Jaguars vs. Patriots: Full New England Game Preview

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IISeptember 24, 2015

Jaguars vs. Patriots: Full New England Game Preview

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    Can the Pats take care of business before the bye?
    Can the Pats take care of business before the bye?Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Following two highly emotional wins to start the 2015 season, Week 3 might seem anticlimactic for the New England Patriots. With the Pats back at Gillette Stadium to face the perpetually woeful Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday's contest has the look of a homecoming game before the Patriots take off for their early Week 4 bye.

    However, that's a dangerous mentality that underestimates a Jags team that played its most complete game in years last week, defeating New England's division rival Miami Dolphins 23-20. Blake Bortles tossed for a career-high 273 yards and posted a quarterback rating over 100 for the first time, while the offensive line stymied Miami's talented front to allow no sacks for the first time since 2013.

    Granted, the Patriots have been excellent at avoiding letdown games under Bill Belichick. Since 2001, the Pats are 39-4 when favored by double digits during regular-season games, with their last loss coming during the 2012 season against the Arizona Cardinals. Many observers will point to the motivation New England has played with thus far, but Belichick's ability to keep his team keenly focused week after week is the real cause of that consistency.

    With the Patriots seeking to enter their October bye undefeated, read on for the key matchups and factors entering New England's Week 3 contest.

Week 2 Results and Recap

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    After a week of bravado and not-so-subtle jabs from the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots did their talking on the field in a highly satisfying 40-32 win at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Though Buffalo's furious three-touchdown fourth-quarter rally nearly undid a tremendous effort, the Patriots generally played with an impressive amount of composure in a hostile environment.

    Behind Tom Brady's eye-popping 59 pass attempts, the Patriots compiled 6.7 yards per play, the second-highest total the Bills defense has allowed since the start of the 2013 season. New England's offensive stars are humming right now, but the unexpected play of supplementary components such as Dion Lewis, David Andrews and Josh Kline has put the unit over the top thus far.

    The final point total looks ugly from a defensive perspective, and the Pats have indeed hemorrhaged too many big plays thus far. The defense has conceded 18 plays of at least 15 yards thus far, tied for the fourth-highest total in the league. The damage has been particularly acute on the ground, where only the Indianapolis Colts have given up more 15-plus yard runs than the Patriots with five such plays.

    Nevertheless, for at least one week, the Patriots were able to generate enough big plays to offset those errors.  New England sacked Tyrod Taylor eight times, its highest total since 2001, and forced three turnovers. After getting pushed around on both sides of the trenches at times over the past two seasons, it doesn't appear this Pats squad is lacking in beef.

News and Notes

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Run D a Top Concern

    Everything looks rosy from an offensive perspective for the Patriots, but the fireworks in the passing game have masked a shaky start for the new-look defense. Though the secondary has mostly survived a few breakdowns with four interceptions, the run defense has been woeful. ESPN Boston's Tedy Bruschi sees this flaw as problematic moving forward:

    ...this run defense has to be fixed. Because the offense is scoring a lot of points, it has created a situation where opponents get away from the run a bit. In a game that is contested, that could show up. With opponents averaging 5.7 yards per rush, that isn't going to get the job done.

    Thus far, the Patriots are dead last in yards allowed per attempt, with the Green Bay Packers the only other team conceding over five yards per carry. If prorated to a full season, New England's current average would rank as the worst yards-per-carry average since the merger, blowing past the 5.4 yards-per-attempt average allowed by the 2013 Chicago Bears.

    The Pats aren't likely to hemorrhage rushing yardage at such a historic pace indefinitely, and they're about to catch a big scheduling break, since none of their next five opponents ranks better than 24th in rushing DVOA, per Football Outsiders. Still, it's imperative that New England finds an early-down combination that can force opponents into less favorable down-and-distance situations moving forward.

    Brady Off to One of His Fastest Starts

    With a sterling ratio of seven touchdowns to zero interceptions and 76.09 QBR thus far, Tom Brady is indisputably off to one of the best starts of his career after two weeks. Pro Football Focus, which has been grading players since 2007, has assessed 2015 as the third-best opening fortnight of the past nine years for Brady:

    Following his +5.3 grade Sunday in the Patriots’ win over the Bills, Brady now ranks third in the NFL among QBs with a grade of +9.8. That’s the third-best grade he’s had over the first two games of a season since we began grading games in 2007—behind his +11.1 in 2007 and +18.5 in 2011. Both of those seasons ended in Super Bowl appearances for the Pats—and losses to the Giants. Still, though, those were really strong offensive years for Brady and New England.

    PFF's grades are subjective, of course, but even a more concrete quantitative assessment would portray Brady in a positive light, even by his own lofty standards. Football Outsiders' DYAR metric, which measures yards above replacement value, has Brady as the league leader with 339 DYAR. For reference, Peyton Manning led the league with 311 DYAR after two weeks last season, while Ben Roethlisberger ended up leading at the end of the regular season with 1,572 DYAR.

    The good news for New England? In both aforementioned seasons where Brady graded out higher by PFF's metrics, the Patriots reached the Super Bowl. In a wide-open AFC field, his play is setting the Patriots apart from the competition at the moment.

    Pats Most Pass-Happy Team of Week 2

    Of course, the byproduct of Brady's hot start has been a tendency to rely almost solely on No. 12's arm. FootballPerspective.com's Chase Stuart creates game scripts for every game every week, measuring which teams are most run- and pass-happy based on how we'd expect them to call plays according to the game's score. In Week 2, Stuart noted that the Pats passed 30 percent more often than expected, which made them the most aerially skewed team of the weekend:

    Teams with large leads don’t pass very often; in general, you’d expect a team with a Game Script of +10.0 to pass around 50% of the time. But New England threw on 80% of all snaps! Much of that number owes to a stout Buffalo run defense, but that’s a remarkable pass-happy performance regardless of Game Script or opponent; given that it came in a game where New England dominated, it was even more noteworthy. By comparison, Minnesota had a Game Script of +10.4 against Detroit, and passed on just 31.7% of plays. In fact, none of the other 31 teams passed as often as New England in week two.

    According to TeamRankings.com, the Pats actually "only" rank sixth in passing-play percentage through the first two weeks, having dialed up passes on 70.9 percent of their offensive plays. However, New England also raised eyebrows by refusing to run the ball despite holding a four-possession fourth-quarter lead, as the Patriots essentially extended the game for a Bills team in need of time to mount their comeback.

    Of course, New England has always been a game plan-specific offense: This unit passed the ball on 80 percent of its plays in the divisional-round game against Baltimore last year before running the ball on over half its plays the next week against Indianapolis. The Pats should still lean on the pass based on their offensive personnel, but expect a more balanced run-pass ratio over the next month.

Latest Injury News

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
    PatriotsJaguars
    PlayerInjuryStatusPlayerInjuryStatus
    Ryan WendellIllnessOutAndre BranchKneeOut
    Dominique EasleyHipQuestionableJohnathan CyprienCalfQuestionable
    Dont'a HightowerShoulderProbableDwayne GratzAnkleOut
    Logan RyanShoulderProbableDenard RobinsonKneeDoubtful
    Trey FlowersKneeProbableToby GerhartAbdomenProbable
       Luke JoeckelAnkleQuestionable
       Marqise LeeHamstringProbable
       Brandon LinderShoulderQuestionable
       Sen'Derrick MarksKneeDoubtful
       Julius ThomasHandOut
       Allen HurnsThighProbable

    The mysterious illness that has kept Ryan Wendell out of the lineup thus far again figures to delay the start of his season. Given that he'd likely be operating at diminished weakness, it's best to keep Wendell out until after the bye, when the Pats could re-evaluate his potential fit at center or one of the guard slots. The same holds true for Dominique Easley, who remains on track to return after the bye following a limited return to practice. 

    Given the success New England has had with its lighter sub-package personnel utilizing Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, the Patriots can afford to wait for Easley to return to 100 percent. Hightower's presence on the injury report with a shoulder is most concerning here, given that he underwent major offseason shoulder surgery. Still, New England should be operating at roughly full capacity in Week 3.

    Jacksonville isn't nearly as lucky, with two of its most important playmakers in Marks and Julius Thomas yet to play a single snap because of ACL rehab and hand surgery, respectively. Moreover, the absences of Robinson and Gerhart have significantly thinned out the running back corps behind rookie T.J. Yeldon, while Andre Branch's absence further depletes an edge-rushing corps that is reeling from Dante Fowler Jr.'s lost rookie season.

    Clearly, the Patriots and Jaguars are at two different stages in terms of current health. With no rest over the final three months of the regular season, New England needs to escape Sunday's contest healthy almost as much as it needs the win.

    *Injury report via Patriots.com.

Key Matchups

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Malcolm Butler vs. Allen Robinson

    With Julius Thomas sidelined, the second-year receiver Robinson has emerged as Blake Bortles' go-to threat. Robinson showed flashes of promise in compiling 48 receptions for 548 yards last year before a broken foot ended his season in Week 12, and his explosive 155-yard performance against Miami last Sunday has him firmly on New England's radar.

    At 6'3", Robinson is a big-bodied receiver who profiled as more of a possession receiver rather than a deep threat coming out of Penn State. His current 26.0 yards-per-catch average is obviously unsustainable, but after using him conservatively his rookie season, Jacksonville has unleashed its top receiver on more vertical routes to great success in a limited 2015 sample.

    Butler has thus far justified his role as New England's No. 1 corner, bouncing back with a strong performance against the Bills after some ugly charting numbers covering Antonio Brown in Week 1. His length will come in handy against Robinson, but watch to see if the Patriots provide safety help for Butler against Jacksonville's most fluid route-runner.

    Nate Solder vs. Chris Clemons

    Solder has stood out in a few negative ways thus far this season, picking up a pair of penalties against the Steelers and losing track of Jerry Hughes last week for a critical fourth-quarter forced fumble. The Jags are without their two most dangerous pass-rushers—Sen'Derrick Marks is recovering from offseason ACL surgery, while rookie Dante Fowler Jr. is out for the year with his own torn ACL—but the vet Clemons is no easy task.

    Clemons compiled at least 11 sacks every season from 2010 to 2012, and after a down final year in Seattle, he rebounded during his first Jacksonville campaign to record eight sacks in 2014. The 33-year-old lacks the explosiveness seen in the league's most dangerous edge-rushers, but playing the "Leo" position in Gus Bradley's defense, Clemons possesses the savvy and understanding of angles necessary to win one-on-ones.

    The Pats don't seem likely to skew as heavily toward the pass as they have over the first two games, but Solder still needs a clean sheet in pass protection, if only to regain the confidence of Pats fans. Expect him to see plenty of Clemons when Jacksonville goes to its sub-package personnel on Sunday.

    Patriots Front Seven vs. T.J. Yeldon

    Jacksonville raised some eyebrows when it drafted Yeldon over the likes of Ameer Abdullah and Tevin Coleman, but the Alabama product has thus far justified that early second-round investment by shouldering a huge workload. Yeldon had 28 touches last week, a total that trailed only Adrian Peterson among all players in Week 2.

    Yeldon hasn't been particularly efficient thus far, averaging just 3.5 yards per touch, but he's clearly Jacksonville's preferred weapon on the ground, especially with Robinson and Gerhart injured. Balance was critical to keeping Bortles clean against the Dolphins, and jumping out to an early lead enabled the Jags to stick with Yeldon even while the results were spotty on the ground.

    The Pats offense might force Bortles and the Jags offense to play from behind, but expect Jacksonville to try to shorten the game by feeding Yeldon early. After allowing 5.7 yards per attempt over the first two games, the Patriots need a better showing against an opposing offense's ground game.

Matchup X-Factors

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    Patriots X-Factor of the Week: Aaron Dobson

    The much-maligned second-rounder opened some eyes last week with his seven-catch, 87-yard performance—totals that represented the second-best totals of Dobson's career. Playing nearly every snap as the No. 2 receiver opposite Julian Edelman, Dobson's role in the offensive game plan was a surprise after he was relatively anonymous in a one-catch, nine-yard performance against the Steelers.

    However, until Brandon LaFell returns from the PUP list, Dobson can be valuable because of his distinct physical profile in comparison with the Patriots' other receivers. Running a diverse route tree as New England's split end, Dobson finally fulfilled the role Patriots fans have been expecting in providing a logical complement to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola:

    [Healthy] Aaron Dobson is a huge addition to #Patriots offense. Can win in downfield iso & often gets off-coverage, space for inside slants

    — Matt Chatham (@chatham58) September 20, 2015

    The key now is whether Dobson can sustain that morsel of positive momentum. We've seen flashes before from him, but if Josh McDaniels continues to feature Dobson in integral roles, that would serve as the most definitive illustration of the receiver's long-awaited development. Given New England's perilous depth at wide receiver this season, Dobson's unexpected progress is far from academic.

    Jaguars X-Factor of the Week: Telvin Smith

    For Pats fans unfamiliar with the Jags linebacker, think of Smith as Jamie Collins lite. The 6'3", 223-pounder is much smaller than Collins, but like New England's three-down star, Smith possesses incredible movement fluidity. So while the Florida State product likely would have been written off as undersized a decade ago, Smith is an ideal fit in a sub-package-heavy league.

    Along with box safety Johnathan Cyprien, Smith will likely draw the majority of the Rob Gronkowski assignment. No one can stop Gronk, but Smith, who sealed last week's win, has the coverage aptitude to at least make New England's All-Pro tight end work. National analysts aren't underselling Smith, seeing the possible matchup as an exciting possibility:

    Will the #Jaguars put Telvin Smith on Gronk? If so, that's the matchup I'm most excited for in Week 3.

    — Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) September 22, 2015

    Of course, Jacksonville will need to bracket Gronkowski, especially in the red zone. Still, apart from elite options such as Luke Kuechly and DeAndre Levy, Smith might be better equipped to run with Gronk down the seams than any other linebacker in the league.

Prediction: Patriots 37, Jaguars 25

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Quite honestly, it's difficult to envision a scenario where the Patriots lose this game. The Pats are human and not immune from letdowns, and sometimes, they result in losses. Even if they don't come down to earth this week, it's legitimate to wonder if New England will exhaust itself playing so many high-intensity games week after week.

    Of course, the Jags hardly fall into that category, so Sunday's game will be an emotionally different experience from what the Patriots have experienced thus far. Playing an unfamiliar opponent filled with young talent could conceivably keep things close for two or three quarters, but it's hard to imagine the Pats' talent losing out in the end.

    Thus, Sunday's game is more important for tracking the overall state of the roster. Does the run defense improve against an underrated Jacksonville ground game? Will the secondary, and Bradley Fletcher in particular, eliminate the big downfield plays that have plagued an otherwise strong start? And can the Dion Lewis fairy tale stay alive for another week?

    Every team, undefeated or not, faces questions with such a small sample size in the rearview mirror. It's unlikely we'll learn much new about the Patriots this week, but that doesn't mean the roster can't continue to progress toward the level of play necessary to defend its Super Bowl title.

    Prediction: Patriots 37, Jaguars 25

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