Why Burkhead's return could be key vs. Jaguars defense


Rex Burkhead had a busy week of practice last week, but it was eventually determined that his knee wasn't quite ready for the Titans. By the time the Jaguars make their way to Gillette for the AFC title game, however, Burkhead should be good to go.

According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, that's the plan

Why does Burkhead's return matter when the Patriots received huge production from running backs Dion Lewis and James White in the Divisional Round? Even though that pairing combined for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 32 touches, having Burkhead back in the mix would be particularly useful in attacking where the Jaguars are softest. 

Jacksonville's run defense ranked 21st in the NFL during the regular season, and though they've improved in that area since trading for defensive tackle Marcel Dareus, they've had trouble against running backs in the passing game in recent weeks. 

In Week 16, they allowed fullback Kyle Juszczyk of the Niners to catch five passes for 76 yards. The following week they gave up a 66-yard touchdown catch to Derrick Henry. In the Wild Card Round against the Bills, they gave up seven more catches for 54 yards to backs. And against Pittsburgh they allowed Bell to go off for nine catches for 88 yards and a score. 

The Jaguars have one of the most athletic linebacker groupings in the NFL, featuring Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, and despite what their team has allowed in terms of receiving yardage to backs, Josh McDaniels suggested on Monday that they need to be cautious in attacking that level of Jacksonville's defense. 

"It's as fast a group as we'll play. No question," McDaniels said. "I don't know what they don't do well. They run and tackle. They make plays behind the line of scrimmage in the running game. They blitz well. They're very fast. Run and chase from behind, they can do that. They play with great effort. 

"They cover well. They're asked to cover a decent chunk of the time . . . whether that's backs or tight ends. They do that. You saw Jack make an interception [against the Steelers] on third down in a man-type coverage on a tight end . . . The linebacking corps is certainly one of the best we've played all season and definitely the fastest."

For the Patriots, though, attacking the Jaguars offensively may mean finding the lesser of three evils. Do they go after the best cornerback duo in the league in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye? Do they test a front that includes Defensive Player of the Year candidate Calais Campbell and Pro Bowler Malik Jackson? Or do they challenge linebackers who have been relatively generous in the passing game lately? 

If Burkhead is in uniform Sunday, he'll give the Patriots a three-headed monster for Jack, Smith and Paul Pozluzny to deal with out of the backfield. It's not necessarily a foolproof plan for success, but against what McDaniels called the best defense the Patriots have seen all year, that doesn't exist. 

Burkhead has not played since suffering a knee injury in Week 15 against the Steelers. As a receiver, he has 30 catches on 36 targets for 254 yards and three touchdowns this season. 

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