Saturday, September 26, 2015

Lewis, Twin Towers Present Challenge For Jacksonville's Stout Front Seven

So, Tom Brady is pissed off.

And why not?  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ruined his Super Bowl week, victory celebration, Valentine's Day, Easter, Spring Break and most of his summer with his relentless pursuit of cheating allegations aimed at the New England Patriots' quarterback, who wisely chose to remain mute with legal action pending against the league.

He remained quiet while the national media - not to mention quite a few Boston media personalities - trashed his character. He remained quiet while several of his contemporaries suggested that he should fess up and admit that he had a hand in deflating footballs, and when many Patriots' fans publicly pleaded with him to accept whatever reduced penalty he could get and just put the whole issue behind him.
Rookies Andrews (60) and Mason (R) have their hands full

But Brady never wavered. He stood firm when the NFL was leaking false information to various media outlets - ok, ESPN and the Indianapolis Star - He stood tall when the owners of 31 NFL teams and their fans prayed for his ban to hold and he kept his mouth shut, waiting for the season to start so that he could do his talking with his play.

Yes, Tom Brady is angry - not just angry, but a special kind of pissed off.

Brady has eight months worth of remaining quiet and unable to defend himself in public under his fingernails - and now that he can speak about deflategate, he refuses.  Brady stiffed NBC Sports when he had originally agreed to a post-game interview following the season opener against Pittsburgh, mostly because the talking heads that hosted the pregame show had already discussed the issue ad nauseum.

Tom Brady has nothing to apologize for, nothing to explain - and whatever he feels he needs to get off of his chest, he appears to want to do it on the football field, taking down one antagonist at a time - the aforementioned stiffing of the national media on opening night his first act of defiance to a group of people who dragged his character through the mud since January...

...and then the entire Buffalo Bills defense who had nary a good word to say about Brady nor the Patriots in general the week before the sure first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback punked them to the tune of 466 yards last week - and this weekend, his sniper sites are set on the Jacksonville Jaguars.

No particular reason to rip their defense to shreds, other than the Patriots are hyper-motivated and intensely focused on a fifth Lombardi Trophy, and the Jaguars are in the way.

But if one was really reaching for a reason for Brady to have a little extra mustard on his throws this Sunday, he could do a Bobby Boucher and imagine that now-retired, ex-Jaguars' quarterback Mark Brunell is under center for Jacksonville, and Brady most assuredly has a score to settle with that guy - Brunell appearing on ESPN just hours after the whole Deflategate business broke into a major news story, shedding tears at the thought that Brady had something to do with the controversy.

But that's absurd, right? The best thing that Brady could do in that situation is to tell Brunell that he's drinking the wrong water, and that his momma told him that Brunell was the devil, and that "Foosball" is the devil's game.

Most feel that the Jaguars are perennial doormats, and while that has been the case for the past dozen seasons or so, it appears that head coach Gus Bradley has his team ready to take an upward turn, particularly on defense, where the Jags are loaded with talent and aggression in their front seven, even in spite of losing their prize first-round rookie to a torn ACL.
Chandler (88), Gronkowski and Lewis should be too much for Jaguars defense

In fact, the Jacksonville Jaguars are in first place - and while it's true that being in first place after the second week of the season doesn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things - except when considering that they play in the God-awful AFC South division - folks should just let them have this moment of glory, because it isn't going to last long...

...not because anyone in their division is showing any signs of life and not because their schedule is that brutal and not even because their own offense is terrible, but simply because they are the next victim of the New England Patriots, who have the aforementioned huge chip on their collective shoulders.

But what better way to assess where your team truly is early in the season than to take on the defending world champions on their home turf, where anything remotely resembling a close game would give the Jaguars a big shot of confidence heading into the rest of their schedule, which right now looks like an lineup of patsies?

In fact, the Patriots, Falcons and the upstart New York Jets are the only team on Jacksonville's schedule over .500 to start the season, while the rest of their opponents are a combined 4-18 after two weeks of play, hardly a murderer's row of foes, even with teams like the Colts and Ravens on the list, both a dismal 0-2.

Does that mean that there is hope for the downtrodden Jaguars?  Certainly it does if their defense continues to improve from last season, and if their offense can hold out and keep putting together balanced attacks until their injured stars return from the hot tub - but the next three weeks will tell them all they need to know about the character of the team going forward... after they visit Foxborough on Sunday, they travel to Indianapolis to face a desperate Colts' team that can't get out of their own way on offense and then go to Tampa Bay to face a Buccaneers' team that is currently 1-1 after two weeks before heading home to host the Texans.

About the only thing that the Jags have going for them coming into their Sunday matchup with the Patriots is that they can run the ball, and have done so against two pretty decent front sevens in Carolina and Miami, while defensively holding both to a dismal 2.9 yards per rush, good for second in the NFL.

In that respect, it appears that the Jaguars are building a team with a solid fundamental base despite a rash of injuries that have plagued them since the inception of the offseason.

First round draft pick OLB/DE Dante Fowler tore his ACL in OTA's, which was a huge blow to the Jaguars dream of not only putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but doing so at an elite pace. Jacksonville recorded 45 sacks last season, the majority coming from their blind side combination of three-tech tackle Sen'Derrick Marks (8.5), defensive end Chris Clemmons (8) and reserve end Ryan Davis (6), but hardly anything coming from the strong side combination of Roy Miller and Tyson Alualu.

But the Jaguars did not settle for the same production going into 2015, as they backed up the Brinks' Truck to Jared Odrick's bank account, making him the fourth highest paid defensive tackle in the game to pry him away from Miami and joining an interior rotation that is suddenly stout against the run and can get after the quarterback.

In fact, the Jaguars' rotation on the interior could be one of the strongest on the schedule for the Patriots, and certainly the most underrated - but takes a significant hit as Marks is doubtful to play on Sunday while still rehabbing a knee injury that ended his 2014 season, meaning that the veteran reserve Alualu has become a more significant part of the tackle rotation in Jacksonville's 4-3 alignment.

Obviously, Marks' absence is terrific news for the New England interior linemen, who have been impressive against two of the better pass rushing teams in as many weeks to open the season, even giving Brady time to step into his throws, and the results have been staggering

On the second level, the trio of second-year man Telvin Smith, veteran incumbent Paul Posluszny and San Francisco retread Dan Skuta are solid. Smith was a tackling machine from his weak side post in 2014 and was adequate in coverage, defending four passes and chipping in with two blitz sacks, while Posluszny was limited to just seven games after suffering a torn chest muscle. In his tenth season, the Penn State product is closing in on the 1000 tackle plateau.

The Patriots' running game to this point has been based primarily with utilizing the skill set of running back Dion Lewis, who is easily one of the top ten feel-good stories in the NFL this season, and this game should be no different - mostly because the Jaguars tend to not blitz their linebackers much, meaning that Lewis will be spending less time getting in the way of a 250 pound human projectile to protect his quarterback, and spending more time in the pattern.

The way the depth in the backfield has worked out, it appears that Lewis is not so much a change of pace back as originally advertised, but as tone-setter - the guy that gets to wear out the front seven by making them chase him all over the field. It's a genuine reversal of roles from the contemporary line of thought in the NFL that a team uses a bigger back to grind down the opponent, but the Patriots' bigger back. LeGarrette Blount, seems to now be the change up...

...which isn't the worst thing in the world, as Blount is as good as anyone in the game at clock killing in the four-minute offense, plus he holds onto the ball and as long as the play call doesn't take him outside of the tackles, he rarely loses yardage.

It remains to be seen if the Patriots maintain the status-quo against the stout Jacksonville run defense or it they make use of their speed advantage over the Jags' linebackers, which will in turn force the box light, making room for both Lewis and Blount to maneuver.

The Jaguars are light in the secondary as well, with nickle cornerback Dwayne Gratz on the skids with an ankle injury. Former Packers' nickle guy Davon House mans one corner while second-year man Aaron Colvin takes care of the other, while corner-safety hybrid Jonathan Cyprien joins ex-Colts' and Patriots free safety Sergio Brown on the blue line, with Louisville rookie James Sample hot on Brown's heels as the third safety.

The Patriots present a huge challenge for this young secondary, especially with the size and speed of New England's tight ends, something that Brown can attest to as he was abused by the monstrous Rob Gronkowski last season, then got "thrown out of the club" by Gronkowski after getting up in his face... it's a good thing that Jacksonville has Cyprian to take on the best tight end in football, lest Brown end up tossed into another camera stanchion, though it wouldn't be as embarrassing as least season when the incident took place on national television.

Cyprian has the requisite size at 6' 0" and 225 pounds to at least grapple with Gronkowski, but a better choice might be weak side linebacker Smith, who at 6' 3" and 225 pounds is built more like a free safety, and runs a 4.54 - so when the Jaguars attempt to double up on Gronkowski, it is likely one would see one or both on him every play.

But that's the end of the good news for the defense, as their young corners are no match for the sage wisdom of Patriots' receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, nor are they up to the task of defending Lewis, James White or Tavaris Cadet out of the backfield - not to mention that Aaron Dobson and Scott Chandler both present their own unique challenges to any secondary...

...Dobson for his deep speed and willingness to break off post routes to come back for the ball, leaving corners lagging behind, and Chandler simply due to his massive height and flypaper hands.

The Patriots' offense is no joke.  They have scored on 12 of the 21 possessions (not counting victory formations) that they have had thus far in 2015 and are currently on pace to score 544 points, which would qualify as the third most in franchise history, behind only the 2007 (589) and 2012 (557) teams - and being as it is too early to be making assumptions, we'll leave it at that with the caveat that this offense typically doesn't start rolling until October, so the best is yet to come.

Fortunately for the Jaguars, they get to see the Patriots before they bond into the machine that they will become toward the midpoint of the season, but what they get on Sunday afternoon will be plenty enough for them to handle anyway - and given their injuries and lack of depth, one could reasonably assume that 40 points is ultimately reachable...

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