Pulling off a win in Week Two will not be easy for the New England Patriots. The Jacksonville Jaguars will be highly motivated after losing the AFC Championship Game, 24-20, just nine months ago. The defense is a star-studded unit with difference makers all across the board. However, the difference between victory and defeat comes down to the Jacksonville Jaguars running game. Jacksonville will want to pound the ball up the middle all day, and the Patriots defense needs to stop them from doing that.
New England Patriots Must Stop the Jacksonville Jaguars Running Game
The Jacksonville Jaguars invested the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft in running back Leonard Fournette, and the selection has paid dividends so far. Fournette is one of the better young runners in the league, recording 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie. The Jaguars led the league in rushing yards last season, and Fournette’s presence was a big reason why. Any team with Blake Bortles at quarterback will want to run the ball as much as possible, and Fournette gives them the chance to do it.
Fournette, however, is dealing with a hamstring injury, and might not even play in the game. The running back suffered a hamstring injury in Week One and is currently listed as day-to-day.
Even if Fournette can’t go, the Jaguars running game is still in good hands. Fournette missed three games during his rookie campaign, yet the Jaguars rushing attack didn’t miss a beat. Thanks to a strong offensive line, Jacksonville averaged 156 rushing yards in the three games Fournette didn’t play. That’s actually an improvement from the 141 yards they averaged on the season.
Even if the Patriots stop the Jaguars running backs, they’ll need to account for quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles, while one of the worst passers in the league, is actually one of the best running quarterbacks in football. Bortles averages 23.0 rushing yards per game, which ranks seventh all-time among quarterbacks with at least 60 starts. With a 6’-5”, 236-pound frame, Bortles is deceptively hard to bring down and surprisingly mobile.
Why This Is A Problem
The New England Patriots defense, by and large, had a fantastic first week of the season. The unit held quarterback Deshaun Watson to just 176 yards, one touchdown, and an interception. However, it wasn’t all perfect in Foxboro.
The Patriots allowed 167 rushing yards on 34 attempts. While Week One performances on their own shouldn’t be overanalyzed, this poor effort is a carryover from the previous Patriots team. The 2017 Patriots ranked 30th in Football Outsider’s run defense DVOA, meaning they were the third-worst team against the run.
In theory, the Patriots upgraded this issue with the addition of Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn, along with the healthy return of Derek Rivers and the natural development of Deatrich Wise. However, Week One’s results were concerning.
The Jaguars strength is running the ball, and it’s also the best way to beat the Patriots. Any team that wants to beat New England should keep Tom Brady on the sideline as much as possible. On paper, this could be a major issue entering Week Two, so what should New England do to prevent this issue?
How To Stop the Jaguars Run Game
The easiest answer to this question is to change up their personnel usage. Outside of the secondary, New England didn’t have a defensive player take more than 69% of the snaps. While the Patriots always operate on a rotation, look for the snap percentages to be a bit different in Week Two.
For one, star linebacker Dont’a Hightower only saw 68% of the snaps in his return to action. Hightower is coming off a season-ending injury, so it’s natural for the Patriots to limit his time on the field. However, he’ll probably see more action in his second game back. He probably won’t see every defensive snap, but he’ll see more than 68%. Hightower is easily the Patriots best run defender, and having him shoring up the middle of the defense will dramatically increase the unit’s production.
Additionally, look for defensive lineman Lawrence Guy to see a bigger role in Week Two. Guy is one of the most underrated players on the defensive line, and he showed why he deserves more playing time in the season opener. Guy played just 39% of the defensive snaps against Houston, but he made his presence felt. With Guy on the field, the Texans offense averaged just 2.1 yards per rush. With Guy off the field, Houston averaged 5.1 yards per rush.
Bill Belichick will be aware of those numbers when New England squares off against Jacksonville. Assuming Hightower is capable of seeing more snaps, the run defense should naturally improve. Additionally, handing Lawrence Guy a more prominent role along the defensive line should go a long way towards stopping the run.
Last Word on the Jacksonville Jaguars Running Game
If the Patriots want to beat Jacksonville, they will need to shut down the Jaguars powerful rushing game. Leonard Fournette is one of the better running backs in football, and Jacksonville’s offensive line is capable of making any rushing attack work. Even Blake Bortles is a threat to take off on any given snap.
However, there is a solution. The Patriots don’t really need to worry about Jacksonville’s passing game, so they should invest as many resources as possible into stopping the Jaguars rushing attack.
Having Hightower healthy will drastically help the run defense. Hightower is one of the best run defenders in the entire league, and his importance to the defense really cannot be overstated. Additionally, utilizing players like Lawrence Guy more frequently will improve the overall effectiveness of the Patriots defensive line.
Winning this game will not be easy, even if the Patriots can take away the Jaguars rushing game. However, if they can’t do this, New England doesn’t have much of a chance. Jacksonville’s entire offense runs through its running game; Blake Bortles isn’t beating anyone on his own. Additionally, the best way to beat the Patriots is by keeping Brady on the sideline for as long as possible. If Jacksonville can successfully run the ball, Brady will have less time on the field, which drastically hurts the Patriots chances.
This game should be a low-scoring, physical affair. While this outcome could go either way, New England should be the slight favorites here. Look for the Patriots to win a close one, 20-17.
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