Jaguars @ Patriots

Tom Brady against a 4 man pass rush is one of the things dreams are made of (yes, I have strange dreams). Brady is a master of exploiting defences that blitz to put him under pressure, but there’s a very good chance that the Jaguars won’t blitz at all unless they find themselves in a 3rd and very long situations and want to make sure their Defence gets of the field as soon as possible. Jacksonville’s Defensive linemen have combined for 47 sacks, forced 13 fumbles and they’ve even scored 3 touchdowns between them so they are a serious proposition for any Offence. There’s even a meme illustrating that the Jaguars have held Super Bowl winning Quarterbacks to just 8 touchdowns whilst they’ve intercepted them 11 times and held them to a collective passer rating of 44!

This would possibly indicate that the Patriots might be better advised to lean on their running game but last week the Steelers only managed to just 70 yards from 20 attempts. Although a lot of that was due to some bizarre play calling from Todd Haley who was subsequently fired and in part due to Le’Veon Bell not feeling the need to turn up to the last practice session before the game.

For their part last week the Patriots did rush for 101 yards on 27 carries but they favoured the run to the outside probably the avoid the Titans big defensive front, when the Steelers tried to run stretch plays against the Jaguars speedy Defensive the Jags outside Linebackers blew it up in the backfield more often than not. You can bet your bottom dollar that Josh McDaniels has been watching tape all week though and he won’t be calling slow developing run plays. He may chose to use screen passes instead of toss plays and he’ll use a lot of misdirection to try and catch the Jaguars over pursuing, for the Jaguars setting the edge and maintaining their discipline in gaps and assignments will be vitally important.

When it comes to discipline the Jaguars have a not so secret secret weapon, Tom Coughlin. Coughlin wanted the job of head coach but Jaguars owner Shahid Khan talked him into taking a front office job (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) where he has acted as both a sounding board and support structure for Head Coach Doug Marone when it comes the “X’s and O’s” but also when it comes to how to deal with players. Coughlin has famously overcome the Patriots in his previous guise as New York Giants Head Coach in two Super Bowl’s back in 2008 and 2012 so if there’s a coaching staff left in the post-season who could out think Bill Bellichick and company it has to be men from North East Florida.

However, here’s the breaks, the Steelers lit up the Jaguars Defensive backs last week with huge pass plays, Antonio Brown notched up 132 receiving yards on just 7 catches (and he had a very injured calf that he battled through). Tight End Vance McDonald had 112 yards of his own (Rob Gronkowski will win the game single handedly if he’s afforded that sort of space) and La’Veon Bell recorded 88 yards on 9 receptions. Ben Roethlisberger threw for an astonishing 469 yards and 5 touchdowns despite throwing an interception, losing a fumble and being sacked twice!

The Jaguars have a record of 1-10 against the Patriots and they have never beaten them in Foxborough in their previous 7 meetings. Tom Terrific hasn’t lost a playoff game since 2015 when the Broncos Defence got him in Denver (and there are similarities between that Broncos team and this Jaguars one, Malik Jackson played in that Broncos team before moving to the Jags. But are Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr as good as Vonn Miller and DeMarcus Ware?) Brady’s Patriots haven’t lost a playoff game in Gillette Stadium since Baltimore beat them 28-13 back in 2012 so the Jaguars will have to be almost perfect to upset them this time out.

There are 2 injuries that could prove vital to this game with Tom Brady being involved in an accidental collision at practice during the week and cutting his hand but I can’t see that stopping one of the most single minded individuals in the NFL. For the Jaguars however Leonard Fournette took a blow to his troublesome ankle (in November 2016 it was described as a “chronic problem”) and if he is anywhere less than 95% healthy his physical running style will be seriously hindered. Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon are both serviceable running backs (Yeldon particularly in the passing game) but Fournette brings the sprinkling of star dust the Jags Offence need in the playoffs. Blake Bortles has won two more games in the post-season than anyone was predicting but asking him to carry the Jags Offence on the road in a stadium where they have never won would be unwise and frankly unfair to someone in just their third playoff game.

I really do hope the Jaguars Defence can be as explosive and entertaining as they have been at their best this season (10 sacks in Houston, 5 interceptions in Pittsburgh the first time out and 7 Defensive touchdowns all season) but if you told me they are going to beat the Patriots with their iconic Quarterback in their own back yard I’d suggest you were the one who was having a strange dream.

Bills @ Jaguars 

If the Ravens had managed to record a home win over the 6-9 Bengals then the Bills wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. The “Bills mafia” have been thanking Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton by donating $17 (1 dollar for every year of their playoff drought) or $49 (because the winning touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd was a 49 yard completion) the Dalton Foundation has raised around $250,000. Others donated to Tyler Boyd’s fund-raising campaign and so far Boyd has received over $20,000 for a youth athletic foundation in Western Pennsylvania! So arguably the Buffalo fans have made a more valuable contribution to this NFL season than their team. On the road the Bills have won just 3 games all season but if the Buffalo faithful are looking for a glimmer of hope they have won 2 of their last 3. Their last road game was in Miami and the Dolphins gave away 5 first downs with penalties, the Bills Offence actually only managed to gain 18 first downs of their own volition. They’ve really struggled to run the ball on the road and all season they’ve looked like a team who get by on character and stubbornness over any kind of talent or flair. The one player who can provide plenty of skill and flair is running back LeSean McCoy (he’s scored 6 of their 28 Offensive touchdowns) but he will be carrying an injury and even though he’s expected to play he has struggled away from home this season even when he’s been fully fit. 

The Jaguars defence on the other hand has bags of talent, arguably enough talent to get them all the way to a Super Bowl. On average they have allowed opposing teams just 17 points per game at EverBank (and Wembley Stadium), in all of their last 3 road games the Bills have scored 16 points. The Jaguars have scored 105 in their last 3 games at EverBank Field. Injuries have played a part recently for the Jaguars too with star running back Leonard Fournette and several Offensive linemen missing game time, this week they have Tackle Cam Robinson and Centre Brandon Linden along with Tight-End Marcedes Lewis on the Injury Report but they all played at least some part in practice. 

I can’t see the Bills winning this game but there is a very real chance that the Jaguars could lose it. The play calling this season hasn’t always been sympathetic to Blake Bortles talents, they haven’t let him run too often and he always seems more composed and confident after he’s made a few positive plays of his own. If the Bills are to stand any chance at all they will need to run well and tire out the Jaguars pass rush, if they continue with their road struggles and have to resort to a pass heavy attack then Tyrod Taylor will be forced to choose between throwing rushed passes or being sacked by the electrifying Defensive front the Jags have amassed recently.

Bookmakers favour the Jaguars to win a close one (8 points or less) but if the Bills can’t stop Fournette and you’d imagine Chris Ivory on occasion running the ball then the Jaguars Offence could end up racking up the points like they did against the Ravens in London  and the Texans last time out in EverBank. 

Because it’s never too early to be wrong about the 2016 NFL Season…..

DSC_019817 weeks might seem like a long time to most people but to us NFL fans who are running out of NBA playoffs to watch it’s almost football season.  The Draft happened a whole week ago and some of the first rounder’s have already signed (about 8 at the last count, but hey-ho) so there’s something to talk about, well sort of.

The Jaguars massive offseason rebuild of the Defence is a good starting point, ESPN journalist Mike DiRocco has predicted that the Jags could only have 2 starting Defence players remaining from the 11 who started on the 7th of September 2014 against the Eagles (although 2nd year Strong Safety James Sample will have to go some to beat out Johnathan Cyprien who is a pretty talismanic member of the Jags backfield, 326 tackles in 44 games is not to be sniffed at).  The Jags drafted 6 defensive players and just 1 offensive player this year having drafted a mere 3 defenders in 2015 (one of whom Dante Fowler Jr. didn’t play at all after he blew his knee out on the first day of mini-camp) and 5 on the offensive side of the ball (now might a good time to point out that in January of this year they fired their Defensive Coordinator, tough break there Bob Babich. I bet he would have liked 6 new players to work with instead of just 2).  Dante Fowler Jr. should he make it out of preseason, will essentially be an extra 1st round pick for the Jags this season and when you realise they managed to snaffle Myles Jack (a projected 1st round linebacker whose athleticism allowed him to play at Safety and once at Cornerback during his college career) in the 2nd round after Jack was quoted as saying “Down the line, possibly I could have microfracture surgery – potentially”.  Jack said his fall from the 1st to 2nd round was “humiliating” (so he’s not lacking in motivation) and for the Jaguars drafting him was a calculated risk, if he’s healthy in the short term they’ve upgraded their linebacker corps but if he does require surgery they have 3 excellent linebackers in Posluszny, Skuta and Telvin Smith and the possibility of Dante Fowler playing as a stand-up edge rusher in certain situations.

So new Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash (alongside the 76 year old Monte Kiffin who has been named as “Assistant head coach of Defence”) certainly has a lot of toys to play with and the shiniest of all is first round pick Jalen Ramsey, but how he chooses to use him will be very interesting.  Ramsey himself said “I can play where they need me too.  I feel like I can work outside, in the slot or play deep”.  It’s that sort of humility that’ll hold him back you know!  To be fair to him he did suffix that quote with the old timey cliché “I have a lot to learn”, Ramsey ended his college career as a Cornerback but in his first year he also played Free Safety and became what Florida Sate call a “STAR” defender switching between Safety, Slot back and Linebacker.  Since the Jags have signed former Browns Safety Tashuan Gipson (who lead the NFL in interception return yards in 2014) Ramsey will probably line up opposite another new boy Prince Amukamara at Cornerback, but the Jaguars will certainly have the depth to rotate and interchange their Defensive backs regularly.  Personally I think Ramsey’s potential to become an Ed Reed style ball-hawking Free Safety is huge and since he ran on the FSU track team he could rattle up even more interception return yards than Gipson in the coming seasons, ally this with the fact that Sports Illustrated called him a “Force wrap tackler who thrives in the physical facet of the game” and I don’t think he’d be out of place at Safety in the NFL.

Rookie Defensive End Yannick Ngakoue broke the school record at Maryland last year for the most sacks in a season as he notched 13.5 in 12 games (he also forced a fumble and defended a pass), alongside Super Bowl 50 winner Malik Jackson, the already mentioned Dante Fowler Jr. and Miles Jack should assist Jared Odrick who lead the team in sacks last season should add much needed grunt up front for a team who recorded a pitiful 36 sacks last season (20th in the NFL).  They also drafted Tyrone Holmes in the 6th round who they have signed to a 4 year contract and they believe he could play in the Defensive line or as a strong-side linebacker their other 6th round pick was Johnathan Woodard who is a whopping 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 217 pounds so he may have some impact although his University of Central Arkansas College team were far from imposing during his career.

One slightly incongruous thing stands out from the Jags recent Defensive splurge though, Monte Kiffin is the man (along with Tony Dungy) known for developing the “Tampa 2” defence which is largely predicated on zone coverage and speedy, often undersized players (particularly Defensive backs).  The undersized part is already out of the window with this Jags defence, the linebackers and defensive backs are all fairly big but do fit incredibly speedy criterion.  Tampa 2 seems a strange Defence to lean toward in the AFC South where the main deficiency has traditionally been Offensive lines (the Jaguars themselves are no exception to this rule).  Between the 4 teams they allowed 178 sacks last season and all 4 teams finished in the bottom half of the league standings in terms of how well they protected their Quarterbacks so adopting a Defensive system where pass rush is key would seem a wiser decision as oppose to one where a premium is put on defending passes once they have been thrown and trying to make turnovers by hitting receivers hard instead of strip sacking the Quarterback which lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory.  Obviously a strong pass rush will assist the DB’s task when it comes to making turnovers, but to fully adopt the Tampa 2 Defence in a division that includes DeAndre Hopkins, Braxton Miller, T.Y Hilton and Dorial Green-Beckham certainly appears to be tempting fate even with the big hitters the Jags have accumulated in the defensive backfield.

In addition to the peculiar recruitment of the Tampa 2 guru the question marks over the Jags own Offensive line remain and if they are to have the dominant Defence they crave they will need a strong running offence to build long drives and allow the Defence to rest.  Signing Chris Ivory, who rushed for 1,070 yards last season (the most in the AFC) to work alongside with last year’s leading rusher TJ Yeldon (and hopefully my personal favourites Jonas Gray and Denaruis Robinson) is an excellent move (and they will need to share out the carries because all four of them have injury effected career’s) but with Kelvin Beachum (who is recovering from a left knee ACL injury) likely replacing Luke Joeckel and former Cowboy (the Dallas kind) Mackenzy Bernadeau likely to replace Zane Beadles who has joined up with another former Jaguar Blaine Gabbert in San Francisco at left guard there may well be a bedding period for the new combinations.

There’s certainly a lot to deal with for Jaguars Head Coach and with so many big names arriving in north-eastern Florida one would imagine the pressure to get almost immediately would be immense but GM David Caldwell was quoted recently saying that Gus Bradley’s job does rest on recording a winning record in 2016.  This came after Jaguars owner Shahid Khan claimed that a winning record was “everybody’s reasonable expectation” for the coming season.  While Caldwell’s view that the Jaguars are looking to the long term is commendable with the players the team have acquired and the coaching team they have in place the Jaguars should be looking for more than just a 9-7 record this season.  Although that record did win the AFC South last season they should reasonably expect 10 wins from a Head Coach who they signed to a one year contract extension in January even if Gus Bradley’s overall record is a less than convincing 12-36.