FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady can count on one hand — presumably, his healthy hand — the number of potential problems he will encounter on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The number is four — the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ front four.
Based on style and scheme — and, of course, talent — the Jaguars have exactly the type of defensive front that can ruin Brady’s bid to win his sixth Super Bowl title. The New England Patriots‘ star has seen this before, and the memories aren’t pleasant. The Jaguars are a reincarnation of the New York Giants‘ front fours that rattled Brady in Super Bowl losses after the 2007 and 2011 seasons.
“They get lined up and play fast and aggressive, and have an incredibly disruptive front that’s deep and talented,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of the Jaguars, whose football czar — Tom Coughlin — coached Big Blue in those Super Bowls.
The Jaguars rely on a four-man rush. Blitzing? Who needs blitzing? They recorded the lowest blitz rate in the NFL (18 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information, but they still finished second in sacks (55).
If a team can pressure with only four rushers, dropping seven into coverage, its chances of beating Brady increase exponentially.
You can look it up.
Detect a trend? To compound the Patriots’ concerns, Brady is playing with a banged-up throwing hand that was injured in practice Wednesday.
“They’re very well-balanced, and you don’t see that a lot,” coach Bill Belichick said of the Jaguars’ front four. “You don’t see that type of balance with good pass rushers, but … they’ve got a lot of good ones and they do a good job.”
The Jaguars are led by Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks), Yannick Ngakoue (12) and Malik Jackson (eight), with Dante Fowler (eight) contributing on passing downs. Marcell Dareus and Abry Jones, both run defenders, rotate as the fourth lineman in the base package.
“There’s always several guys coming after you on every play, so it’s not easy,” left tackle Nate Solder said.
Belichick raved about Campbell, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate, saying, “He is a great football player.” Campbell can line up inside and outside, and “he’s a problem both places,” Belichick said.
The Jaguars’ biggest threat on the edge is Ngakoue, an undersized rusher at 246 pounds who plays with a nonstop motor. He will be a big problem for the Patriots, who may try to neutralize him by running the ball to his side. They could test him to see if he’s strong enough to hold up at the point of attack. Passing downs could be a different story.
“He wins a lot early in the down with his get-off,” Belichick said, “but even when he’s blocked, he’s still not really blocked because he plays relentlessly.”
Are the Patriots concerned? You bet they are. Sure, they have the presumptive NFL MVP in Brady, but now he’s dealing with a hand injury, the severity of which likely won’t be known until after the season.
And here’s a little secret about Brady’s recent play: Pass-rushing pressure has affected his accuracy. In the past seven games, he has completed only 43 percent of his attempts under pressure, down from 70 percent in the first 10 games.
Now the NFL’s top front four is coming to town.