FOXBORO -- Statistically speaking, Jacksonville's passing game dwells in the bottom third of the NFL. But when discussing the Jaguars air attack -- as has been the theme here all week while New England gets set to play the 2-12 Jags -- the Patriots continue to insist that numbers don't mean a thing.
Regardless of the rankings, Jacksonville has a couple of downfield threats, said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. On Thursday he discussed the two receivers who are perhaps Jacksonville's best offensive players at the moment: Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon.
"As a player, you don't really look at numbers. You turn on the film," McCourty said. "As soon as you turn on the film, you'd have to be blind not to watch those two guys jump off the screen. I think the biggest thing is they're able to go deep. They can do all that. But they turn small gains into five or 10-yard gains. Sometimes they get hit as soon as they catch it and they still break the tackle and they're able to run."
Shorts, a second-year player out of Division III Mount Union College, is one of the best deep threats in football this season. He has 49 catches for 925 yards, giving him the second most yards per catch in the league (18.9), behind only Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson.
Hes done a great job," Belichick said of Shorts earlier this week. "Hes really impressive. Hes one of the best guys weve played against all year. I think he does everything well. He competes well in the running game, hes a good blocker, excellent downfield receiver, hes got really good quickness off the line of scrimmage against the press coverage, catch and run plays, he takes the short paths, breaks tackles and can take it all the way. Hes a real sharp route runner with excellent hands, good in traffic, gets good separation and I really think he does everything well. He competes hard. Hes really an impressive player that way. He doesnt take any plays off. He works hard on every route."
The Patriots had improved on defending long pass plays until last week when they gave up four touchdown passes of more than 20 yards in their loss to the 49ers. They'll look for more performances like the ones they had against the Dolphins and Texans in Weeks 13 and 14 -- when they didn't allow a single passing touchdown -- in order to keep a burner like Shorts out of the end zone.
Doing that, McCourty said, doesn't necessarily mean protecting against big plays and big plays only.
"You gotta compete," he said. "You gotta go up there and make your own plays. You can't just sit back there and hope he doesn't beat you deep. You gotta go out there be competitive and challenge him."
Blackmon, a rookie, has come on strong lately. The No. 5 overall pick is averaging 73.4 yards on 4.7 catches per game in his last seven games. That includes one monster performance in Week 11 when the Jaguars lost to the Texans, 43-37, in overtime, and Blackmon put up 236 yards on just seven receptions. His fourth-quarter, 81-yard touchdown catch-and-run stuck out to McCourty as the Patriots watched tape this week.
"He had three guys around him, and he still scored," McCourty said. "I think it's big for us to just try to contain those guys. Limit the deep part of the field and then when they do make a catch, just get them to the ground."
If running back Maurice Jones-Drew (foot) doesn't play Sunday, Blackmon and Shorts will be the two most explosive offensive players on the field for Jacksonville's offense. They will be targeted, and McCourty said the Patriots respect Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne's ability to get them the ball.
Once again, McCourty referred to the Houston game in which Jacksonville threatened to knock off one of the NFL's best teams at home.
"He's a good quarterback," McCourty said of Henne. "We played him when he was in Miami last season and he threw for over 300 yards against us. We're fully aware of what he's able to do. I think when you watch the Houston game, there's not many throws he missed in that game so we'll just have to really work hard this week in practice and come ready to play on Sunday."