|Bortles has the physical tools to be a star, but must improve his accuracy. Wesley Hitt/Getty Images|
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. After opening the season with two big wins over traditional rivals, the Patriots face a classic trap game this week as the Jacksonville Jaguars come to town. Many will write off the Jaguars as an easy win given their lack of recent success, but Gus Bradley's team has a lot of talented young players looking to make their mark in the NFL. They are also coming off of a nice win last week, beating a Dolphins team that many experts expected to challenge the Patriots for AFC East supremacy. Lets get on to this weeks matchups.
The Jaguars overall offensive numbers aren't pretty, including a 16 points per game average that ranks 30th in the league. However, they showed dramatic improvement from Week One to Week Two. They didn't turn the ball over against the Dolphins after coughing it up three times against the Panthers, kept quarterback Blake Bortles clean after allowing him to get sacked 5 times in the opener, and rolled up 396 yards on Miami after managing just 265 yards against the Panthers.
Keeping Bortles clean will be imperative for the Jags. They allowed their franchise quarterback to get sacked a Bledsoe-ian 55 times as a rookie, which was undoubtedly a major factor in his miserable rookie campaign. Improving Bortles protection was an offseason priority, as they added right tackle Jermey Parnell and center Steven Wisniewski via free agency and drafted guard AJ Cann. Parnell and Wisniewski have settled in as starters, while Cann is currently behind impressive second year guard Brandon Linder and last year's big free agent signing Zane Beadles at guard.
The biggest weakness here is at left tackle, where former second overall pick Luke Joeckel has missed the first two weeks with an ankle injury. Joeckel, who has been a massive disappointment in his two season career, is currently considered questionable to return this week. If he can't go, journeyman Sam Young will continue to start in his place. Either tackle should be a major mismatch against either Chandler Jones or Jabaal Sheard, both of whom were disruptive last week against the Bills. Big games from those two could be key for the Patriots defense, as Bortles has struggled quite a bit when pressured so far in his young career.
Bortles has looked a bit improved from his dismal rookie season, but he still has a long way to go before becoming the franchise quarterback the Jags envisioned when they picked him 3rd overall last year. There were concerns about his mechanics as prospect, and he's continued to show a tendency to overthrow his receivers despite well-publicized attempts to rework his throwing mechanics. He's only completed 54.8% of his passes this year, including 54.5% last week despite receiving a rare afternoon of solid protection. The Patriots opportunistic secondary will certainly be looking to pounce on any inaccurate miscues, just as they did last week with the inexperienced Tyrod Taylor.
While they'll certainly look to create pressure to unravel Bortles, his athleticism is a factor to take into account defensively. Bortles isn't a run-first quarterback, but he has the wheels to hurt a defense if you give him an escape lane. The Pats generally favor a disciplined rush, particularly from the interior defensive line. However, given Bortles proclivity to panicked mistakes while under pressure, I wouldn't be overly surprised to see Matt Patricia bring a more aggressive game plan to try to throw the youngster off his rhthym. That doesn't necessarily mean blitzing: as Bortles has been surprisingly effective against the blitz, but rather disguised four man rushes, with Collins and Hightower getting involved in the act.
|Yeldon figures to test the Patriots questionable run defense|
Yeldon figures to get a heavy workload once again this week, as explosive change of pace back Denard Robinson is out with a sprained MCL. Meanwhile, plodding power back Toby Gerhart has missed the first two weeks with an oblique injury; if he's able to return, he could get some carries to spell Yeldon and keep him fresh. Explosive undersized rookie speedster Corey Grant is also around as a third down scatback type, but his role should be limited, as Yeldon is a capable pass catcher in his own right.
The Pats can certainly expect Jacksonville to test them on the ground, as the Pats have allowed opponents to rush for a league-worst 5.7 yards per carry through two weeks. I was willing to overlook the Pats week one run defense struggles due to their nickel heavy strategy, but allowing the Bills to run all over them in Week 2 was eye-opening. The problems on run defense have been masked a bit so far by the Pats ability to get early leads, which forced Buffalo to throw far more than they would have liked last week, but they simply have to get better at stopping the run. Look for that to be a renewed commitment from the Pats defense this week, with linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins making their presence felt through aggressive downhill play.
|Robinson is a big, talented target|
Robinson isn't the only big target for Bortles, as he'll be joined by the 6'3", 205 pound Allen Hurns in most two receiver sets. Hurns has been solid if unspectacular so far in 2015, turning his 11 targets into 9 catches for 128 yards (14.2 yard per catch). Hurns should see an uptick in targets now, as rookie Rashad Greene landed on the IR-return list with a thumb injury suffered last week. Formerly Jameis Winston's go-to guy at Florida State, Greene was second on the team with 17 targets through two weeks. His absence should create an opportunity for 2014 second round pick Marquise Lee, who is finally healthy (for now) after being an injury-riddled disappointment as a rookie. Lee is a smooth, explosive athlete who was expected to become a big play threat after starring at USC, but he's barely seen the field in Jacksonville due to nagging injuries. With all three of these receivers capable of making big plays down the field, I'd expect Logan Ryan to continue to get the nickel snaps at cornerback over Bradley Fletcher, who has been burned for several big plays during the first two weeks of the season.
Losing Julius Thomas was a huge blow for the Jacksonville offense, as they currently lack a dynamic pass catching presence at tight end. Former first round pick Marcedes Lewis is a big-bodied target, but he's been remarkably inconsistent throughout his career. He's joined by Nic Jacobs on the depth chart, a 2014 undrafted free agent with 2 career catches to his name. Through two games, that duo has combined for 5 target and zero catches.
While the Jags offense remains a work in progress, the defense has showed signs of coming around under defensive minded head coach Gus Bradley. They are a top 10 defense in most statistical categories, including scoring (T-9, 20 ppg) and yards (9th, 324 yards per game).
The strength of that unit has become the front seven, which has been one of the league's best against the run through two weeks. They've held opponents to a paltry 2.9 yards per carry, despite facing two relatively run heavy offenses. Big Jonathan Stewart managed just 56 yards on his 18 Week One carries, but that was better than Lamar Miller, who was held to just 14 yards on his 10 carries last week.
|Odrick sacked his former quarterback last week|
Without Marks, the defensive interior lacks dynamic rushing ability, but the duo of Tyson Alualu and Roy Miller has proven to be stout against the run. A former top 5 pick, Alualu has never been dynamic enough to match expectations, but he's consistently been a solid run defender. The same can be said of Miller, a former third round pick who has been a starter for the past three seasons.
That defensive line is backed up by a solid group of linebackers, led by picture-of-consistency Paul Posluszny. Posluszny is a classic middle linebacker; a tackling machine who also serves as a leader in the huddle and defensive signal caller. He's joined in the starting lineup by second year man Telvin Smith, who is undersized but a dynamic athlete whose range makes him a sideline to sideline playmaker and an asset in coverage. The base defense also features former 49er Dan Skuta, a physical thumper who offers some pass rush ability. Skuta typically comes off the field when the Jaguars go nickel, something they could be doing a lot against the Patriots pass happy attack.
Just as it has been the past two weeks, the Pats best approach this week could be to spread the Jaguars out and test their secondary depth. The secondary certainly appears to be the weak link of Jacksonville's defense, with a number of unproven players playing major roles. So far, the starters have been former Green Bay nickelback Davon House, who was signed to a significant contract as a free agent, and second year man Aaron Colvin, who was a well-regarded prospect but is essentially a rookie after missing the majority of his rookie year with a torn ACL. Colvin won the starting job by outplaying Demetrius McCray, a 2013 seventh rounder who is now the nickelback. Behind those three are Dwyane Gratz, a 2013 third rounder who has fallen behind McCray on the depth chart despite his draft status, and rookie Nick Marshall, who is a major project after playing quarterback at Auburn.
|Sergio Brown doesn't mind yapping at far superior opponents|
Needless to say, Jacksonville doesn't appear to have the top end talent or depth to compete with the empty backfield sets that ripped apart both the Steelers and Bills defenses. Perhaps the Patriots will try to establish the run a little bit if they get a lead, but I'd expect their primary mode of attack to once again be through the air. With the overmatched Brown being the Jags most experienced option at safety, it's safe to expect another big outing from Rob Gronkowski, who has dominated far superior competition to what Brown can offer. Spreading it out could also mean another week with plenty of opportunities for Aaron Dobson, who will look to continue to build trust with Tom Brady and establish a consistent role in the offense. Dobson clearly falls behind Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and possibly Danny Amendola when it comes to the opposing defenses coverage priorities, and he could get more chances to take advantage of Jacksonville's weak depth options.
Of course, taking advantage of Jacksonville's secondary requires protecting Brady, which is easier said than done against the Jaguars. Despite lacking a singular dominant edge rusher (third overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. was expected to fill that role, but was lost to a spring ACL tear), the Jaguars have been a good pass rushing team under Bradley. Odrick will likely be the Pats biggest concern, as he's coming off of a big game against his old team. To prevent him from doing his Pee Wee Herman celebration, look for Brady to continue to get rid of the ball quickly, which should help mitigate any potential problems from the Pats youthful interior offensive line.
The Jags special teams took a hit by losing Greene, who had also emerged as their primary punt returner. With him out of the picture, Nick Marshall could get a chance to use his explosive athleticism. Fellow Auburn rookie Corey Grant could also get a shot, as he's excelled so far as a kick returner (28.7 yards per return with a 40 yarder to his credit). Grant was on the Patriots radar in the spring, and his explosive workout numbers (4.28 40 yard time) have translated on special teams. The Pats will once again count on Stephen Gostkowski's powerful leg to limit Grant's chances to hurt them.
The Jaguars coverage teams have been less impressive. They allowed Ted Ginn Jr. to rip off a 37 yard punt return in Week One and followed that up by allowing a 19 yard burst to Jarvis Landry in Week 2. Those are two of the league's better return specialists, but still not an ideal start to the season for their coverage teams. Danny Amendola had a productive Week 2 in the return game, and he could be licking his chops this week. The Jags haven't allowed a kick return yet, which is a testament to new kicker Jason Myers leg strength. However, Myers is less of a sure thing as a placekicker, where he already has a missed extra point to his name.
For the Patriots, the big challenge this week will be avoiding a let-down in a classic "trap game" scenario. They're coming off of two big wins and already receiving hype as a Super Bowl contender as a result, playing at 1 pm at home, and facing an opponent who have drafted in the top 10 the past eight seasons without coming close to sniffing a playoff appearance.
Needless to say, coach Belichick isn't buying any of the talk that this should be an easy week. He's talked up the Jaguars all week, noting the amount of young, hungry talent on Jacksonville's roster. He's not necessarily wrong either, as the Jags do have plenty of promising pieces on their roster despite still having some major holes. The Jags have played hard under Gus Bradley, and will be looking to make a statement against the defending Super Bowl champs. The Pats can certainly expect the Jags best shot, particularly early.
However, I'm not expecting a letdown. Not in the Tom Brady revenge tour that has become the 2015 season. This is a Pats team that has, to this point, been channeling their anger into a razor sharp on-the-field focus, and I'd expect that to continue. Regardless of what Belichick says, this is a game the Pats should win. Look for them to take care of business.