FOXBOROUGH — None of the Patriots' defensive players could put their finger on it, but they confirmed exactly what we all thought: the upstart Jaguars, with Blake Bortles at the helm, were having their way with New England in the first half.
"I can’t explain why, but we came out passive in the first half," said nickel back Eric Rowe. "We weren’t aggressive, and if we were, it was too inconsistent."
The stats certainly backed that up. The Jaguars basically did whatever they wanted to do in the first half. They converted 67 percent of third downs to help gain 14 first downs. Bortles completed 86.7 percent of his passes, and posted a passer rating of 131.9. (No, those aren't typos.) And, of course, Jacksonville was dominating on the scoreboard, as it led 14-3 until the final minute before halftime, and led 17-10 just after break.
But the second half was the complete opposite. The Patriots allowed just two field goals, and that gave the offense enough time and opening to score the game's final 14 points to secure a 24-20 victory and put New England in position to win its third Super Bowl in four seasons.
The question remains: Why the change? What was Jacksonville doing in the first half that they couldn't do in the second? We dug into the television copy of the game to find out, and there were some definite differences.
Jaguars brought another stellar game plan
In the divisional round, Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett mixed and matched his personnel and scheme to hide the Jaguars' deficiencies (Bortles in the pocket) and accentuate the positives (RB Leonard Fournette, Bortles' athleticism, short-area receivers). Jacksonville's 45-point outburst against the Steelers was impressive, but it seemed highly unlikely Hackett would be able to pull off the same type of attack against Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and the Patriots' veteran defense.
We were wrong.
Hackett had enough surprises to keep the Patriots guessing throughout the first half. Probably the best example of the Jaguars' preparedness came after the first quarter expired. In a little bit of trickery that television didn't pick up and something we're used to seeing from the Patriots, the Jaguars spent the entire commercial break huddled with "22" personnel: two running backs and two tight ends. The Patriots huddled with their best run defense, their 3-4 with four linebackers. As the ball was readied for play by the official, the Jaguars changed out all five offensive players and brought in a new personnel grouping: "13," with one back and three tight ends. The Patriots elected not to change out personnel or call a timeout, and the confusion led to a coverage bust (it appeared that newcomer James Harrison didn't cover the right player) down to the 4-yard line to set up the Jaguars' first touchdown, which was also a coverage bust (Patrick Chung).
Hackett also used some sort of deception — whether it was straight play action, or read-option play action, or play action boot — on nine of Bortles' first 14 dropbacks. Not only did that help Bortles complete easier passes, but it put the Patriots' defense on its heels. New England was reacting instead of dictating the action.
"Look, their coaching staff came out with a good offensive scheme," said linebacker Elandon Roberts. "They were putting Grant in and running the read option out there, it was something to keep us off balance. They came with a lot of different stuff."
Hackett, however, seemed to run out of tricks up his sleeve. The Jaguars only ran eight deceptive players in the second half, and five came on Bortles' first seven dropbacks.
But Patricia had a few ideas of his own.
Second half, the Patriots brought the game to the Jaguars
After watching Jacksonville dictate play to the Patriots on their home turf, Patricia got much more aggressive with his play calling in the second half.
In the first half, the Patriot sent four rushers (the norm, leaving seven coverage players for five targets) or less on 13 of 16 (81.3 percent). The only pressure concept the Patriots used in the first half was three zone blitzes, which still does not send an extra rusher — it only gives an illusion of pressure.
So the Patriots didn't commit an extra rusher on any first-half snaps. Patricia elected to do that because the Patriots likely felt that Bortles would not be able to drive the field and make enough throws if they played coverage and threw different coverage looks at him.
Patricia was wrong about that -- Bortles appeared on his way to the game of a lifetime as he put the Patriots on the wrong end of the scoreboard. Instead of waiting for Bortles to come back down to Earth — if he ever would — Patricia and the Patriots went on the attack after halftime.
In fact, immediately after it.
On the Bortles' first six dropbacks of the second half, Patricia sent a different pressure concept, including five that used five or six rushers. Even the one four-man pressure concept was a zone blitz with a pressure from a cornerback. Patricia would send a defensive back at Bortles five times in the second half. The difference in pressure from the first half to the second was not only startling in terms of blitz calls, but also in the pressure exerted on Bortles.
Pressure almost always has an adverse effect on a quarterback, as it speeds them up so they rush their decision-making and also their throws, which affects accuracy. Judging by the stark change in numbers, the Patriots' pressure obviously got to Bortles, as New England posted 10 quarterback pressures after halftime (three before it).
"They were able to bring a few pressures, it was good coordination on their part," said Jaguars left guard Patrick Omameh. "They brought some things that really tested our protections and our rules, and they were able to find some success and at the end of the day, it worked for them."
This six-man pressure sack led to great field position for the Patriots' offense, which it squandered.
This corner blitz from Butler forced Bortles to throw away a huge third down deep in Patriots territory.
Hackett and the Jaguars definitely won the first half against Patricia and the Patriots. But ultimately, Patricia made the right moves in the second half to key a resurgence that had to happen or else the Patriots would have suffered a humiliating home defeat to the Jaguars.
Ultimately, if this was indeed Patricia's last game at Gillette before he sails off to become the Lions' new head coach, that second half was a perfect way to go out.