For weeks, an AFC championship game matchup between the Patriots and Jaguars felt like little more than a pipe dream for football nerds. The idea of Tom Brady taking on Jacksonville’s top-ranked pass defense with a Super Bowl berth on the line was an X’s-and-O’s fantasy, but all signs pointed to a Pittsburgh–New England rematch happening on this stage. Bill Belichick scheming for Jalen Ramsey and friends seemed to be nothing more than a fun hypothetical. Well, Championship Sunday is almost here, and so is the clash over which many NFL junkies have salivated. It presents the perfect opportunity to dive deep on what should be the most fascinating element of a fascinating game.
In my mind, the most important factor when the Patriots have the ball this weekend will be their use of specific personnel groupings. Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis wrote an excellent breakdown highlighting the numbers for Jacksonville’s defense when facing particular packages, and found that the Jags allowed an average of just 4.9 yards per attempt and an opposing passer rating of 73 when offenses threw out of 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end). That is patently absurd, as 11 personnel is by far the most popular personnel package in the league. When offenses lined up with three or more receivers on the field (which most do on the majority of snaps), the Jags completely suffocated them.
Jacksonville finished first in Football Outsiders’s pass defense DVOA, first in net yards per attempt allowed, and first in opposing passer rating. Yet even with all of that success, it exhibited one major weakness: This group struggled to defend the pass when offenses went big. When opponents threw out of 12 (one running back, two receivers, two tight ends), 21 (two running backs, two receivers, one tight end), and 22 (two running backs, one receiver, two tight ends) personnel, the Jags allowed an average of 9.6 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 99, per Sharp. That’s a stark contrast to their numbers against more wide-open formations.
Smart offenses do a good job of throwing out of atypical passing formations on early downs, to the point that even good defenses have issues slowing those plays. The problem for the Jags in this matchup is that the Patriots pass out of heavy packages better and more frequently than any other offense in the league, and that could prevent Jacksonville from deploying the scariest subpackage defense in football.
Let’s dig into how, specifically, base personnel affects the Jags defense more than others. Jacksonville’s most dangerous group of 11 defenders is its nickel package. With cornerback Aaron Colvin in the slot and rotational rusher Dante Fowler Jr. in the game, the Jags are terrifyingly fast and lack an identifiable weakness against the pass. Yet take those two off the field, and the cracks begin to emerge. In base personnel, veteran linebacker Paul Posluszny replaces Colvin in the back seven. Posluszny is an intelligent and savvy pass defender, but the 33-year-old is also athletically limited at this point in his career. If an offense is picking a guy to go after in this defense, it’s likely going to land on him. When the 49ers hit a long wheel route to fullback Kyle Juszczyk against Jacksonville in Week 16, it was clear that Posluszny was doing all that he could to catch up.
Heavier offensive formations also keep the Jags’ devastating rush packages off the field. With Fowler on the bench and either Marcell Dareus or Abry Jones playing defensive tackle, the league’s best pass rush loses some of its bite. This is true for any defense forced to defend the pass out of its base personnel. But not every defense can wreck an offense by bumping Calais Campbell inside when it goes to nickel.
After forcing Jacksonville to line up with the defenders they’d prefer, the Patriots will likely attack the Jags in a few specific ways. It may not run as many bootleg designs with a 40-year-old Brady under center as the Niners and Jimmy Garoppolo used to roast the Jags back in December, but New England still loves to use play-action with run-heavy personnel in the game. When the Patriots keep a couple of inline tight ends or a fullback in their traditional spots, expect them to use a play fake to set up a shot or two down the seam to Rob Gronkowski. Play-action accentuates an offense’s deception when throwing out of heavy sets, but the Pats likely won’t need it to find chunk throws. Jacksonville tends to creep its safeties directly over the tight end in certain formations; that could leave Gronk with space to work against Barry Church or Tashaun Gipson. The Jags finished 20th in pass defense DVOA against tight ends this season, and now they’ll face the best receiving tight end who’s ever walked the earth. Don’t be surprised to see Ramsey cover Gronk in certain situations, including in the red zone.
If New England chooses to play straight up with 21 or 12 personnel on the field, it should still have an advantage on throws to Gronk or concepts that get receivers in the middle of the field, with Posluszny in the game and one of the Jaguars’ safeties absent from the back end. That advantage could be amplified if the Patriots decide to spread the Jaguars defense out with each base group in the game. Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves to mess with defenses by huddling with fullback James Develin or a second tight end before lining up in an empty set. This makes for one of the coolest wrinkles of any offense in football; it would also seem to make plenty of sense against the Jags.
By spreading receiving options all over the field while a defense is lined up in base personnel, McDaniels essentially gives Brady his pick of which matchup to exploit. Running backs James White and Rex Burkhead can pose nightmares for linebackers when acting as receivers, yet if a defense moves a safety out wide to hang with White, that could potentially leave an inside linebacker to the deal with the likes of Gronkowski or a receiver. There simply aren’t many favorable options. And if a defense does take a linebacker out of the box, it leaves itself vulnerable to the chance that New England’s split running back returns to the backfield via motion to rip off a big gain on the ground.
It may seem like the advantages are piling up for the Pats, but there are plenty of areas in which Jacksonville has the edge. New England tried to lean on a similar approach against the Texans in last season’s divisional round; Houston gave Brady lots of problems in the Pats’ 34-16 victory. If Jacksonville wins Sunday, it will presumably be because its front four dominated. Given Jags defensive coordinator Todd Wash’s willingness to line his stud pass rushers up all over the place, that scenario isn’t hard to imagine.
The most attractive alignment for a Jacksonville defensive lineman would be game-wrecking end Yannick Ngakoue facing off against hobbled backup Patriots right tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Ngakoue spends the bulk of his time rushing off the right side, but the Jags use him as a left defensive end from time to time. By having Ngakoue avoid left tackle Nate Solder and attack Waddle instead, Wash would create an ideal speed mismatch. Where things could get truly frightening is if the Jags pair Ngakoue on the right side with Campbell as a 3-technique tackle over New England left guard Joe Thuney. Thuney, a third-round pick out of NC State in 2016, has been solid, but he’s definitely on the lighter side at 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds. Campbell is a 300-pounder who can absolutely crush smaller guards when given the chance. Having Campbell crumble the pocket and force Brady in Ngakoue’s direction represents Jacksonville’s best recipe for generating a turnover.
Brady struggled more against the blitz this season than he has in years past, but the book on how to beat him remains largely the same: rush four and manhandle New England’s receivers. While sending extra rushers may not be the best move for a defense going against the Patriots, there are ways to be creative in getting after Brady. In last year’s playoffs, the Texans sent linebacker Whitney Mercilus as an interior rusher on several occasions, causing both confusion and a speed mismatch on the inside. This tactic isn’t a staple of the Jags defense, but it’s certainly part of its repertoire.
With Fowler and Campbell on the outside, Jacksonville could deploy Ngakoue as a standup interior rusher and have him work alongside Malik Jackson to get the best of Pats center David Andrews. Ngakoue doesn’t fill that role often, but he hasn’t needed to. The Jags will need every advantage they can get against New England, and Ngakoue serving as an interior rusher may be one of them.
The problem with that wrinkle is that it would only work if the Jags are lined up in their sub package. Being able to use Campbell inside and out, no matter the situation, gives Jacksonville’s defense immense flexibility. If Fowler isn’t on the field to hold down the opposite edge, though, the Jags just don’t have enough pass-rush firepower to use Ngakoue inside.
My gut feeling is that the Jags will run into these sorts of issues too often to win this weekend. Jacksonville has assembled a staggering amount of pass-defense talent over the past few years, and watching that group fully come into its own this season was one of the highlights of a bizarre 2017 campaign. But in the Patriots, Jacksonville finds an offense that should excel at exploiting its biggest weakness. Brady will likely find openings when each team is lined up in its base personnel, and that might prove too much for this feisty Jaguars bunch to overcome.