Interior battle sets up to determine AFC’s champion

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

Tom Brady is 7-0 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars in playoff games.

But these aren’t your granddaddy’s Jaguars.

Jacksonville brings about as menacing a defense as you’ll see in football, and undoubtedly the one with the largest bite of the four remaining teams. Typically, that wouldn’t mean much to a Brady-led offense, what, with the five Super Bowl rings and Rob Gronkowski and all. But we’ve found some similarities with Brady’s last few servings of Kryptonite.

We’re going Behind the Offensive Line this week via a look at some defensive fronts that have caused Brady problems in the past, and how this group might work through New England’s current starting five to harass the legendary quarterback. Leave your water wings at home — we’re diving in.

Coughlin’s chaos creators

 

An interesting deep find from NFL Research reveals Jaguars executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin has built many of his most successful teams with the same philosophy: Get after the quarterback.

2007 New York Giants (Won Super Bowl XLII)

» Sacks: 53 (1st)

» Sack percentage 9.2 (1st)

» Pressure percentage 41.1 (1st)

2011 New York Giants (Won Super Bowl XLVI)

» Sacks: 48 (T-3rd)

» Sack percentage 7.5 (6th)

» Pressure percentage 30.5 (17th)

2017 Jacksonville Jaguars

» Sacks: 55 (2nd)

» Sack percentage 9.8 (2nd)

» Pressure percentage 30.7 (2nd)

All three teams invested heavily in their defensive line rotation, via early round picks, free-agency signings and trades. Key free agents among these teams included Calais CampbellMalik Jackson and Chris Canty, while important high picks included Jason Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka, Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan, Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue. The defensive line has long been key to Coughlin’s teams.

Another historical stat that bodes well for the Jaguars: New England is 2-7 in playoff games when held under 20 points (including both Super Bowl losses to the Giants, in which the Patriots scored 14 and 17 points). Jacksonville enters Sunday’s AFC’s Championship Game allowing an average of just 16.8 points per game.

How to get to the G.O.A.T.?

 

For those who don’t understand the acronym, with his fifth Super Bowl triumph last Feburary, Brady moved into the top place for Greatest of All Time. But even legends have weaknesses.

Brady’s most recent postseason losses have been caused by plenty of pressure, with a lot of it coming up the middle. Sure, Denver found ways to succeed back in January of 2016 thanks to relentless edge rushes from Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but if anyone wants to bank of making Brady uncomfortable, they’ll do it by getting in his grill.

If any team is equipped to do just that, it’s Jacksonville. New England can expect plenty of edge pressure from Campbell and Ngakoue (both T-6th in pass-rushing efficiency, per Pro Football Focus), but should also be wary of havoc-wreaking interior defenders Jackson and Marcell Dareus. Jackson has recorded eight sacks this season and ranks eighth in the league in pass rushing productivity among interior defenders. The Patriots won’t get a break when Jackson takes one, though, because Dareus packs just as much of a punch. With Dareus playing less than 60 percent of defensive snaps this postseason (per Next Gen Stats), he’ll be fresh, too, making the challenge about as great as possible for New England’s interior linemen.

And what about those linemen?

Per Pro Football Focus’ offensive line pass blocking efficiency metric, New England shouldn’t feel all that confident when considering these details. The Patriots rank 23rd in the league in that category, and Brady is 3-4 in playoff games since 2001 when sacked three or more times in a single game.

But there’s something to look forward to, and to expect from Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.

When Brady throws from a clean pocket, he’s PFF’s No. 1 graded quarterback. Keeping in line with last week’s shortening of time to throw from a season-long average of 2.62 seconds on all throws to less than 2.5 seconds on all three of his touchdowns, Brady should be expected to do more of the same against Jacksonville. Though Brady’s time-to-throw average still broke 2.7 seconds last weekm, a shift to a shorter passing game should limit mistakes (19 of the Jaguars 21 interceptions have come on throws of 10-plus yards downfield, per PFF), and with New England’s stable of versatile backs and pass-catchers, this should be very doable.

New England’s tackles already know the monster they’re facing and should get help from running backs/tight ends. The onus falls on the shoulders of New England’s interior trio — left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason — to limit the rush, which can also include Campbell, a first-team All Pro at edge rusher, and second-team interior lineman. Quite the tall task, but one worthy of a trip to the Super Bowl.

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