Heading into 2018, the New England Patriots offense looked deadly. Then came the injuries. Then came the roster cuts before the start of the regular season. Then the injury bug returned. Suddenly New England’s receiving corps was decimated. The Pats’ running backs also went from stocked to starved, featuring just James White, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel. The latter two of whom have been iffy at best thanks to lingering knee injuries.

Decimated by Injuries, Patriots Backs Literally Against a Wall

In week one, New England patched their thin receiving corps with talent from pass-catching backs White and Burkhead. James Develin, the team’s fullback, may have murdered Jeremy Hill‘s knee in a friendly fire incident but contributed more than his usual blocking talents.

In week two, the Patriots rushing group will face their first true test against the Jacksonville Jaguars defense, who’s looking to put the hurt on a Patriots team who ruined Jacksonville’s Super Bowl hopes last year. Frankly, New England’s rushing offense is in for a rude awakening.

After suffering a concussion in the season opener against the Houston Texans, Burkhead has slowly moved from a non-practicing status to limited practice status and is officially questionable for the week two matchup in Jacksonville. Michel, who has yet to play in any NFL game (preseason or regular) is also suffering from a nagging knee injury but has hinted at suiting up for the weekend’s game. For those counting, the only three healthy backs are White, Develin, and newcomer Kenjon Barner.

We’ve yet to see what Michel can do and whether or not his knee can withstand a heavy workload. Barner, who’s scored all of three touchdowns since being drafted in 2013, is more often used as a punt returner. Notice anything missing? Sure, a true workhorse: someone who can break through the defensive line, break tackles, and break ankles. Someone like…Saquon Barkley?

Jacksonville Buried Barkley

The Jaguars run defense has thus far performed in line with their stat line from last year. In 2017, the team’s run defense ranked 21st of 32 teams, allowing an average of just over 116 yards per game. Through last year, the Jaguars allowed only nine rushing touchdowns. This year, as of week one, the Jaguars run defense ranks 19th of the 32 teams in the league. They’ve allowed 114 yards and one rushing touchdown. Of course, Barkley, the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, ran for 106 of those yards.

But even then, outside a huge 68-yard run, the Jaguars defense held Barkley to seven runs of zero or negative yards. Without that run, the Jaguars held him to a total of 28 yards on 17 attempts – an abysmal 2.24 yards per carry for a player who is likely to become the New York Giants rushing version of Odell Beckham

Maybe a “workhorse” running back isn’t the answer for the Patriots.

Jacksonville’s Defensive Stars

Telvin Smith, Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, and Yannick Ngakoue are all on the prowl for another defensive shutdown.

Campbell was the fourth highest-graded edge defender against the run. He forced three fumbles and was the team’s leading sacker. He’s a dual-threat. If the Patriots utilize the air, the offensive line has to hold up long enough to let Brady throw. If they run the ball, the offensive line has to open up lanes for the running backs.

Ngakoue is another interesting (scratch that, frightening) component of the Jaguars defense. He led the league with six forced fumbles last year. Smith led the Jaguars defense with 102 tackles in the 2017 season. Jackson recorded four forced fumbles, eight sacks, and 40 tackles.

Put very simply: Jacksonville’s run defense is stout and ready for any challenge. If they could handle Barkley, odds are they can handle hampered New England running backs too. So how can the Patriots succeed?

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

While the defensive line can block up front and Jalen Ramsey talks smack in the background, the Patriots can exploit Jacksonville’s weakness against play-action passes. Unfortunately, this means the team’s running backs probably won’t see a lot of action this game, and will instead be used in “smoke and mirror” kind of plays.

What are play-action passes? The offense lines up as if to run the ball. The quarterback drops back and pretends to hand the ball off to a running back. Instead, while the defense is focused on the runner, the quarterback throws the ball downfield to an open receiver.

The Patriots excel at this type of play. As Evan Lazar points out in his play-action analysis, when the Patriots offense utilized play-action calls in last year’s AFC Championship, Tom Brady‘s quarterback rating jumped from 101.9 to a remarkable 129.2 and the team’s yards per attempt shot up from seven to nearly 9.5.

Last Word on New England’s Week Two Run Game

Good news: The Jaguars don’t appear to have learned their lesson. In the season opener against the Jaguars, Lazar points out that Eli Manning‘s offense saw an average increase of 2.5 yards per attempt when running play-action calls, in line with the increase New England saw on similar plays in the AFC Championship.

Bad news: The Patriots aren’t likely to utilize their running backs in this matchup, instead opting for receivers in play-action calls. If New England’s backs are used, they’ll be used as a talented group of pass catchers. Should the Patriots utilize play-action passes, I think Cordarrelle Patterson sees increased usage while the Jaguars secondary focuses on Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Rob Gronkowski.

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