Patriots

Green-Ellis and Woodhead open things up

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Green-Ellis and Woodhead open things up

By Danny Picard
CSNNE.com

Expectations are for the positions on the field, not for the players who man those positions.

Year in and year out, Bill Belichick proves that theory to be true. As players get hurt, traded, or straight up released, others step in and thrive, even if you've never heard of them before.

Undrafted free agents BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead are perhaps the best examples of that. The pair of running backs combined for 197 rushing yards and 232 total yards in Sunday's 34-3 win over the Buffalo Bills, a win that saw the Patriots clinch the division, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

"If you're an outside linebacker on this team, you're expected to play like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after the game. "If you're a running back, you're expected to play like Corey Dillon, and Antwan Smith, and Kevin Faulk. That's just the way it is."

All the players that Brady mentioned in won Super Bowls with New England. Green-Ellis and Woodhead aren't there just yet, but if they continue to produce on the ground like they have been all season long, it will continue to open up Brady's ever-so-dangerous passing game, a passing game that saw three touchdowns on Sunday, but only a total of 140 yards in the air.

Brady set the NFL record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception in the win, but Green-Ellis' 104 rushing yards on 19 carries, and Woodhead's 93 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 carries set the tone in Sunday's division clincher.

"I think we talked earlier in the week, one thing they've been struggling with is against the run," said Brady. "Buffalo was 32nd against the run, and we knew coming in that we needed to establish it, get things going on the ground, and possess the ball, and we sure did. And I think that takes a lot of pressure off the pass game, when you can hand it off all the times we did, and gain those yards."

Woodhead gave the Patriots their first lead of the afternoon, busting a 29-yard run through the middle, and then cutting outside to the left and into the end zone.

New England led 7-3 after the extra point, and they never looked back.

It marked Woodhead's fifth rushing touchdown of the season. And even though Green-Ellis didn't get into the end zone Sunday, he's now just 72 yards away from having a 1,000-yard rushing season.

The reason?

"Good blocking, good running, good play-calling," said Belichick. "The players, they're the ones that gain the yards, they're the ones that blocked, they're the ones that ran. Our receivers have been doing a good job in the running game, they've helped us. Our backs run well, they run hard and take care of the ball."

"It goes week to week," said guard Logan Mankins. "We've come into games we thought we'd kill em in the running game and we run for 60 yards. It's all execution and tonight we executed for the most part."
Tom E. Curran contributed to this story.

Danny Picard is on Twitter at http:twitter.comDannyPicard. You can listen to Danny on his streaming radio show I'm Just Sayin' Monday-Friday from 9-10 a.m. on CSNNE.com.

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