The Jaguars came close to pulling off the unthinkable on Sunday. Through the first 28 minutes of the game, Jacksonville’s defense was halting the Patriots’ seemingly easy stroll through the AFC into yet another Super Bowl. New England had scored just 3 points, and the Jaguars were taking their biggest weapon, Rob Gronkowski, out of the game. Penalties, straight-forward coverages, poor field position because of their own offense, and the relentlessness of the Patriots all combined to ultimately end Jacksonville’s dream of a Super Bowl berth.
The Patriots came into the game with the intention of attacking the seams of the Jaguars Defense. This makes sense, given their proclivity for playing so much Cover-3 (Vertical seams are one of the soft spots of a Cover-3 defense). On the 2nd play of the game, New England aligned in an empty formation with fullback James Develin aligned on the perimeter to the left, running back Dion Lewis aligned on the perimeter to the right, and wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the slot. With this formation, the Patriots were trying to get a clear definition of the coverage pre-snap. The Jaguars aligned with their cornerbacks on the edge over New England’s running backs, and linebacker Telvin Smith aligned over Cooks. These are alignments that would never happen intentionally in man coverage. With a safety in the deep middle of the field, it was clear that the Jaguars were playing Cover-3.
To the right, Cooks and Lewis both ran vertical stems at the snap. Lewis’s vertical stem was meant to occupy cornerback Jalen Ramsey, responsible for the deep third to that side of the field.
Lewis ended up running a 5-yard curl. However, his initial stem was able to hold Ramsey just long enough to prevent him from driving on Cooks’ vertical route. This left Cooks on a linebacker, a severe mismatch.
Tom Brady delivered a strike for 31 yards, putting to rest any fears bout his right hand.
The play below is another great example of New England finding different ways to attack the seams against Cover-3. This time, Rob Gronkowski was the target.
In order to make sure the corner to his side, again Jalen Ramsey, did not cheat towards the middle of the field to take away the route, Josh McDaniels ran Chris Hogan on an out-and-up route with his initial stem widening Ramsey to the outside.
With Ramsey forced to respect the potential of Hogan going vertical in his 3rd of the field, he drifted over top of Hogan towards the sideline. This created a void for Gronkowski in the seam.
Brady delivered the ball with pressure around him for a 21-yard completion. This would be Gronk’s only catch of the day.
Despite their success attacking Jacksonville’s seams, the Patriots were unable to sustain or finish drives for most of the first half. On their first drive of the game, facing a 3rd-and-goal from the 12, the Patriots wanted to get the ball in the hands of their gigantic tight end. The Jaguars were prepared.
At the snap, it appeared to Brady that the Jaguars were playing a straight-forward man-free coverage (Man-to-man across the board with 1 deep safety), with Gronk singled up on safety Tashaun Gipson.
What Brady did not see at the snap, however, was that the deep safety in the middle of the field was eyeing Gronk from the snap. This was a true double-team.
Brady stayed on Gronkowski a few beats too long.
By the time he realized Gronk was actually being doubled and that he had 1-on-1’s elsewhere with no safety help, the Jaguars’ pass rush was on him. Dante Fowler got around the edge for the sack, and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal.
This was an excellent design by defensive coordinator Todd Wash.
Later in the first half, the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-11. The Jaguars once again had a plan to take Gronkowski away. Here, they once again appeared to be in man-free coverage. This time, Jalen Ramsey was aligned on Gronk.
An important thing to note here is that Ramsey jammed Gronkowski at the line in an effort to disrupt the timing of the play.
Brady initially looked Gronk’s way. He often locks onto his tight end in key moments like this one, especially in 1-on-1 coverage, and waits for him to create separation.
The separation would not come on this play, though. Not only did Ramsey do a great job, but the Jaguars were playing man-free with safety Barry Church as a “lurk” or “robber” defender, ready to help out on any in-breaking route by Gronkowski.
With Ramsey playing to Gronk’s outside and Church helping inside, Brady’s favorite target was taken away. The end zone angle provides a clear picture of this.
Brady had to move away from Gronk. He worked to his left where Chris Hogan was in 1-on-1 coverage with Aaron Colvin, a matchup Jacksonville had to be happy with. You can see the tight coverage below.
The result was a contested throw, an incompletion, and another punt for the Patriots.
In addition to their plan for Gronkowski, the Jaguars had success on Sunday because they prevented Patriots running backs from making an impact, both on the ground and through the air. Not only did their defensive line control the line of scrimmage versus the run, but linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack were flying all over the field against the pass. They repeatedly recognized and reacted quickly to screens and check-downs. They also did a good job of stepping up to cut off angles for any running backs coming out of the backfield, leaving Brady without the option of dumping the ball off for big gains quite as often as we sometimes see.
Yet, something happened on the way to the Jaguars’ unthinkable upset victory. Two huge penalties on the Patriots’ final drive of the first half set up their first touchdown. Aside from those penalties, the Jaguars played nothing but soft quarters coverage on this drive, basically conceding underneath throws. To no one’s surprise, except for maybe Jacksonville’s, Brady went 4-for-4 for 35 yards as the Patriots cut the lead to 14-10.
This theme carried itself into the 2nd half. The Jaguars played almost solely soft zone coverage for the rest of the game. The coverage was also, more or less, straight forward. No disguise. Brady and the offense were not caught off guard whatsoever.
On top of that, Jacksonville’s 4-man pass rush was almost a non-factor. A big reason for this was New England’s offensive line, which regularly stopped Jaguars pass rushers dead in their tracks. Another reason was the abundance of play-action forcing the D-line to freeze momentarily after the snap.
Still, pass-rush pressure against the Patriots always starts with coverage. Jacksonville’s soft-zone coverage choices down the stretch enabled Brady to get rid of the ball on his terms consistently. As a result, their pass rush did not have the ability to become a significant factor. Brady finished the day 22 of 31 for 246 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions against Jacksonville’s zone coverage. Jacksonville did muster 2 sacks while playing zone, but they were unable to put regular pressure on Brady.
Unsurprisingly, the Jaguars had more success when playing man coverage, holding Brady to 4 completions in 7 pass attempts, for 44 yards and 1 sack. Additionally, the Patriots converted just 1 of 5 third-down attempts versus man coverage. With Gronkowski out in the second half, it was very surprising that the Jaguars did not put more pressure on Patriots receivers. This is especially true considering that the matchups of Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, and Aaron Colvin on Cooks, Amendola, and Hogan tilt in Jacksonville’s favor.
Still, the Jaguars did have a 20-10 lead in the 4th quarter. With 10:49 remaining, the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-18. A stop here would have severely hindered New England’s chances of getting back in the game. Below, you can see the line to gain for the Patriots to keep their drive, and season, alive.
That’s a lot of distance to cover. The Jaguars responded by playing quarters coverage, meaning a 4-deep zone with 3 underneath defenders.
The routes of consequence are below. Danny Amendola was running a seam route and bending it inside of the safety to his side of the field. James White was releasing to the flat.
Focus on Tom Brady, James White, and linebacker Myles Jack. You can see below that Jack was the middle underneath defender. Also notice that at this point, Brady had moved left and turned his shoulders almost parallel to the line of scrimmage. This was likely for two reasons. First, he felt the rush coming from his right side and immediately moved in the pocket to give himself extra time to get the ball downfield. Second, he wanted to manipulate the underneath coverage to create an opening for Amendola. When Brady rolled his shoulders in the direction of James White, Jack reacted, vacated his zone, and attacked the flat.
The good news for the Jaguars is that they really covered the hell out of that flat route. The bad news is that Brady had no intention of throwing the ball there on 3rd-and-18. Jack’s ill-advised move left a gaping hole in the middle of the field beyond the first-down marker for Amendola.
To call this poor situational awareness would be a severe understatement. Why a middle linebacker would ever vacate his zone in the middle of the field near the first-down marker on 3rd-and-18 is beyond our comprehension. If Brady makes the throw to the flat, you have 18 yards and several defenders ready to rally to the ball. The chances of converting on a dump off to the flat in that situation are miniscule. Below, you can see just how open Amendola was.
Another thing to note here is that in quarters coverage, the safety inside is responsible for the number-2 vertical route to his side. Once the receiver gets beyond a certain point, the safety is then in 1-on-1 coverage with him. As you can see above, the safety responsible for Amendola was Tashaun Gipson. He had dropped a little too deep beyond the first-down marker and was just late enough in reacting to Amendola to have a chance of breaking up the pass. This play showed the importance of situational football and veteran savvy. Tom Brady’s command of the nuances of playing the quarterback position were on full display here. Brady and the Patriots took advantage of their opponent’s mistakes, as they always seem to do.
After the conversion, the Jaguars still had opportunities to stop New England, though. Instead, the Patriots marched right down the field. After a gadget play (the Patriots’ second of the 4th quarter) gained 31 yards, the Jaguars continued to play soft zone with no pass rush. They even refused to play man coverage deep in the red zone. The Patriots scored easily to make it 20-17. Two defensive stops and a punt return later, and the Patriots had the ball back at the Jaguars’ 30 to start their game-winning drive. Moments later, they regained the lead.
It should be noted that on the game winning touchdown, Danny Amendola was, once again, given a free release. No defenders touched him. He was able to run, unimpeded, at full speed along the back of the end zone. When Brady came off his initial read to the left, he had Amendola screaming past safety Tashaun Gipson. Had Amendola been hit off the line, he would not have been where he was when Brady was ready to deliver the ball. Brady likely would have had to come off of Amendola, gone to his next read, or been forced to get rid of the ball.
Doug Marrone and Todd Wash made some head-scratching decisions to play soft coverage with Gronkowski out of the game and to rarely bring pressure when the front-4 couldn’t generate any on its own. It’s smart to have a healthy dose of fear when defending the Patriots Offense. However, it’s also important to understand that there are certain things New England does extremely well as an offense, and there are certain things that they struggle with consistently. If you don’t attack those things, your chances of success diminish greatly. Playing it safe against the Patriots will get you beat almost every single time. Case in point, the Patriots are headed back to another Super Bowl.