The Jaguars’ defense is exceptional. But so is Rob Gronkowksi.
And while there are many, many reasons to believe the Jacksonville defense is poised to have an impressive showing against the mighty Patriots in Foxboro, it is still difficult to imagine a scenario where Tom Brady’s offense gets shut down completely.
And that is largely due to the presence of big No. 87, an unstoppable tight end who is coming off a playoff game in which he made a First Team All-Pro safety look like a mere speed bump en route to a six-catch, 81-yard, one-touchdown performance. He showed once again that he cannot be covered by just one defender, and he just might be the most important offensive player not named Brady when the Patriots take the field against the Jaguars on Sunday afternoon.
As has been repeated countless times and will be hammered home hundreds more before kickoff, the way you beat Tom Brady is to pressure him with four rushers, collapse the pocket, and force bad throws or generate sacks. It’s cliche, but it’s true — with Brady, and really any quarterback for that matter. It’s difficult to play the position if you never have solid footing.
And though Ben Roethlisberger posted some eye-popping numbers on Sunday (469 yards, 5 TDs), that was in a game with unique dynamics — like an early 21-0 lead for the Jaguars that initiated a pass-heavy attack, and also a pair of fourth-down desperation heaves that resulted in touchdowns, and a completely meaningless touchdown pass in the final seconds of the game.
Plus, the Jacksonville defense was still able to make a number of significant plays — plays that went a long way in deciding the outcome of the football game.
Arguably the biggest came with 2:33 left in the first half, when the Jaguars led 21-7. The Steelers had the ball on the Jaguars’ side of the 50 and were looking to cut that lead in half before the break. Roethlisberger took a shotgun snap in an empty backfield. These were the routes his receivers would run, with tight end Vance McDonald highlighted in red:
It’s possible that either McDonald or JuJu Smith-Shuster (lined up to McDonald’s right) ran the wrong route, as you typically don’t want two receivers crossing paths at that point on the field. Whatever might have happened, Roethlisberger was looking to throw to that side of the field, bypassing Le’Veon Bell on the underneath route and instead looking to either hit the seam or the right sideline. But nobody was open, as McDonald was covered tightly by Myles Jack. Roethlisberger hesitated, got stuck in the pocket with nowhere to throw, and ended up getting sacked by Yannick Ngakoue. The ball came lose, and Telvin Smith picked it up and ran 50 yards for a touchdown that turned the game on its head. (The Jaguars scored seven defensive touchdowns during the regular season, most in the NFL.)
While it’s uncertain if Roethlisberger had McDonald as his No. 1 option on the strip sack, the quarterback was definitely targeting the tight end on the pass that Jack ended up intercepting. On that play — a third-and-11 from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line — McDonald lined up on the right side of the line before running a simple 7-yard out.
Jack bumped McDonald five yards from the line of scrimmage and remained close enough to the tight end’s hip to be able to jump the route and pick off the pass. Here’s where McDonald would ideally gain some separation from the linebacker: