepare for. It should be a major challenge for an offense without a top weapon that’s still developing.

Jacksonville brings almost the exact same defense as a season ago, and there’s game-changing talent at all three levels. Their defensive front is stout against the run and ferocious as a pass-rushing group. Their linebackers close with uncommon speed and can stick with pretty much anyone over the middle of the field. They have two of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and a deep, tough safety group that will make receivers pay for making contested catches.

Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots typically like to identify weaknesses in the defense and exploit the most favorable matchups. But how do you attack a defense that has no glaring weakness? Brady did it with big plays in the second half of last season’s AFC Championship Game, but is that sustainable over a full game? How will the Jags handle Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots’ retooled receiver corps?

Here’s an attempt to answer those questions. It’s fair to expected the unexpected, but it’s also possible that you see a direct sequel to what happened in January. Either way, Brady has his work cut out for him on Sunday.

What Do The Jaguars Do?

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 09: Myles Jack of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates with Telvin Smith and Marcell Dareus after interception a pass by Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants in the fourth quarter and scoring a touchdown at MetLife Stadium. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – SEPTEMBER 09: Myles Jack of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates with Telvin Smith and Marcell Dareus after interception a pass by Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants in the fourth quarter and scoring a touchdown at MetLife Stadium. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Jacksonville started the AFC Championship Game in a base 4-3 defense, and still like to employ that with Leon Jacobs or Lerentee McCray as a third linebacker. But against the pass, the Jags almost exclusively run Nickel. Aaron Colvin was the nickel corner in January; veteran D.J. Hayden takes over that role to start 2018.

As evidenced most recently by Week 1 against the New York Giants, the Jags also like to run “Big Nickel” with a third safety instead of a corner. Rookie third-round pick Ronnie Harrison is likely to be the team’s primary nickel safety on Sunday. With such a powerful pass-rushing group up front, the Jags can afford to rush just three or four guys with everyone else handling coverage. And that’s the kind of defense that usually gives the Patriots trouble.

The Jaguars played a lot of man-to-man in the AFC Championship Game, but leaned mainly on zone against the Giants in Week 1 in an effort to limit big plays for superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Eli Manning and Beckham managed to pick the Jaguars apart with mostly quick throws on short-to-intermediate routes. Beckham finished with 11 catches for 111 yards and three catches of 19 or more yards, but never truly burned the Jags’ defense by finding the end zone. Ultimately, the plan worked out well enough for Jacksonville; catches and yards only matter in fantasy, at the end of the day.

If they hold the Patriots to just 15 points like they did the Giants, the Jaguars will give themselves a great chance to win the game. Brady and the Pats may not be as much of a big play threat, but they certainly bring a bigger red zone challenge than the Giants. Manning also had trouble getting rid of the ball quickly enough in Week 1. The Jaguars will have to be prepared for Brady to move the ball to his targets quicker and more efficiently.

It’s fair to expect more man-to-man from the Jaguars on Sunday after their zone approach against New York. There were plays to be made for Manning and the Giants, but the quarterback couldn’t make the throws in time. If they leave the same kind of soft areas in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field, Brady will pick them apart with faster throws – and likely spread the ball around more, with Gronk looming as the threat to finish drives off in the end zone.

Based on the AFCCG, when they played zone in the fourth quarter while Brady shredded them en route to a 10-point comeback, the Jaguars have hopefully learned their lesson. If they have, they’ll abandon the zone defense and avoid playing too conservatively while the Pats are dialing it up. Tight man-to-man coverage across the field is almost always the best way to defend the Brady-led offense. But their coverage should get a lot easier if their much-hyped group of pass rushers wins their matchups.

It Starts Up Front

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 21: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is pursued by Dante Fowler Jr. of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first quarter during the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. (Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MA – JANUARY 21: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is pursued by Dante Fowler Jr. of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first quarter during the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The Patriots’ offensive line provided plenty of confidence and hope for the season with the way they handled the Texans’ formidable pass rushers in Week 1. Jacksonville brings a similar challenge in terms of pressure. And even if Calais Campbell, who was a late addition to the injury report with a knee injury, can’t go, there’s still plenty to worry about.

Jacksonville’s biggest threat may actually be fourth-year edge rusher Dante Fowler, who gave the Patriots plenty of trouble in the first half of the AFCCG. He’s back on Sunday after a one-game suspension. But the Patriots did find a way to neutralize Fowler in the second half by double-teaming him. It’ll be interesting to see how much attention he gets on Sunday.

Still, even if the Patriots can take Fowler out of the game, there’s still Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, and Marcell Dareus to worry about. If they can disrupt Brady up front, they’ll limit the Patriots similarly to how they did for much of the game in January.

If the Patriots O-line stands its ground … well, they’ve completed level 1. Once they pass that test, the real chess match begins with how they handle they next two levels of the defense – and how the Jags plan to defend Brady’s biggest weapons.

What About Rob?

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 21: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots catches a pass before an injury in the second quarter during the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MA – JANUARY 21: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots catches a pass before an injury in the second quarter during the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Jalen Ramsey’s big mouth has been a big topic surrounding this game. Perhaps the biggest. But what about his actual defense? Ramsey isn’t just brash and impudent in his off-field treatment of his opponents. He controls the game on the field, too. Whoever draws him in coverage is going to have trouble getting open.

But will that someone be Rob Gronkowski? Ramsey has gone right at Gronk in recent interviews, going so far as to say he’s straight up not good. “Don’t get it twisted, he’s good,” Ramsey later clarified, before declaring that he fears no man. So that’s why Gronk vs. Ramsey has been hyped as the marquee matchup of this game.

Still, Doug Marrone and Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash would be experimenting with something new if that’s how they configure their unit on Sunday. It would be an unorthodox move for a team that typically uses its safeties and linebackers to cover tight ends. Don’t be shocked if Ramsey wipes Chris Hogan or Phillip Dorsett out of the game, instead. It’s possible Ramsey follows the “hot hand” at receiver man-to-man while A.J. Bouye takes the other WR assignment, and the rest take care of Gronk.

The most successful defenses against the tight end in recent years have employed an elite, hard-hitting safety with the size to cover him and the quickness to keep up with him down the field. Eric Berry and Earl Thomas are two good recent examples. Is Barry Church in that same class? He did deliver the hit that knocked Gronkowski out of the AFCCG with a concussion, but it remains to be seen how he does against Gronk for a full 60 minutes. It’s more realistic to expect a mix of Church, safety Tashaun Gipson, linebacker Myles Jack, and rookie safety Ronnie Harrison (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) to try and keep Gronk in check, especially down that seam.

As great as Ramsey is, Gronkowski may have the size to make plays over the cornerback even when he’s covered. At the end of the day, it’s not ideal to devote your 6-foot-1, 208-pound cornerback to a 6-foot-7 tight end. They could leave a guy like Hayden alone against Hogan or Dorsett, which could be a matchup Brady can take advantage of in certain spots. It’d be especially risky when they have such a deep group of linebackers and safeties that could do the job anyway. People expecting 60 snaps of the Gronk-Ramsey show may ultimately be disappointed.

So … How Do The Patriots Attack?

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 21: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots reacts in the second half during the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MA – JANUARY 21: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots reacts in the second half during the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In short, there’s no obvious hole in the Jaguars defense to exploit. Brady’s best hope for that is to get them into Nickel packages and target the reserve corners or safeties. Harrison looks the part as a matchup with Gronkowski, but he’s also a rookie and could be beat if he’s caught in a precarious position. If they can get Gronk matched up against Bouye or a similar mismatch, they should have success with that as the Giants did with Evan Engram.

Even in man-to-man, the Jags could leave open spots in the short areas of the field if Brady wants to paper-cut them to death. But their linebackers close so quickly that it’s going to be very hard to gain any kind of yardage after the catch – if they make the catch to begin with. Brady could fool them with play-action passes, which worked at times in the AFCCG and also for the Giants last week. But that should also be harder to pull off without a stud like Saquon Barkley in the backfield, or even Dion Lewis like they had last time.

The Patriots may have to resort to something that worked wonders for them in January, and also benefitted the Giants in Week 1: trickery. Creating mismatches. Pick plays were another big reason that Beckham was able to get open against Ramsey, and it was a factor for the Patriots last season too. When the Jags are at their best, they’re incredibly hard to straight-up beat in their matchups. Brady and Josh McDaniels are likely going to need to get creative in order to get guys open.

Or, you know, the Jaguars play zone the whole time and Brady grinds out enough touchdown drives to outscore Blake Bortles. But at the same time, they have the kind of personnel that can make even a zone defense tough for Brady to penetrate consistently. With big-time talent on both sides, the Patriots offense against the Jaguars defense remains the must-see battle of the afternoon in Jacksonville.

How Brady attacks them, and how the Jaguars approach their coverage, remains somewhat of a mystery.

But the most likely scenario is that, schematically and competitively, you won’t see much of a change from the last game. Just a couple of deep, talented units in a big-ticket clash.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.