Want to know a quick way to measure how good a ball carrier is? Check his yards-per-carry average. Anything over 4.0 is desirable. Then check his number of carries. The more of those he has, the more impressive that average becomes.
Over his 10-year NFL career, the Jaguars' Fred Taylor is averaging 4.7 yards each time he carries the ball (an average of 228 times per season, or about 14 times per game). The past two seasons, though, he's been even more spectacular, averaging exactly 5.0 yards in 2006 and 5.4 this season. His carry total has been right on par (231 in '06, 223 this season).
Seven times in those 10 years, Taylor has gained well over 1,000 yards, despite missing nearly three-dozen games due to injury over that span. And while he doesn't find the end zone as often as he used to (only 21 TDs in the past five years, compared to 40 in his first five), Taylor provides the perfect offensive threat for Jacksonville: a hard-nosed runner who can put his team in short-yardage situations and set up play-action passes.
Having acquired the "injury-prone" label over the years, Taylor has had back-to-back 15-game seasons. Had Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio not decided to rest several of his starters for the season finale against Houston, Taylor would likely have started the entire 16-game season for the first time since 2002 and '03.
What's more, he appears to be getting stronger as the season wears on.
Said his teammate, QB David Garrard, in a recent interview with the Florida Times-Union, "Whenever you get later in the year like that, defensive guys are getting worn down and beat down. Fred just continues to have a lot of energy. Before the game, he was saying, 'Man, I'm starting to feel it a little bit.' But even then, it doesn't matter because when he gets out there, he's running strong. He's hungry. He wants to do something special this year like we all do."
Taylor has faced the Patriots just three times in his career. The first time was a memorable one for all the wrong reasons. In a Wild Card win over the Pats in Jacksonville, a then-rookie Taylor rushed for 162 yards on 33 carries (4.9 average) and a touchdown.
Since then, it's been downhill for Taylor. In a regular season contest in December of 2003 here in Foxboro, he carried 16 times for just 57 yards (3.6 average) and no TDs. His most recent appearance was in the 2005 playoffs, also at Gillette. Again, Taylor was limited to 8 carries for 24 yards (3.0 average) and no touchdowns.
Those are the type of numbers the Pats will need to force Taylor into this weekend.
Heading into 2007, Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis was coming off the most productive season of his career. His eight interceptions set a new team record, and were second overall in the league (Asante Samuel and Champ Bailey each had 10 last season). That mark, coupled with his 71 tackles, helped him earn a starting nod in the Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
But time caught up with the five-year veteran in '07. For the first time in his pro career, he failed to start every game for Jacksonville. Nagging groin injuries forced him to miss the Jags' November win over Buffalo; mostly as a precaution, Mathis also sat out the season finale against Houston. His 12 passes defensed in '06 were cut in half this year, and his INT total dropped to just one.
Those numbers aside, Mathis is still capable of being a shut-down corner against the better wide receivers in the NFL. Few teams this season have been able to contain Randy Moss without double-covering him. But Mathis' ability to cover man-to-man might allow Jags coach Jack Del Rio to free up another defender to apply double coverage to one of New England's other receiving threats.
If - and that's a big if - Mathis can handle that job on his own, his team might have a better chance of doing what no other opponent has done to the Pats all season. New England will need to test this match-up early.
Get after Garrard
During the previous five seasons, David Garrard dutifully backed up Jacksonville's franchise quarterback, Byron Leftwich. When the oft-injured Leftwich couldn't play, Garrard would step in and, more often than not, acquit himself quite well.
When the Jags released Leftwich at the beginning of this season, the starting job in Jacksonville became Garrard's full-time. And he has take full advantage of the opportunity.
Though he threw only 18 touchdowns in '07, Garrard rarely made mistakes either, tossing only three INTs all season. He's an athletic 6-1, 245 pounder who is equally adept at escaping the rush with his feet as his is beating it with his arm.
Having had to wait so long to get his chance to be the undisputed leader of the Jaguars offense may have been frustrating for Garrard, but it also has made him a tougher, more determined player.
In an recent interview with a Jacksonville-area newspaper, Garrard said, "I just want to be an inspiration out there for other people that think maybe their game isn't achieving the right kind of level … hold on, continue to persevere. That capsulized all that I went through and I think it's given me a different edge when I'm out there."
The Pats defense will have to neutralize that edge, either by taking away Garrard's running game with Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, or shutting down his passing attack with tight coverage or a strong pass rush, forcing Garrard to beat the Pats by himself.