Patriots

Patriots make switch in secondary, showing trust in undrafted rookie JC Jackson

Patriots make switch in secondary, showing trust in undrafted rookie JC Jackson

FOXBORO -- Raise your hand if you predicted J.C. Jackson would be one of the keys to the Patriots defensive game plan on Sunday.

Anyone?

Even if you did, even if you felt as though the Patriots were due to move on from Jonathan Jones in the slot, even if you felt the next logical move would be to bump Jason McCourty inside, even if you felt like Jackson was due for a starter's workload on the outside . . . you probably didn't foresee the Patriots stressing their boundary corners the way they did against Minnesota.

The key personnel change made this week was to have Jackson in as the third corner, bumping Jonathan Jones from what had been his primary role as the slot corner in New England's nickel package. McCourty then bumped from outside to the slot (or "star" as it's known by the Patriots) to replace Jones, and Jackson started on the outside opposite Stephon Gilmore.

Jackson ended up playing 54 of a possible 61 snaps. The Vikings tried to come after him but had very limited success. 

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On seven targets sent his way, Jackson allowed four catches for just 23 yards, and he batted away a fourth-quarter pass that turned into a Duron Harmon pick to help seal the outcome.

"He kept trying me," Jackson said of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "I made him respect me. He kept trying me. I like that though.

"That just gives me an opportunity to make a play so I love it. I love when quarterbacks try to throw my way."

Cousins targeted Jackson on back-to-back red-zone throws late in the third quarter, first floating one to Adam Thielen when Jackson had the league's second-leading receiver in one-on-one coverage. Jackson and Thielen did some shoving back and forth, and there was no flag thrown as the pass bounced away incomplete -- even though Jackson didn't get his head turned around to the football as it came in.

"I felt like that wasn't a penalty," Jackson said. "The ref told me after the play, 'That's good coverage, man.' . . . I wasn't holding or nothing. I just didn't look back for the ball, but there was no PI."

Why didn't he look back?

"I panicked a little bit . . . I was supposed to look back," Jackson said, smiling. "But I was panicking, man."

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"With Thielen," Devin McCourty said, "we just told him, 'Turn around, bro. You'll pick it.' That's just what you do. You turn around and you intercept the ball."

Jackson played the ball on the very next snap when Cousins targeted Aldrick Robinson on a similar route with Jackson in one-on-one coverage again. Again, Jackson was physical with his assignment, but there was no call and the pass was incomplete.

To hold up in that situation -- as he did on the deep ball he deflected that landed in Harmon's arms -- came as little surprise to Jackson's teammates.

"He makes plays in practice," Devin McCourty said, "that you guys haven't seen in the game but our whole secondary is like, '[Expletive.] There he goes again.' 

"One-handed catches. Great ball-skills. Like today. It's a long throw, it looks like the guy might have a step. As soon as J.C. turns his head, he locates the ball as good as anybody I've seen that we've had at corner . . . I think his confidence has grown and he's getting more and more comfortable being in there."

"Watching him from spring on," Jason McCourty said, "he's a guy, when he turns and looks for the ball -- elite as far as going to look for the ball, attacking the ball. You saw the one Du had, he's running, he's looking at the ball, Robinson gets a little behind him. There's no panic because he can read that ball as well as the receiver. 

    "There's plays that he makes in practice that we see week in and week out and he has some special talent. He's a guy that moments and stuff are so big for him that he doesn't even think about it. He's just out there playing football. For him it doesn't matter if he's covering [Laquon] Treadwell, Thielen, [Stefon] Diggs. He's just out there doing his thing. It's fun to watch young guys step up and every opportunity he's got, he's made the most of."

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    It wasn't just the throws to the end zone when Jackson stepped up, either. 

    On just about every crucial passing down in the game for the Vikings, the Patriots used an amorphous front that relied on strong one-on-one coverage on the outside from Jackson and Gilmore -- partly because they were two of only three players to declare their intentions on the play before the snap.

    On those plays? Cousins went 5-for-8 for 24 yards. The Vikings made just one first down on third and fourth-down snaps against those looks.

    "The play of J.C. and Steph outside tonight, there's a bunch of times where we have everyone on the inside, eight yards, walking around, moving around," Devin McCourty said. "Sometimes I shoot out. Sometimes Du shoots out. But when you do stuff like that, that puts a lot of pressure on the corners. 

    "I think the way they're playing, what we're able to do, quarterbacks are struggling to pick that up. Whether it be Green Bay. Whether it be Minnesota tonight. I think we're getting more and more comfortable with it where [Brian Flores] is having the confidence to say, 'We're going to do this because we're getting it right and it's been effective for us.' "

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    Jackson was all smiles after the fact in the Patriots locker room. Of course he was. He'd gone from undrafted to starting in a matter of about six months, and was trusted to handle tough assignments against a star-studded passing game. 

    You may not have seen this coming. Couldn't blame you if you didn't. But Jackson played as if he'd been thinking this was a long time coming.

    Just ask his fellow defensive backs.

    "The first game of the season, I played six plays," Jason McCourty said. "You don't know how the season is going to go. You don't know when your number is going to be called. 

    "But I feel like when you form those close-knit relationships within this locker room, it doesn't matter what happens, what the matchups are, who's playing, who's not. you make sure that you're studying and you're prepared for the guys next to you."

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    49ers' Kyle Shanahan reveals play he regrets most from Super Bowl loss to Patriots

    49ers' Kyle Shanahan reveals play he regrets most from Super Bowl loss to Patriots

    Kyle Shanahan will return to the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and it's an opportunity for him to atone for mistakes he made during the Atlanta Falcons' loss in Super Bowl LI three years ago.

    The Falcons led the New England Patriots 28-3 late in the third quarter of that Super Bowl. Shanahan was the Falcons' offensive coordinator at the time, and he had called a brilliant game offensively to that point. Atlanta's lead was 19 entering the fourth quarter, and teams leading by 19 or more points through three quarters in playoff history were 93-0 entering that night.

    Everything quickly unraveled for the Falcons, though. Eventually the Patriots scored their second touchdown with 5:56 remaining in the fourth quarter to trim Atlanta's lead to 28-20. The Falcons got the ball back and only needed a field goal to secure the franchise's first Super Bowl title.

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    The drive started out well for the Falcons as quarterback Matt Ryan hit running back Devonta Freeman on a 36-yard pass play. After a 2-yard run, Ryan went to the air again and found wide receiver Julio Jones for a 27-yard gain on one of the most impressive catches in Super Bowl history. Jones' insane catch put the Falcons on the Patriots' 22-yard line and close enough for a field goal.

    Here are the next five plays for the Falcons:

    1st-and-10: Freeman rush for 1-yard loss
    2nd-and-11: Ryan sacked back at the 35-yard line
    3rd-and-23: Ryan passes to Mohamed Sanu for 9-yard gain, holding on Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews
    3rd-and-33: Ryan incomplete pass intended for Tyler Gabriel
    4th-and-33: Falcons punt

    The Patriots took the ball and scored the game-tying touchdown, then clinched their fifth Super Bowl championship by scoring a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime.

    Shanahan got crushed for his handling of that Falcons drive, and earlier this week, he explained that his biggest regret of the entire game came on a specific play during that drive.

    "The play I regretted the most was when we got down there," Shanahan told reporters at his press conference Monday. "We hadn't converted a third down, really the entire second half. I think we were averaging 1 yard per carry rushing. So, when you do that, the formula to keep giving the ball back to someone is to go run, run, pass -- because you’re going to make it third-and-7 at the best every single time. And if you’re not converting on third downs, that makes it tough. Eventually, we did mix it up a little bit. I think we actually ran it more in the second half than we did in the first half. 

    “... Finally, they got it within a score, we got it back and got pretty aggressive to get it down there. It was a second-and-(11). The last time down there on second-and-10 I called a run, we got a 2-yard loss and a holding call that put us out of field-goal range. This time, I went the opposite, tried to get a play to Julio. They played a different coverage, didn’t get the call I wanted, so I didn’t like the call. I was hoping we could just get rid of it, but they had a pretty good rush, got a sack. Once that happened, I knew we had to throw because now we were out of field goal range. Threw it the next down to Sanu -- ran a choice route breaking out, moved the chains, but they called a holding call on our left tackle, so that put us way back. You had to throw again to get back into it, and we missed it. I wish I didn’t call that play on second-and-11 that led to that sack.”

    Shanahan's 49ers will play the high-scoring Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. His starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, was the Patriots' backup when New England pulled off its historic comeback versus Atlanta. Losing Super Bowl LI will stick with Shanahan his entire life -- such is the nature of those types of losses --  but beating the Chiefs and finally getting to lift the Lombardi Trophy would certainly make for a nice comeback story.

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    Tedy Bruschi celebrates Dean Pees' retirement with awesome throwback photo

    Tedy Bruschi celebrates Dean Pees' retirement with awesome throwback photo

    Dean Pees' second (and final?) retirement made a few of his former players nostalgic Tuesday.

    The Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator announced Monday he's calling it quits after 47 years in coaching, 12 of which came in the NFL.

    Pees' first NFL job came with the New England Patriots, who hired him as their linebackers coach in 2004 before promoting him to defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009.

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    Pees' linebacking corps helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl in 2004, so to commemorate his retirement, ex-Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi dug up an awesome old photo of that unit.

    That's quite the formidable group, featuring the likes of Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson and current Titans coach Mike Vrabel.

    Here's the full roll call from Bruschi's 2004 photo (seemingly taken before Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville) from left to right:

    Ryan Izzo, Rosevelt Colvin, Matt Chatham, Tully Banta-Cain, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Don Davis and Ted Johnson.

    That 2004 group spearheaded a dominant Patriots defense that allowed just 16.3 points per game (second-fewest in the NFL) and powered New England to a 14-2 regular season record.

    McGinest also showed love for Pees, sharing Bruschi's photo along with a longer note for his former coach:

    Current Patriots players may be equally happy to see Pees step down. The 70-year-old coach helped bounce New England from the playoffs on three separate occasions: twice with the Baltimore Ravens in 2010 and 2013 and once with the Titans in this year's AFC Wild Card Round.

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