These are the AFC Conference champions who have represented this noxious conference in the Super Bowl over the last seven years. There was almost someone entirely different in the last dance this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars went into Foxborough, led 14-10 at the half, and eventually had a 20-10 lead with 14:52 left in the fourth quarter. They, of course, blew it.
But before the inevitable happened, before Danny Amendola took a short punt to the 30 yard line and got three feet in bounds to take the lead, the Jags took it to New England offensively and defensively. In the first half, Nathaniel Hackett had the Patriots’ defense swaying and off balance.
During that spat of fabricated time, the Jaguars faced a vertically stacked defense. The Patriots played with nine men in the box to stop the run and one safety deep, just as they should have. The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing attempts and rushing yards; they never fully trusted Blake Bortles this season. The Patriots have a meek front seven of their own.
This is what the Jags faced the entire first half. It’s first and ten. They are running an inside zone play and are able to create three strong double teams. New England has nine men in the box and one safety back to counter their 2x2x1 personnel. A.J. Cann and Brandon Linder make a great ‘ace’ block. Linder is especially beautiful at using his shoulder to go from stumbling to turning Elandon Roberts (#52) out of the hole. In the first half, the Jaguars were able to tun the ball 11 times for 40 yards.
To counter these stacked boxes the Jaguars used their speed, something they have a lot of. They have the fastest defense in football. Their offense is filled with speedy undrafted and late round twenty-somethings. They turned them loose out on the edges, taking each end of the Patriots’ defense, and pulled into they split them in half.
The primary way they did this was by using read-pass options. They got the ball outside and used the numbers game to their advantage. This is first and ten on their first touchdown scoring drive. Bortles carries the hand off inside while the offensive line blocks like it is a zone read play. Because of Bortles’s running ability, the outside linebacker is forced to come downhill and watch for cutbacks and Bortles keeping. Now the Jaguars have three receivers to the Patriots’ two defensive backs.
Corey Grant, an undrafted free agent out of Auburn, takes a step back to receive the pass with tight end Marcedes Lewis and wide receiver Marqise Lee to block two defensive backs. This is a perfect world. On most of these quick screens teams live with one blocker for two defenders and hope their receiver can make one guy miss. Grant has a human shield in front of him. Lewis and Lee annihilate puny New England and Grant scampers for an easy twenty yards.
This is the same play. Except this time the defensive end wises up some. He stops, and chases back to stop the screen. It doesn’t matter. Grant again has two blockers ahead of him. Even with a perfect pursuit angle Grant is too fast for the unblocked defender to come back and make a tackle
Now, I wouldn’t call this the inverse, because these plays aren’t the opposite. These are just runs packaged into the same formation and play call. When the numbers skewed the other way the Jaguars were able to run the ball with success. These quick screens opened up Jacksonville’s other option.
This is the exact same play and formation as the previous two. The Jaguars had a bunch left wide receiver formation with Grant as the deep receiver and two receivers in front of him. This time, however, New England had two safeties deep. Jacksonville’s two blockers would block the two outside defensive backs, but are unable to account for the safety. Additionally, both the outside linebacker and defensive end are in a position to come from behind to make a tackle. The easy 20 yard gain is no longer here.
New England’s entire playside defense rushes right to defend the play that has chewed them up throughout the first half when Jacksonville blocks down. The defensive end gets deep and wide right away. The linebacker chases. The safety rolls over.
Instead Leonard Fournette gets the hand off. The Jaguars are able to get two double teams. There’s only one linebacker they need to pull up on because the other has been yanked to the other side of the field. They have five offensive linemen to block four defenders with the receiver blocking the defensive back. This is whiteboard scribbling come true.
Fournette adds to this perfect scenario by using his vision to find the best route, and breaks one tackle to gain extra yards.
This play is nearly identical, but from a behind view. The main difference is the bunch on the right is closer to the tight end, and Bortles doesn’t even throw an imaginary football out that way. He takes the snap and gives right to T.J. Yeldon.
The Jaguars are blocking the zone read towards the left. It leaves Cam Robinson one on one against James Harrison, Patrick Omameh with an individual block, a power scoop (strong backside double team) between Linder and Cann, and Jeremy Parnell having to reach the inside shoulder of the defensive end. They have five guys to block five defenders while the Patriots have four defending three without the ball.
New England sees the down blocks, and they react by getting wide. They are separated in half. Omameh takes on the defensive tackle head on. Linder punches and turns the shoulders. Cann does a spectacular job at getting deep and running his feet so he can hit his landmark—the defensive lineman’s inside shoulder.
Linder peels off at a perfect angle. His head is outside.
Omameh and Robinson do enough. They just have to cover up their defenders. Cann abuses the defensive tackle, and Linder swallows up the linebacker.
When Yeldon bounces the run outside everyone is blocked except for the free safety. Ain’t nobody have enough men for that.
He squeezes around Keelan Cole’s block (#84) and gets knocked out of bounds by the safety 12 yards down the field. 2nd and 13 turns into third and short by running the ball at a surprised and unbalanced defense.
The Jaguars furthered the Patriots’ intoxication by using play action on first and ten to set up easy throws for Bortles. In the first half Bortles completed 13 of his 15 passes for 208 yards. He had 11 first downs on those 13 completions and a quarterback rating of 113.4. Everything was easy and open and short. Creating a veil with his speed and Fournette’s power running to pick and pop their way down the field.
The biggest play action pass came on first and ten and took the ball all the way to New England’s four yard line. The genius of the play is the Jags have only one true receiver. He’s lined up outside wide left. Despite this, they are able to get four receivers out of a heavy run formation.
New England scurries back in coverage like roaches under couches once the light switch gets flipped up. In their frenzy two defenders run with the tight end on the corner route, opening up an easy and wide open dump off into the flat for Bortles. Grant takes this path and claws at the endzone.
They pop off the drive with a play action touchdown throw. In a twist the Jaguars line up in the shotgun at the four yard line. They fake the inside run. Tight end and NFL 2K5 alum Marcedes Lewis blocks the defensive end at the line of scrimmage, and peels off to the corner of the endzone. The slant receiver comes into the alley defender and throws him off the scent, creating an easy and open touchdown throw.
As great as the Jaguars’ first half offense was the one thing they didn’t do was attack the Patriots down field. Bortles attempted only 8 deep passes this game, completing 3 for 82 yards. All game they had single safety looks. This is a slap in the face for a quarterback. Offenses have to throw defenses out of single safety looks to open up their staple run plays. The entire game this is what the Jaguars’ defense was looking at pre-snap.
Bortles is a good downfield thrower. This was his game to start his career. Put the ball up high and far and let his receivers go up and get it. This season they turned it down a notch. Focusing on crossing routes and getting their players in space while clipping Bortles’s wings. However, in a game like this, you have to take shots. The Jaguars took one shot in the first half and Bortles put it right on Cole against Malcolm Butler.
In the second half everything changed. Jacksonville never got past the Patriots 25 yard line. Their only points came from Josh Lambo rocking some long field goals. Their average drive started at their own 18 yard line. They were horrified of Bortles Bortling. They looked down at their arms covered with past scars created by his 38 career fumbles and 64 interceptions. With a lead, and poor field position, Jacksonville decided not to attack the Patriots’ defense in fear of handing away easy points. Their offense became boring and repetitive with this field position change. They became predictable.
In the first half Jacksonville threw the ball 8 times on first down, had 8 completions and 102 passing yards, and ran the ball 9 times for 32 yards. They faced only 5 third downs the entire time. In the second half the Jaguars ran the ball 10 times for 25 yards on first down and threw it 5 times for 23 yards and completed only 2 passes. Their offense was no longer diverse and unpredictable. It was stale and repetitive. Run the ball on first down, and then see if Bortles can pick it up on third out of the shotgun while scrubbing ‘no turnovers’ deep into the folds of his brain.
While Jacksonville’s offense adjusted to a less interesting version of themselves the Patriots’ defense adjusted to take away the outside passes and runs.
On their first drive of the second half the Jaguars came out of that same bunch formation. This time the Patriots were ready. They had nine defenders in the box. They had four defenders wide, including their outside linebacker playing hand down and heads up with Lewis. Jacksonville made no attempt to diversify the play. They ran a toss play that forced Cam Robinson to pull and block the inside safety. It didn’t work.
New England also coached up their defenders to get wide and trap the backs to the sideline. No longer were they going to let the Jaguars’ ball carriers get outside of them and scamper for 15 and 20 yards.
The Patriots defensive goal switched. Their goal wasn’t to stop the inside run game at first. It was to stop these quick outside passes and runs. They loaded up the edges like they did on the previous play.
This third and four was also stopped. The Jaguars motioned a receiver to the right to catch the quick roll out. The Patriots again had four defenders wide.
The most important of which was Trey Flowers (#98). He jumped the snap and immediately got wide. Robinson shoved him outside of Lewis. When Bortles rolled to his right he had an open receiver thanks to Lee getting deep and then narrowing his route to the sideline to beat Gilmore. But Flowers was there. He leaped and squashed a first down with his hands.
New England’s defense was no longer swaying with sour breath. Their defensive formations matched up nicely with the crust that Jacksonville threw out there.
With this change, the Jaguars stopped with the read pass options. They went to the basics. Inside running with Fournette. The Jags’ run blocking was good in the first half. It wasn’t spectacular, but they made enough of their blocks to get their backs into the second level. In the second half, once the sideline runs were gone, they missed blocks detrimental to the play. The Patriots’ defense played downhill and fast and ran past secondary blocks to swallow up Fournette before he could make anything happen.
Most of these run plays were ruined by one missed block. 4/5 of the line would do their job only for one to destroy the entire batch. Here, Jacksonville is running the outside zone to the right on first and ten with the fullback leading. Everything looks good. But Robinson fails to turn the defensive end inside. Flowers is able to get wide and slam the hole shut.
This is another first and ten run. Except this time it comes out of the same RPO set up as before. The Patriots have four defenders over to cover the bunch formation. The Jaguars have five offensive linemen to block four. The same as earlier.
Except this time Cann (#60) gets too wide and over runs his block. Brown his able to fight across his face and stop the run for two yards.
In addition to this, the Patriots started blitzing on first down to eat up the Jaguars’ run game. Everything was expected. Nothing was new or different. As a result, the Jags averaged only 2.5 yards a carry on first down. 1.5 yards less than necessary for a successful first down play.
The Patriots first down defense put the Jaguars into long third downs and forced Bortles to throw. Bortles completed 4 of his 8 third down attempts for 38 yards during the second half. On these plays he needed an average of 9.44 yards to convert for the first.
In these situations the Patriots used zone blitzes and rolled Eric Rowe over to cover the outside routes to stop the easy throws the Jags tried to create. On this third and 8 the Jaguars attempted to run the route concept that had taken over the NFL postseason. The outside receiver runs a slant and jams the inside defender, and the inside receiver runs a wheel route wide.
The Patriots didn’t want to allow anymore quick throws outside. So they had Rowe roll over from the safety position to cover the wide side of the field, blitzed the nickle back to force the ball out of Bortles’s hand early, and dropped the inside linebacker to the center of the field.
Bortles doesn’t get the ball out quick enough. He tosses the ball outside with the defensive back in his face. They end up settling for three.
This was a third and three New England stopped by doing the same thing. Rowe rolls over. The outside receiver carries the outside defensive back inside, and gets in the way to open up the inside receiver. He does this. But Rowe is there. He sticks Lee once the ball arrives. Short of the sticks.
First downs were unsuccessful runs. Third downs were Bortles shotgun dropbacks where New England forced him to put the ball where they wanted it. Consequently, the smooth-moving Jacksonville offense sputtered. In the second half, Bortles completed 10-21 passes for 128 yards. He was a completely different player in a completely different offense.
The end narrative is that Jacksonville tried to hang on. They trusted the best pass defense in football to hold on and allow their offense to whimper to a conference championship. The Patriots didn’t allow this. That’s what happened.
But the Jaguars playing scared because of field position, New England’s defense clicking back into place, the adjustments the Patriots made to stop the sideline to sideline attack, and missed blocks that put Jacksonville in long third downs is why it happened. Because of this, we are spending Super Bowl week talking about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick getting one for the thumb instead of an impossible quarterback clash between Blake Bortles and Nick Foles.