Adjustments, Aggressiveness on Defense Help Pats Advance to Super Bowl

After their first 3 possessions of the game, the Jaguars led 14-3 and had the Patriots defense entirely on its heels. Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett did a brilliant job of keeping New England off balance, calling 11 runs, 6 dropback passes, and 8 play-action passes through those first 3 drives. The balance and healthy dose of play-action helped put quarterback Blake Bortles in a better position to succeed. In fact, on those first 3 drives, Bortles completed every single one of his 8 play-action passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.

On their 4th and final drive of the first half, however, Jacksonville began to stop itself. After an unbelievable throw and catch by Bortles and wide receiver Keelan Cole, the Jaguars rushed to the line to get a snap off and ensure that the play would not be challenged. Not everyone was set when they snapped the ball, leading to an illegal shift penalty. The catch stood anyway. 3 plays later, on 3rd-and7, Bortles hit Marcedes Lewis for 12 yards and a first down to keep the drive alive. Or so it seemed. It turned out that the play clock had run out before Jacksonville got the snap off. A delay of game set up 3rd-and-12. They would end up punting on this drive, which enabled New England the opportunity to make the score 14-10 before the half.

There were other opportunities as well. Bortles badly missed two throws in the 2nd half that may have changed the complexion of the game. The first came on a first-down play-action bootleg pass from deep in Jacksonville’s own territory. Bortles had an open receiver, but the ball sailed on him out of bounds. Bortles was sacked on the next play, and 3rd-and-15 turned into a give-up 3-yard run. This kept field position in New England’s favor for the time being.

The bigger missed opportunity came on the first play of the 4th quarter. This was a 3rd-and-8 from the Patriots’ 25-yard line. Here, it seemed that Bortles decided to play it safe. As you can see below, the Patriots sent Malcolm Butler on a blitz from the slot. Safety Devin McCourty took his place and covered wide receiver Marqise Lee.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

McCourty was playing over the top of Lee, taking away the deep throw. As you can see below, when Bortles had just started to deliver the ball, Lee was open.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

With McCourty playing over the top, that throw needed to be put either on the receiver or to his back shoulder with velocity. This was a very makeable pass. Bortles didn’t really give the play a chance, though, and threw it over Lee’s head out of bounds. Tough to deny that Jacksonville didn’t have an opportunity there. As well as Bortles played all game, those are the throws you simply can’t miss, or give up on, to have a chance of winning in Foxborough against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Jaguars took a 10-point lead with a field goal on the next play, but who knows how things might have been different if that drive continued.

As the game wore on, the Jaguars somewhat got away from what had been working earlier in the day. For instance, they ran some form of play-action on 8 of their first 25 plays. They called just 7 play-action passes on their remaining 44 plays. They seemed to contract as an offense as the score got closer. When they had the lead in the 4th quarter, they called 4 straight inside runs on 1st down. These plays gained 2, 1, 1, and -1 yards respectively. This was a deviation from the run/pass/play-action balance they had utilized successfully all game. Not to mention, New England’s defensive line (which was tremendous on Sunday) had basically controlled the line of scrimmage all afternoon. It wasn’t like the Jaguars had been dominating up front and could expect some early-down breathing room from their running game. It wasn’t until Jacksonville finally relinquished the lead that they did throw on first down.

Between the conservative play-calling and the Patriots’ execution, it is not surprising that the Jaguars’ final five 3rd downs were 3rd-and-long situations. They faced 3rd and 8, 8, 9, 11, and 19 respectively on those 5 downs. This certainly did not allow the Jaguars to play to the strength of Bortles or the offense. Jacksonville was forced to only call straight drop-backs on those final five 3rd downs. They converted none of them.

Defensive and offensive lines often don’t get much notoriety or credit. The Patriots’ D-line deserves plenty after the AFC Championship Game, because they were magnificent against the NFL’s #1 rushing offense. Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Ricky Jean-Francois and Lawrence Guy stood out on film over and over. With the majority of Jacksonville’s running game occurring between the tackles, the Patriots’ D-line absolutely had to have a big game for the defense to be able to succeed. Time and time again, we saw these players hold up double-teams, which prevented Jaguars blockers from getting to the second level and enabled Patriots linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage quickly. All of this served to prevent big-plays in the running game.

The Patriots D-line didn’t just hold up blockers so other defenders could make plays, though. They consistently got off 1-on-1 blocks and made tackles themselves. We saw Malcom Brown, in particular, actually win versus double-teams on multiple occasions and end up making the play. An example of this is illustrated below. Here, the Jaguars were running a power to Brown’s side.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

You can see the double-team on Brown at the snap.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

It needs to be pointed out here how quickly linebacker Elandon Roberts saw the double-team and immediately attacked the line of scrimmage.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

You can see below that Brown had not only drawn a stalemate with his two blockers (a win for the defense), but he was actually starting to split the double-team. And because Roberts had reacted so quickly to Jacksonville’s run action, he was ready to meet the pulling guard, #60 A.J. Cann, at the line of scrimmage.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Roberts’ reaction forced Leonard Fournette back inside, where Brown had just gotten off his blocks and was ready to make the tackle.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The success of the D-line enabled the Patriots to make the adjustments they needed to in the second half, especially against the RPO (Run-Pass Option) plays with which Jacksonville was having early success.

At a simplified level, RPO plays come down to a numbers game for the offense. The ball goes wherever they have the biggest advantage. Early on, Patriots defenders were reacting hard to any run action, leaving opportunities for the Jaguars on RPOs and play-action in general. The play below illustrates this. You can see that to the left, the Jaguars had a 3 on 2 numbers advantage at the snap.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The run action away from the Jaguars’ 3 receivers got the defense flowing hard to the right.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The highlighted defender below had to slow-play the zone-read action between Bortles and Fournette in case Bortles kept the ball. This is why he was not a factor in the 3-on-2 matchup to the left.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Bortles kept the ball and threw it to running back Corey Grant, who had 2 lead blockers to take 2 defenders and lots of space in front of him.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The result was a 20-yard gain.

After two RPO passes out of this formation gained 35 yards, the Patriots adjusted. They had an extra defender move to the 3-receiver side, either with a 2-safety-shell or with an underneath defender moving that way at the snap. Jacksonville reacted by running it on their next two RPO plays, gaining 13 and 12 yards respectively. New England was undeterred by these two successful runs. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia made it clear that they were going to take the more dangerous pass option out of the RPO and force Jacksonville to telegraph both the option and the direction of the run. You can see how they did this below. Here, the Patriots moved 4 defenders overtop of Jacksonville’s trips bunch RPO look.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Not only did they move a 3rd defender out to take away the pass, but a 4th defender (circled), who previously had been responsible for Bortles if he kept it, was also primarily ready to take away the pass option.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

This was likely because Bortles had not kept the ball once all game.

With the Patriots’ defensive line and linebackers getting progressively better against the run all afternoon, New England likely felt good about its chances if it could force the run in RPO situations (especially if they could tell the direction of the run). The Patriots effectively shut Jacksonville’s RPO offense down, both with alignment and execution, after Jacksonville’s first 3 drives.

Here’s where we get into Belichick’s ability to make adjustments throughout the course of a game. This is why you sometimes see Patriots defenses struggle early but then shut down the opponent the rest of the way. As we all have seen over the last 4 postseasons, Tom Brady has had some pretty spectacular comebacks from deficits of 2+ possessions in the second half. As great as Brady has been during each of those comebacks, none of them would have happened if the Patriots defense had not shut down the opposing offense, as you can see below:

2014 AFC Divisional Playoff vs Ravens: Trailed 28-14 – Held Ravens to 3 points in final 25:22

2014 Super Bowl XLIX vs Seahawks: Trailed 24-14 – Held Seahawks scoreless in final 19:54

2016 Super Bowl LI vs Falcons: Trailed 28-3 – Held Falcons scoreless in final 27:29

2017 AFC Championship Game vs Jaguars: Trailed 20-10 – Held Jaguars scoreless in final 14:52

Sunday’s AFC Championship game was no different. As the game wore on, the Patriots dialed up the pressure, both in the secondary and in their pass rush. They started predominantly playing man coverage in the 2nd half (18 times on 23 called pass plays) after striking a balance between man and zone in the first half (7 snaps of man, 9 of zone). Bortles finished the day 11 of 13 for 135 yards against zone and 12 of 23 for 158 yards against man.

The Patriots also blitzed 8 times in the 4th quarter after only blitzing 7 times through the first 3 quarters. As you could see on the pivotal 3rd-and-8 we highlighted earlier, Bortles did not always react that well to blitz pressure. Belichick and Patricia did a great job of not letting Bortles and his receivers remain comfortable.

This is something we see time and time again out of the Patriots. With the game on the line, they don’t allow teams to safely make plays. They force the opponent to out-execute them under difficult circumstances. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. In this particular game, New England had to feel good about the chances of their talent on defense outplaying Jacksonville’s offense down the stretch. Between the increased man coverage, increased blitzing, and adjustments to take away the most dangerous element of Jacksonville’s RPO plays, it is not surprising that the Jaguars only mustered 6 points over the final 2 ½ quarters of the game.