Sanders bails out Patriots' defense


Sanders bails out Patriots' defense

By Danny Picard

FOXBORO -- If the New England Patriots' defense wanted to make astatement to its doubters, it was going to have to come on Sunday night, duringthe Indianapolis Colts' final drive of the game.

Peyton Manning had already taken his team into the end zone twice in the fourth quarter, cutting New Englands 31-14 lead to 31-28. After the Colts' 'D' had forced the Patriots to punt, Manning had 2 minutes and 25 seconds to drive 74yards for the win at Gillette Stadium.

Manning took his offense down to the New England 24-yardline after connecting with Reggie Wayne for a 15-yard pass on 3rd-and-6. Withless than a minute remaining, the Colts had a first down, and were perfectlyset up in field-goal range.

But on that first down play, Manning set up his no-huddleoffense while in the shotgun formation, looked his tight end off, and attempteda pass down the right sideline for Pierre Garcon.

There would be no game-tying field goal from former PatriotAdam Vinatieri, and there would be no game-winning touchdown for Manning atGillette.

Credit that to safety James Sanders, who leaped out ofnowhere and picked off Manning's pass at New England's 6-yard line, giving thePatriots the ball with 31 seconds left and sealing the deal on a three-pointwin.

"As a defense, we knew if we didnt make a play, we weregoing to lose the game," said Sanders. "Manning wasn't going to just give itto us. So we had to go out there and take the win."

The Pats' defense held Manning and the Colts' offense tojust 14 points and picked him off twice through the first three quarters, whiledisguising their coverages.

But Manning came out in the fourth and threw two touchdownsin his first two possessions of the quarter.

Something had to be done on histhird possession. And Sanders was the one to step up and make it happen.

Sanders credited linebacker Gary Guyton for jamming Coltstight end Jacob Tamme at the line of scrimmage, prior to his interception.Sanders and Guyton were double-covering Tamme on the play, but because ofGuytons tight coverage, it allowed Sanders to read Manning a little longer.

Sanders saw Manning notice the double coverage, which causedthe Colts' quarterback to become wide-eyed at the single coverage on Garcondown the right sideline. He went for the big play with the game onthe line.

As the throw was made, Patriots linebacker JermaineCunningham was rushing in from the left side, and just got a piece of Manningsthrowing arm, disrupting his attempt.

From there Sanders dropped back, leaped up, and made theinterception while falling backwards to the ground. It was the only thing thePatriots could have done to guarantee victory.

"It feels good when the defense comes through and kind ofwins the game for you," said Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. "They were afield goal away from tying it up, a touchdown away from winning the game, butwe were forced to step up big and win it with a turnover. That was huge for us.I'm very proud of our guys out there.

"I think going into this week, the offense realized they hadto score points," said Wilfork. "And I think our defense, we realized, 'Hey,theres going to come a point where we're going to have to stand up andbasically be a man out there.' And we did. With a minute left in the ball game,whatever it was, James Sanders came up with that interception, that turnover.That felt good."

Cornerback Darius Butler got to see some second-half action after Patriots coach Bill Belichick made some halftime adjustments, moving cornerback Kyle Arrington mostly as an outside pass-rusher.

Belichick said after the win that the move was part of the game plan heading in.

"Yeah, yeah, we planned it," said Belichick. "We don't draw them up on the dirt now."

Arrington was beaten several times in the first half by Reggie Wayne, including on an 11-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline with four seconds remaining in the second quarter.

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"The coaches are very confident in my ability to rush thequarterback, or get to the quarterback," said Arrington.

But it was wasn't as easy as it looked.

"Tackles get paid to block, so it was very different," he added. "I had a few opportunities. I got close to Peyton a coupletimes, but in the trenches, its very different."

Danny Picard is on Twitter at http:twitter.comdannypicard

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?


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.


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


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.