Patriots

Defending the 'pistol' is simple: Do your job

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Defending the 'pistol' is simple: Do your job

NEW ORLEANS There are many things a defense SHOULD do when defending the Pistol offense.

The best example of what NOT to do? That was provided by Green Bay Packers linebacker Erik Walden in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.

Lined up on the right side of the 49ers offense as a stand-up outside linebacker, Walden saw Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick take the snap and put the ball near the belly of running back LaMichael James. Walden took on the block of Niners tight end Delanie Walker, who had pulled down the line and Walden then chased after James.

But Walden was mistaken. James didnt have the ball, Kaepernick did. Around the end Kaepernick went on his way to a 56-yard touchdown and 181 rushing yards in a game that serves as a cautionary tale.

The split-second chicanery inherent in the Pistol puts stress on defenders who are caught at the point of attack. Or would-be point of attack. The other name for these plays is read-option which means the quarterback reads the defender and has an option whether to give the ball or keep it.

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, coming off the most impressive defensive accomplishment of the playoffs in shutting down the New England offense, is looking at a whole different attack now.

How does a defender deal with the Pistol?

You gotta be a football player, he says plainly. Its just like anything else. Youve got an assignment. Its this simple in some ways. If you have an assignment but the bottom line is, you are to tackle the guy that has the football. So going in and blowing up No. 7 when you know he doesnt have the ball really serves no purpose. Tackle the guy with the football. If you think 7 has the football, then go tackle him. But if you know its handed off, go play football. Thats still the bottom line on defense. Whoevers got the ball needs to be on the ground.

According to Pees, the defender who is in the crosshairs when the Pistol is executed is whoevers playing 5-technique and 6-technique. Its whoevers over the tackles or at the end of the line of scrimmage. Not that the inside guys arent into it but the guys that (Kaepernick) is really trying to option are always the guys who are at the end of the line of scrimmage. That could be an outside backer, that could be a 5-technique defensive end, either or.

Willie McGinest played those spots when he was in the NFL. He marvels at the way defenses get bollixed up.

If youre in a 4-3 system or a 3-4 system, if your assignment is to hit the fullback, and Im reading my keys when the tackle blocks down, you gotta go up and hit the fullback, says McGinest. If Im the pitch man on Colin Kaepernick at outside linebacker, then I dont really care what else is going on, I have to do what I have to do. It just seems like a lot of teams get caught up in trying to read too much and they dont stick to their assignment and read their keys.

Patience and communication have to be at the top of the Ravens to-do list.

We definitely have to be patient, acknowledges Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.We have to make sure that if you have a dive, you take the dive.If you have the quarterback, you take the quarterback.Weve got to be careful and make sure that we communicate and get a stop.Our guys up front have to beat their blocks because they do very well with double teams.Once we get to the running back,we have to bring him down.

Communication, says Ray Lewis, is whats been lacking with the Niners opponents so far.

When you watch the film, a lot of people who played against them just never communicated at all, Lewis alleges. I believe thats one of the advantages of what we have as a defense. We do a job of communicating real very well, whether you have the dive, whether you have the quarterback. How are you going to play this? How are you going to play that? And if you watch the film, you can tell that a lot of people played against the read-option just played as individuals. Its really hard to play that type of package as individuals. You have to play it as a group. I said that if you were to try to slow it down, that is the only way to slow it down, is to play it as a group. Make sure before the ball is snapped, everybody is on the same page.

The Niners have warmed to the package of Pistol plays as theyve seen its effectiveness.

I didnt like the pistol at first, admits running back Frank Gore, but I am a team guy and it helped us get here. We are doing great things with it so I am with it now.

Offensive tackle Joe Staley says the idea is to Come downhill. It is a lot of different parts that are going on with it. It puts a lot of pressure on everybody to be on point and know exactly what we are doing. Everybody on the football field really has to be dialed in. I think in that aspect (it is different). We do not just run the pistol offense. We do a lot of different things. We do a lot of different things well so it is really hard to prepare for our offense because of that fact.

The Ravens acknowledge its daunting but they seem confident they can deal with it.

Its tough.When we played Washington with RG III (Redskins QB Robert Griffin III), they hit us in the beginning of the game with a bunch of read option and pistol formation plays.We had to adjust, and once we did, we did better, says Ngata. Hopefully, it doesnt take us too long to adjust (on Sunday), and hopefully the things that weve been practicing will work.We cant hesitate, and theyve been successful getting a lot of teams to hesitate and guess.Communication is key.You have to understand what youre doing.

And that, McGinest says, is why the Niners previous opponents struggled mightily.

If you watched Atlanta play em, you could tell that it was the job of the end to take Colin, he explains. Because Colin ran it and he just kept giving it to Gore or LaMichael James. They didnt have an answer for them. They didnt make an adjustment on defense. The end would run up the field and create a running lane and thats an easy read for the running back. The end wasnt blocked. He was just running up the field to Colin. Straight to him. One time, the running back ran past him with the ball and he still went to Colin. Ran right by him.

You have to force the issue with guys like Colin Kaepernick or RG3 or Russell Wilson, McGinest adds You have to assign a guy to him right away. You go down and you blow it up. Every single time. This guys not gonna beat us. If youre on the running back, youre on the running back. I dont care what Colin does, if you have the running back, you go blast that running back. If you got a two-gap on the tackle, then play your gap. If youre a noseguard, then you have to win the A gap front side to the play. If you watch these teams, they get out of their assignments and you play right into their hands.

McGinest does note, though, that the defenders cant be robots.

At some point you have to be smart enough to read, McGinest laments. You see him hand the ball off, go tackle the ball. The job is to tackle the ball. If the running back clearly has the ball and youre still running after Colin, thats not smart football.

Erik Walden thought someone else had the ball. He read it wrong. The result was on that play fatal. And thats why the Pistol is so hard to defend.

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

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Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

FOXBORO -- Are we giving the Jaguars defense too much credit?

The numbers, on the surface, paint Jacksonville's defense as one of the best the NFL has seen in years. They finished the season as the league's top passing defense in terms of yards allowed, and they were second when it came to points allowed, total yards and sacks.

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Then there are the postseason awards that have been bestowed upon their defensive regulars. Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson have all been named Pro Bowlers. Ramsey and Campbell are First-Team All-Pros, while Bouye and Telvin Smith are Second-Teamers. Campbell is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. 

So why, then, is there this lingering feeling that the Jaguars defense isn't all it's cracked up to be? They allowed Ben Roethlisberger to heave his way to 42 points in the Divisional Round. In Week 16, they gave up 44 to Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners. Hell, Blaine Gabbert and the Cardinals put up 27 and beat them in Week 12. 

Those results don't exactly scream "all-time defense." So what is Jacksonville? Overrated? Properly rated? 

One thing is for certain: The Jags played an easy schedule. The combined winning percentage of their opponents in 2017 was a league-low 44 percent. And when it comes to the defense in particular, they had the second-easiest schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders. It didn't hurt that they were able to play the Colts with Jacoby Brissett, the Texans before Deshaun Watson became a star and after he got hurt, and the NFL's No. 23-ranked Titans offense. Twice. Each. They also got the Ravens (No. 27 offense), Jets (No. 28), Bengals (No. 32), Browns (No. 24) and Cardinals (No. 22). Add it all up and that's nine games -- more than half their schedule -- against bottom-third NFL offenses. Two more games came against a Houston offense that featured starting quarterbacks Tom Savage and TJ Yates. 

When you dig into the analytics it's harder to find ways to poke holes in Jacksonville's credibility as a top-tier defensive unit. Pro Football Focus grades the Jags as their No. 1 defense, and it's really not close. Football Outsiders calls them their No. 1 defense in terms of DVOA. Even when you factor in some of its recent performances -- like letdowns versus the Steelers and Niners -- Jacksonville is still the league's No. 4 defense in weighted DVOA, which is adjusted so that games that were played earlier in the season are gradually less important. 

At the same time, the analytics can be occasionally unkind to the Jaguars. Football Outsiders has them ranked as one of the most inconsistent defenses in the league. According to their variance statistic, Jacksonville is the fourth most inconsistent defense in football. A deeper dive into the numbers has also located an apparent soft underbelly of the Jaguars defense. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars are dominant against three-receiver sets -- No. 1 in the league, in fact -- but they're the No. 23 defense in the NFL when it comes to defending personnel groupings that feature one or two wide receivers. That would explain, in part, why the Titans (who Sharp rated as the least-likely team to employ three-receiver sets this season) and Niners (who went with more "21" and "12" personnel looks late in the season) were able to beat the Jaguars. 

The most difficult argument against the legitimacy of the Jaguars' defensive rankings is the talent they put on the field on a weekly basis. Their roster, defensively at least, stacks up with some of the most imposing defensive units in recent memory. The Seahawks had four First and Second-Team All-Pros on their defense in 2014. The Broncos defense had five Pro Bowlers in 2015. The Jaguars have five players who were named either All-Pros or Pro Bowlers or both this year, and they probably should've had a sixth in pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who recorded 12 sacks (eighth in the NFL) and a league-best six forced fumbles. 

The verdict? The Jaguars defense is loaded with blue-chip players. It will be the best unit the Patriots offense has seen this year. But they have been inconsistent, they have holes -- which we touched upon in this week's Quick Slants the Podcast with Jerod Mayo -- and there remains the very real possibility that Tom Brady and his teammates will light up the Gillette Stadium scoreboard on Sunday. 

Now, is Brady healthy? Good question. Will he have enough time to throw? We'll see. But if the answer to both of those questions is "yes" (or "enough"), then the Patriots should be headed to Minnesota. This Jaguars defense is very good, but it's far from inpenetrable.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

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BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

0:41 - Tom Brady injured his right hand during practice on Wednesday. Tom Curran, Albert Breer, Michael Holley, and Tom Giles discuss how this injury could impact Brady’s ability to throw against the Jaguars on Sunday.

6:06 - Isaiah Thomas has asked the Celtics to cancel his video tribute on Paul Pierce Night, and Pierce said that Thomas was trying to ‘punk’ Danny Ainge into a tribute video. Michael Holley, Kyle Draper, and Tom Giles debate if Isaiah Thomas or Paul Pierce is in the wrong.

11:19 - Albert Breer discusses how much credit Tom Coughlin deserves for the Jaguars great season and if Coughlin’s success against the Patriots and Bill Belichick will come into play on Sunday.

15:37 - Joe Haggerty joins BST from the TD Garden to break down the Bruins win over the Canadiens and Claude Julien’s return to Boston.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE EPISODE