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Game Observations: Jags walk the walk in steamy Jacksonville

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The Patriots travelled to steamy Jacksonville after listening to plenty of talk from Jalen Ramsey and the Jaguars throughout the week. Some felt the talkative Jags were in for a lesson, but ultimately it was the Patriots who were forced to listen to the upstart host as the Jags came away with a convincing 31-20 victory.

Ramsey wasn’t responsible for it, but Rob Gronkowski, the target of the corner’s barbs, was held to just two catches for 15 yards and the offense never got in gear.

Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots first loss of the season.

-There was an important sequence late in the first half that illustrated a change in philosophy for Jacksonville from last year. The Jags took over with a 14-3 lead with two minutes left in the first half, and unlike a year ago in the conference championship game Doug Marrone decided to be aggressive. In January Marrone had Blake Bortles take a knee to get to halftime with a 14-10 lead, but this time he had his quarterback throwing. Bortles marched his team 75 yards on 13 plays, culminating the impressive drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Austin Seferian-Jenkins to make it 21-3 with just :09 left before the break. Bortles effectively got the ball out of his hands quickly as the Patriots front took an aggressive approach with its rush but was unable to get there. Jacksonville’s offense completely controlled the action in the first 30 minutes and put the Patriots in a tough spot. The change in approach for Marrone was a key reason for that.

-That change in philosophy remained a huge aspect of the game as Marrone continued to keep his foot on the pedal. Instead of throttling down his offense with a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, Marrone continued to throw the ball and was rewarded when Bortles hit Dede Westbrook for a 61-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown to increase the Jags lead to 31-13 midway through the fourth quarter. A year ago Marrone went with a steady diet of Leonard Fournette and the conservative approach cost him the game. Even as the game continued Bortles kept throwing and eventually Jacksonville ran down the clock with key first downs.

-Fournette’s hamstring injury may have been one of the more positive aspects of the game for the Jaguars. Jacksonville generally likes to run Fournette between the tackles while relying on its defense. With the big back unavailable, Marrone let it fly and watched Bortles complete 29 of 45 passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw an interception but was otherwise outstanding in a role that Marrone may not have put him in had he had Fournette available. Even as Jacksonville attempted to run the clock out with a late 11-point lead, Bortles continued to throw with Fournette watching in street clothes from the sideline.

-Given the fact that the Jaguars defense came into the game with such a strong reputation it was somewhat surprising to see Bill Belichick win the toss and opt to take the ball to open the game. Perhaps Belichick wanted to show some confidence in his shorthanded offense against such an imposing foe, but it didn’t work. Although the Patriots moved the ball on their opening drive, they were eventually forced to settle for a 54-yard field goal, which Stephen Gostkowski pushed badly to the right. When Jacksonville responded by dominating the first half, the Patriots had to wait to get the ball after the break, further hindering the comeback hopes.

-Belichick made another curious decision in the fourth quarter when he opted to punt on fourth-and-inches from the Patriots 18. Marrone made a great call to challenge what the officials originally awarded a first down on a catch by James White, and after winning it the Patriots faced fourth down trailing 24-13. Belichick sent Ryan Allen out to punt despite the deficit and clock. He almost was rewarded when a Jags defender initially jumped, but Brandon King, the blocker lined up across from him, didn’t react. The defender was back in his stance and the punt went off without incident. On the Jags ensuing play, Westbrook broke his long touchdown to put the game away.

-The Patriots were clearly in trouble trailing 24-3 midway through the third quarter and Jacksonville was on the move again. Bortles found D.J. Chark on a slant for a 20-yard gain into Patriots territory but Stephon Gilmore made a big play by punching it out of the rookie’s hands. Duron Harmon recovered and returned it to the Jags 48. New England took advantage of the short field and put a touchdown on the board when Brady hit Chris Hogan for his first of two touchdowns. Two series later Bortles tried to force one down the seam to Seferian-Jenkins but was picked off when the ball bounced off the tight end’s hands to Kyle Van Noy. At that point all the momentum was on the visitors’ side as the Patriots faced a third-and-nine from the Jags 24, but it was short-lived. Dante Fowler raced past Waddle off the edge and strip sacked Brady. He recovered the fumble and allowed his team to regain control and Jacksonville was never in trouble again.

-The Patriots signed three players earlier in the week but none of them made it to the active roster on Sunday. New England released Bennie Fowler on Saturday to make room for Cole Croston, who was elevated from the practice squad. Fellow wideout Corey Coleman and running back Kenjon Barner were both among the inactives, so they didn’t get to make their Patriots debuts either. Croston’s promotion was made necessary by Marcus Cannon’s calf injury, which caused the right tackle to be deactivated after he split time with LaAdrian Waddle in the opener against the Texans. Waddle started in Cannon’s place and went wire to wire in the heat and humidity of Jacksonville.

-There were reports prior to the game that indicated both Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt were candidates to return to Foxborough in the coming weeks. Social media reports stated that Julian Edelman was seen working out with Matthews, leading to speculation that the wideout could be re-signed, but that would have to wait until after Week 3 due to an injury settlement he agreed to when he was released early in training camp. NFL Network reported that Britt, who was also released in part due to a hamstring issue, that Britt could be back as well.

-Jacksonville drove for a touchdown in its first drive of the game, marking the first time that has happened to New England in the last 25 games including the postseason. Gostkowski’s missed field goal allowed the Jags to take over in good field position at their 44. It took Bortles just nine plays to open the scoring with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Donte’ Moncrief.

-There was some good news for the Patriots as a pair of injured running backs returned to action. Sony Michel missed the opener with a knee injury but suited up and made his NFL debut in Jacksonville. He carried 10 times for 34 yards and caught a pass for 7 more. He also did a nice job cutting Calais Campbell in the first half to prevent Brady from taking a big hit. Rex Burkhead dealt with a concussion and missed some practice time during the week but was also able to play. He started and received some early carries before sitting out for an extended period of time while Michel took over. Burkhead returned late and finished with six carries for 22 yards as the running game did not materialize throughout the day. Jacob Hollister also made his season debut, catching three passes for 35 yards after missing the opener with a sore hamstring.

-After releasing Riley McCarron after a tough opener for the wideout, the Patriots were forced to make some changes in the punt return game. Unfortunately, New England didn’t force many Jags punts. Patrick Chung was back deep to field the first attempt in the first half but the ball was downed at the Patriots 6. Chung was forced to leave the game with a concussion and was replaced by Cordarrelle Patterson in the second half, but the wideout didn’t get a chance to return either of his two attempts either as both wound up being downed by the Jags.

-In addition to Chung, Trey Flowers also was forced to leave the game due to a concussion. Flowers was struck by friendly fire as Keionta Davis’ knee made contact with Flowers as the two attempted to apply pressure on Bortles early in the game. Flowers did no return. Late in the game Deatrich Wise left with an apparent left hand/wrist injury. No update was given on Wise but he appeared to be in some pain as he left with trainers.

-On a final note, Danny Shelton was not a big part of the defensive game plan in Jacksonville. Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy took the bulk of the reps on the inside. Perhaps it was due to the Jags personnel packages, which obviously featured plenty of throws and empty backfields. But it was interesting nonetheless to see Shelton receive so little action.

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