Jaguars will try to solve Brady, Pa­tri­ots

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Michael Mid­dle­hurst-Schwartz USA TO­DAY

For the Jaguars, the path to AFC le­git­i­macy al­ways has run through Tom Brady.

The Jaguars are the only AFC team never to de­feat the Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back in his 19-year ca­reer, now 0-8 (in­clud­ing the play­offs) against him. That slide al­most came to an end in last sea­son’s AFC Cham­pi­onship Game, but Brady en­gi­neered a come­back from a 10-point, fourth-quar­ter deficit to power the Pa­tri­ots back to the Su­per Bowl.

With a loaded de­fense re­turn­ing and the Pa­tri­ots nav­i­gat­ing a hand­ful of of­fen­sive changes, Jack­sonville has its best shot yet at top­pling Brady when it hosts New Eng­land on Sun­day. But do­ing so will still re­quire a con­flu­ence of events tilt­ing in the Jaguars’ fa­vor.

The most in­trigu­ing show­down with the game is un­ques­tion­ably Jalen Ram­sey’s im­pend­ing face­off with Rob Gronkowski af­ter the Jaguars cor­ner­back ridiculed the Pa­tri­ots tight end in the off­sea­son. And while Ram­sey said Gronkowski would have to line up against him, the Jaguars might use a va­ri­ety of play­ers — in­clud­ing lineback­ers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith and safeties Tashaun Gip­son and Barry Church — to counter the four-time all-pro.

But even as the ac­knowl­edged fo­cal point of the Pa­tri­ots’ pass­ing at­tack, Gronkowski poses a spe­cial prob­lem for Jack­sonville given Brady’s will­ing­ness to throw to him even in dou­ble cov­er­age.

With New Eng­land’s wide re­ceivers record­ing just nine catches last week, it seems un­likely Brady will test the Jaguars of­ten on the out­side. While run­ning backs James White and Rex Burk­head should be fre­quent tar­gets work­ing un­der­neath, the Jaguars’ line­backer tan­dem of Jack and Smith might be the league’s best equipped duo to han­dle such an as­sign­ment.

Brady will also have to de­ploy a quick trig­ger against a po­tent Jack­sonville pass rush that looks to have an ad­van­tage against the Pa­tri­ots’ of­fen­sive front. While left tackle Trent Brown has fared well in the early go­ing, de­fen­sive end Yan­nick Ngak­oue’s speed off the edge could prove dif­fi­cult for the 6-8, 380pounder to han­dle.

Here are other matchups that will shape Week 2:

Panthers RB Chris­tian McCaffrey vs. Fal­cons’ lineback­ers

Per­haps no two teams were more rav­aged by in­juries in the first week than the Panthers and Fal­cons. Carolina now has both of its start­ing tack­les (Matt Kalil and Daryl Wil­liams) on in­jured re­serve and will be with­out Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner (con­cus­sion) and tight end Greg Olsen (bro­ken foot). At­lanta, mean­while, lost safety Keanu Neal (torn ACL) and line­backer Deion Jones (foot in­jury).

The Panthers’ losses would seem to shift a heav­ier bur­den on McCaffrey, es­pe­cially against the Fal­cons. Ron Rivera said this week that he hoped to have the sec­ond-year run­ning back get 15 to 20 car­ries and six to 10 catches ev­ery game. But with the loss of Olsen and Norv Turner con­tin­u­ing to em­pha­size a quick-pass­ing at­tack for Cam New­ton, he could take on a heav­ier work­load as a re­ceiver.

That could spell trou­ble for the Fal­cons, who re­lied heav­ily on Jones and Neal to han­dle run­ning backs in cov­er­age and chase them down when the de­fense con­cedes short throws un­der­neath. Line­backer Duke Ri­ley will have to pick up some of the slack for Jones, while fillin safety Da­mon­tae Kazee will also play a prom­i­nent role.

Pack­ers’ re­ceivers vs. Vik­ings’ sec­ondary

All eyes are on Aaron Rodgers as the two-time MVP en­ters a key ri­valry game listed as ques­tion­able with a knee in­jury fol­low­ing his Week 1 hero­ics against the Bears. But even if Rodgers does get his chance for re­venge against the same Vik­ings team that cracked his col­lar­bone last sea­son, his re­ceivers will have to do their part against last sea­son’s top-ranked de­fense.

Rodgers and the Pack­ers found suc­cess against the Bears when they neu­tral­ized the pass rush by go­ing to quick­hit con­nec­tions. A sim­i­lar strat­egy might be nec­es­sary against the Vik­ings given the threat of de­fen­sive ends Ever­son Grif­fen and Danielle Hunter. And with top pass catcher Da­vante Adams listed as ques­tion­able with a shoul­der in­jury, Green Bay will likely need at least one of its rookie tar­gets (J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown) to step up and as­sist Ran­dall Cobb and Geron­imo Al­li­son.

Min­nesota’s de­fense, how­ever, al­lowed the fewest yards af­ter catch of any group in 2017 and of­fers few easy an­swers for any op­po­nent. The best course of ac­tion for the Pack­ers might be at­tack­ing Mack­en­sie Alexan­der and rookie Mike Hughes in the slot. But even that can be dan­ger­ous, as Hughes re­turned an in­ter­cep­tion 28 yards for a touch­down last week against the 49ers.

Cow­boys of­fen­sive line vs. Gi­ants DT Da­mon Har­ri­son

Dal­las’ long-ges­tat­ing is­sues in the pass­ing game were on full dis­play last week, as Dak Prescott was un­able to click with a new re­ceiv­ing corps. For the fore­see­able fu­ture, the Cow­boys and their op­po­nents know an in­con­tro­vert­ible truth: This of­fense is fully Ezekiel El­liott’s show.

But there’s a 341-pound prob­lem await­ing El­liott at the mid­dle of the Gi­ants de­fense in Har­ri­son. With New York’s de­fense shift­ing to a 3-4 un­der new coach Pat Shur­mur and co­or­di­na­tor James Bettcher, “Snacks” has re­mained a sta­bi­liz­ing run pres­ence. His abil­ity to clog lanes and cre­ate a push up front was al­ready on dis­play last week against the Jaguars, who had the NFL’s top rush­ing at­tack last year but wouldn’t have cracked the 100-yard mark if not for a 41yard keeper by quar­ter­back Blake Bor­tles.

Cen­ter Joe Looney, fill­ing in for the still-side­lined Travis Fred­er­ick, will need plenty of help from right guard Zack Martin on dou­ble teams. Still, the Cow­boys might have to fo­cus on at­tack­ing the edges of the Gi­ants de­fense.

Steel­ers RB James Con­ner vs. Chiefs’ front seven

With Le’Veon Bell still away, Pitts­burgh again turns to Con­ner as the fo­cus of its run game. Although the Chiefs might be re­lieved at not hav­ing to face a two-time all-pro who has torn them apart in the past (Bell has av­er­aged 126.8 rush­ing yards in four reg­u­lar-sea­son games against Kansas City and logged 170 rush­ing yards in a di­vi­sional play­off win in 2017), the sec­ond-year run­ning back could still pose sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems.

Con­ner looked com­fort­able in the lead role in the opener, log­ging 192 yards from scrim­mage and two touch­downs on 36 touches against the Browns. With quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger deal­ing with an el­bow in­jury, Con­ner should again see a heavy vol­ume of car­ries as Pitts­burgh tries to keep its de­fense rested and off the field against Kansas City’s su­per­charged at­tack.

The Chiefs ranked 25th against the run last sea­son but now have two down­hill hit­ters on the in­side in lineback­ers Reg­gie Ragland and An­thony Hitchens. One area of con­cern, how­ever, could be stop­ping Con­ner in the pass­ing game af­ter Kansas City’s de­fense gave up 189 re­ceiv­ing yards to Charg­ers run­ning backs Melvin Gor­don and Austin Ekeler last week.

MARK J. REBILAS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back Tom Brady (12) walks off the field as Jaguars cor­ner­back Jalen Ram­sey (20) cel­e­brates a play dur­ing the AFC Cham­pi­onship Game in Jan­uary at Gil­lette Sta­dium.

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