PATRIOTS // JAGUARS OVERVIEW
It was odd, but also oddly refreshing, to see the Jaguars installed as the favorites in this game when the line first came out. This is a great team, playing at home, and the Patriots are missing Julian Edelman and possibly Rex Burkhead, and are thin at wide receiver.
No matter. Within about a day, this line had already been bet the Patriots’ way, and they have been sitting at -1.0 through the middle part of the week.
This week I went back and rewatched the Patriots’ 24-20 AFC Championship Game win over the Jags, and I saw an extremely physical game, with the Jags moving the ball methodically — applying pressure to various weak points of the Patriots’ defense — and with the Patriots relying heavily on passes to the running back and deep balls to Brandin Cooks. With Cooks gone, it will be interesting to see how New England approaches things this week.
Last season in this matchup, Danny Amendola caught seven passes, while James White and Dion Lewis combined for 10 receptions. The Patriots stretched the defense repeatedly with Brandin Cooks, but they otherwise left the perimeter of the field alone, targeting Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett only five times, totaling three receptions for 51 yards.
The game plan there was obvious: take advantage of the mismatch created by Cooks’ speed, and otherwise attack the short and middle areas of the field. It is noteworthy that Rob Gronkowski got concussed partway through that game, but he was a limited part of the game plan even before the injury — seeing three targets and one reception.
It will make sense this week for the Patriots to get Gronk more involved, but the closest thing this offense will have to a “mismatch” is their running backs in space and/or matched up on linebackers. There was one play in particular that stood out to me from that AFC Championship game, in which linebacker Telvin Smith ran step-for-step in downfield coverage with Brandin Cooks; and it will be Smith spending a lot of time on James White in this matchup. It’s not an easy matchup, and White will have to fight for every yard, but with Rex Burkhead in the concussion protocol and Jeremy Hill on I.R., White may be counted on for heavy, heavy snaps. Because he is not a guy the Patriots will feel comfortable banging between the tackles 12 to 15 times (and because Sony Michel will be seeing his first action in a couple months if he is active), this shapes up as an extremely pass-heavy game for New England.
The Patriots will not be able to beat the lethal Jacksonville secondary with “skill,” so they will have to do it with scheme. Look for creative crossing routes and screens, and for the Patriots to try to overload zones with more pass catchers than available coverage men in order to march slowly down the field. The Patriots also tend to save up some trick plays for a defense like this one, typically designed to take shots downfield; Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett can only be expected to combine for around 12 to 15 targets, but each should see one or two chances to take the top off the defense.
I don’t remember the last time the Patriots had a Vegas-implied total this low in a regular season game. This is not a premium spot for offense, by any means; but there will be some opportunity to go around, and White will be a snap hog if Burkhead misses this week.
JAGUARS PASS OFFENSE
The Patriots’ defense was no longer interested in giving up free yards in Week 1, playing tight coverage and getting after the quarterback. Last year in this matchup, the Jaguars attempted to beat the Patriots’ man-heavy coverage scheme with bunch formations and short crossing routes — an approach the Patriots will have to be fine with, as Jacksonville has the weapons to hit them deep if the Pats worry too aggressively about the short stuff. This should allow the Jaguars to move the ball between the 20, with “mistakes from Bortles” being the main thing that could slow them down; but even under Patricia last season, this was a difficult team to score against, and that does not project to change this year.
Donte Moncrief and Keelan Cole operated as the clear lead receivers for this team last week, running 32 and 33 pass routes, respectively, compared to only 23 for Dede Westbrook. Westbrook should see the field a decent amount, but Cole and Moncrief are the better bets at the moment for six to eight targets. Each guy has a chance to be in that range this week — creating a decent floor on Cole, and a long-shot “big day” ceiling on both.
This passing attack rounds out with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who ran more routes than Westbrook last week and was targeted a healthy five times. ASJ has very little chance of popping off for a big yardage game, but he is a viable end zone weapon.
JAGUARS RUN OFFENSE
Of course, the Jaguars leaned on the run last year more than any other team in the NFL, and that is unlikely to change in this spot.
The big news, then, is the hamstring injury to Leonard Fournette, which knocked him out of last week’s game after only 21 snaps. The Jaguars have said Fournette is likely to play, and they have said they would feel comfortable playing him without any practice time, which creates a headache for trying to decide how to handle this backfield, especially with the game kicking off late. This issue is alleviated somewhat by the fact that no team last year allowed fewer rushing touchdowns to running backs than the Patriots. Even if Fournette plays, it will be difficult to project him for his full allotment of touches, in a matchup that limits upside.
Of course, if Fournette misses, we have a different story, as T.J. Yeldon will step into a big role against a team he matches up well with. Yeldon’s between-the-tackles work leaves something to be desired, but he’s a mismatch against the Patriots’ linebackers, and the Jaguars will look to take advantage of this mismatch by involving Yeldon in the pass game. If things are looking iffy on Fournette heading into Sunday, it will be worth leaving some space open on some tournament rosters for late pivots to Yeldon.
If you follow the “don’t play wide receivers against the Vikings or Jaguars” blueprint, you’ll make money over time. As I said last week: the reason to target a low-owned player in a bad matchup is if that player has true, week-winning upside. Hogan or Dorsett could pick up 12 to 18 points; but the chances of either guy posting the sort of score that makes a true difference on the slate are incredibly thin.
The Patriots are going to have to force the issue with Gronk this week, though the matchup is unfavorable. The best play on the Patriots will be James White — and if Burkhead does indeed miss this week (we’ll know well before kickoff), White will ascend to the top of the value pile on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, and he’ll even be a viable option on FanDuel with 0.5-PPR scoring. After playing 36 snaps last week and seeing nine targets, his role will only grow if Burkhead is out.
The Jags have some decent pieces in this game, with Cole, Westbrook, Fournette, and even Moncrief all threats to post a quality game; but the floor on each of these guys is low, and there are better options at their respective price points this week.
The big play on this side of the ball would be T.J. Yeldon — who would join White as one of the top value plays on the slate if Fournette indeed misses. The Jags have remained hesitant to give Corey Grant a big workload, and Yeldon would likely be locked into 80% of the team’s running back touches.
SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
No word yet on Burkhead. Fournette is a game-time decision, in a game with a late kickoff. T.J. Yeldon will be an awesome value if he plays, as a potential six- or seven-catch back with at least 15 carries, in a good run matchup. But if you want to go there, you’ll need to have a plan in place for pivoting if Fournette ends up playing.