NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
After splitting a pair of difficult matchups against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, the New England Patriots receive something of a break this week: the 10-4 Patriots will face off against Jacksonville’s 2-12 squad, which would be picking second if the NFL Draft were to start today. New head coach Mike Mularkey proved unable to recreate some of the success his offenses in Atlanta enjoyed; star running back Maurice Jones-Drew has appeared in just six games this season, and will be unavailable again today. Read on for ten keys to today’s seemingly-lopsided AFC matchup.
1. What type of game will Chad Henne have against New England?
Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne has been disappointing this season as an injury replacement for prior starter Blaine Gabbert; Jacksonville is just 1-3 with Henne as the starting quarterback, and despite his 8:5 touchdown to interception ratio, he is completing just 51.9% of his passes, easily a career low and well below his average of 59.2%. However, cause for concern remains with Henne as a consequence of his previous success against the Patriots.
In September 2011, Henne had one of the best games of his career against New England, completion 30/49 passes for 416 yards and two touchdowns while adding a rushing touchdown and 59 yards on the ground. Luckily, the chances of Henne replicating that performance are slim; Henne has completed less than half of his passes, with a 1:3 TD:INT ratio against each of the other AFC East clubs in the past three weeks: Buffalo, New York, and Miami. Despite being forced to carry the majority of the offensive load without Maurice Jones-Drew active, Henne will likely find himself unable to keep Jacksonville’s offense on pace with New England’s.
2. How will New England’s secondary hold up against Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts?
With Patriots starting right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard having being ruled out of the game, New England will be forced to cover Jaguars wideouts Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts with a thin secondary. Devin McCourty is likely to remain at free safety, which would leave Aqib Talib on the left side and Kyle Arrington on the right; New England’s slot cornerback should be Marquice Cole. Blackmon, the fifth overall selection in this year’s NFL Draft, struggled to begin the season but has increased his production in recent weeks: on the season, he has caught 51 of his 105 targets (48.6%) for 707 yards and three touchdowns.
Shorts has been a slightly more effective weapon: his 49/91 receiving has gained Jacksonville a total of 925 yards and seven touchdowns. Considering the relatively similar production of Jacksonville’s receivers, the Patriots may opt to leave each of their cornerbacks on one side of the field. Luckily, the Jaguars are relatively thin at receiver with Laurent Robinson on injured reserve; their third option at this point is Jordan Shipley, who has just 11 catches on the season. New England’s lack of defensive back depth may fortunately be offset by Jacksonville’s two-deep receiving corps.
3. What kind of performance is Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis in for this afternoon?
To compensate for their lack of a third receiver, Jacksonville may ask former first-round pick Marcedes Lewis to run more pass patterns; on the season, he has executed a higher number of blocking assignments than passing assignments. Using Lewis’ combination of size (6’6”, 260 pounds) and athleticism against New England’s zone coverages could yield a high return for the Jaguars; the Patriots have traditionally struggled against tight ends, and Lewis has size which may prevent him from being covered by any of New England’s safety options.
To defend against Lewis, the Patriots must protect the middle of their defense; Lewis has gained 254 of his 410 yards on targets over the middle. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has been ruled out; in his absence, New England may opt to shift Rob Ninkovich from left end to strongside linebacker and Dont’a Hightower from the strongside to the middle. That would leave New England with Brandon Deaderick, Trevor Scott, or Justin Francis to man the left end spot opposite Chandler Jones.
4. Can Chandler Jones provide pressure against elite left tackle Eugene Monroe?
Chandler Jones remains the New England pass rusher most likely to success in this afternoon’s matchup, even if he draws a very difficult assignment: Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe. On the season, Monroe has allowed just four sacks, six hits, and 18 quarterback pressures while succeeding in the run game as well. Monroe is regarded as an excellent technician with a rare combination of size (6’5”, 315 pounds) and athleticism.
Jones’ ankle injury has contributed to his failure to record a sack since week eight; however, he has been able to provide New England with a total of 75 snaps over the past two weeks, slightly more than half of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. Some pressure from Jones could mitigate the projected shift of Rob Ninkovich from left end to strongside linebacker. The battle between Jones and Monroe appears likely to end up as the most interesting one-on-one duel of the day when Jacksonville possesses the ball.
5. Will Jacksonville’s interior offensive line be able to prevent constant disruption?
The Jaguars may have a franchise left tackle in Eugene Monroe, but the remainder of their offensive line is a mess. From left guard to right tackle, their starters are Austin Pasztor, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri, and Cameron Bradfield. None of the aforementioned players will have an easy time this afternoon; Henne and starting running back Montell Owens should have a difficult time compensating for interior pressure from the heart of New England’s defense. In particular, nose tackle Vince Wilfork should have one of his most productive games of the season against Meester, Jacksonville’s underpowered 35 year-old center.
To exacerbate matters, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may opt to rush New England’s linebackers regularly in an attempt to overload blocking schemes. Ninkovich has eight sacks on the season, Dont’a Hightower has three of his own, and Jerod Mayo’s three sacks do not satisfactorily represent the danger he has presented as a pass rusher this season. Henne has a 36.8% completion percentage and a matching 36.8 quarterback rating against pressure; Jacksonville is averaging less than four yards per carry on inside rushing attempts.