6. What kind of protection can Tom Brady expect from Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer?
Jacksonville’s 15 sacks are easily the lowest of any team in the league; however, they boast a pair of talented defensive ends which could give Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer trouble. 2012 second-round pick Andre Branch is on injured reserve, but the Jaguars replaced him by claiming Jason Babin on waivers at the end of November. Babin has two sacks in three games with Jacksonville and seven on the season; he is just one year removed from an 18-sack campaign. Sebastian Vollmer will be responsible for defending against Babin’s speed rushes.
Opposite Babin is Jeremy Mincey, a former Patriots sixth-round draft pick who earned a four-year, $20 million contract back in March following an eight-sack 2011 season. However, Mincey has been unable to match last season’s production; he has just two sacks through 14 games. Hopefully Solder will be able to prevent Mincey from adding to that total this afternoon.
7. Does Jacksonville have the cornerbacks to cover Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd?
Jaguars general manager Gene Smith composed a moderate three-year, $9.75 million contract to lure former Giants cornerback Aaron Ross to Jacksonville last offseason, but the results have been disappointing. Ross’ playing time has dropped off in recent weeks after allowing 67.8% of his 59 targets to be completed on the season, including three throws which went for touchdowns; opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 109.4 rating against Ross. 2009 third-round pick Derek Cox has enjoyed an impressive campaign: he has allowed only 45 completions on 73 attempts, with one touchdown allowed and three interceptions made. Jacksonville has been using him a left cornerback with increased frequency.
Career Jaguar Rashean Mathis, with the team since being selected in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft, has played on both sides this season; opposing quarterbacks have posted a 109.7 rating on passes in his direction, but he has allowed just 22 of 37 passes to be completed. Jacksonville will likely experiment with cornerback/receiver matchups, but Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd should both be able to separate themselves with some regularity.
8. Who will be responsible for covering Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez?
Tight end Aaron Hernandez represents one of New England’s most dangerous offensive weapons; however, his production will to some extent depend on how Jacksonville attempts to cover him. Their best defensive back, Dwight Lowery, was placed on injured reserve yesterday with a foot injury; none of the Jaguars’ other options are particularly appealing. Weakside linebacker Russell Allen has been taken advantage of in coverage this season (48/59, 434 yards, two touchdowns); starting strongside linebacker Julian Stanford lacks field experience this season (352 snaps.)
Jacksonville’s strong safety, Dawan Landry, was signed to a five-year, $27.5 million pact in July 2011 to solidify the deep secondary; however, he has not lived up to his billing thus far. Opponents are averaging 8.53 yards per attempt over 40 throws in Landry’s direction, with three touchdowns and a 110.5 rating against. Without a dangerous third receiver on New England’s roster, the Jaguars may even assign one of their cornerbacks to cover Hernandez at times in an attempt to compensate for his athleticism and his agility.
9. Will New England be able to establish their rushing attack early in the game?
In a word, yes. Jacksonville ranks last in both rushing attempts against and in rushing yards allowed (484 carries for 2,074 yards.) Opponents have also scored 18 touchdowns on the ground, which places the Jaguars 31st in that regard. Although the players which compose Jacksonville’s defensive interior – middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, tackles Tyson Alualu, C.J. Mosley, and Terrance Knighton – are mostly recognizable, their inability to stop the run has precluded Jacksonville from stalling opponent drives. Posluszny has made 122 tackles this season, but typically they have occurred a few yards past the line of scrimmage.
Alualu, a former top-ten draft pick, has been disappointing this season as both a run defender and as a pass rusher. Knighton’s size (6’3”, 315 pounds) could earn him some snaps today, but lately his role has been usurped by Mosley, who has defended the run well this season while averaging roughly 45 snaps per game over the past few contests.
10. How long will Bill Belichick keep New England’s starters in the game?
By ruling out tight end Rob Gronkowski, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard early, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick appears to be indicating that he intends to give additional rest to central players in preparation for the postseason. New England has been submitting lengthy injury reports for weeks now; if the Patriots can build a commanding lead, they may be wise to replace many of their starters with reserve options.
The players currently dealing with injuries include wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, tight end Aaron Hernandez, offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, offensive guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly, defensive tackle Kyle Love, defensive end Chandler Jones, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, cornerback Aqib Talib, and safety Patrick Chung. Of course, additional valuable players may also be removed from the game as preventative measures; doing so would allow New England’s coaching staff to evaluate their depth players. Backup quarterback Ryan Mallett has thrown only four passes on the season; it may be wise to showcase him if possible, especially against a Jaguars team which should be interested in adding a quarterback this offseason.