The toughest back the Pats will face
|12.24.09 at 9:57 am ET|
FOXBORO – The Patriots have seen and faced many very talented and skilled running backs this season.
Starting with Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch on opening night and last week in Buffalo, continuing with Michael Turner, Leon Washington, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
But the feature back they are called to defend this week might be the most difficult to get a grip on – literally.
Maurice Jones-Drew is the reason the Jacksonville Jaguars felt comfortable letting go of 11-year star back Fred Taylor.
He stands just 5-7 and weighs 208 pounds. He is universally regarded as the single-hardest running back to tackle in the National Football League.
“No doubt about it, he’s definitely one of the top backs we’ve seen and we’ve seen a lot of good ones,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I think he can do it all. He’s returned kicks. He’s good in pass protection. [He] catches the ball very well and has a good feel in the passing game, like the scramble pass he caught against Indianapolis last week on a broken play.
“And, of course, in the running game, he can run inside, he can run outside, he can run with power, he can run with speed, he can jump cut and has good vision. He can see those lanes inside. He’s got good balance. He’s hard to knock off his feet, breaks a lot of tackles and pushes the pile forward for extra yards when he’s carrying the ball. He’s a powerful guy as well as an elusive player, so he’s tough.”
Belichick will be stressing to his defense just how important it is this week to wrap up.
“He’s a hard player to tackle [with] his strength, his balance, his quickness [and] his speed,” Belichick said. “You’ve got to wrap him up. You’ve got to have a lot of guys around him. If you give him a lot of space, it would be hard for any defender to tackle him.”
The Patriots and Belichick know full well what can happen if you don’t. Jones-Drew scored on a 74-yard run in the next-to-last game of the 2006 season.
“That’s something that we emphasize from day one in training camp, to always tag the runners down, whether we think we’ve touched them or not,” Belichick said. “That’s just a fundamental thing. We’ve seen plenty of backs get tackled and land on a guy or butt roll onto another player, where they don’t actually hit the ground or they stumble in the backfield.”
MJD will be extra motivated this week to make his mentor – Fred Taylor – proud.
“I look forward to seeing Fred, he’s one of the all-time great Jaguars players,” Jones-Drew said. “I know that he’s been on the mend a little bit the last few weeks, but I’m sure he’s anxious to get back and help the football team there. He’s always been a guy that has fought through and been very, very good when he’s been on the field. So we look forward to seeing him.
“It’s going to be a real emotional game because I think there were about 10 or 12 of us that Fred kind of raised into the league, so it’s going to be real emotional. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be exciting, but I am not really going up against him. I am going against Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, those guys who are playing at a high level right now against the run. So it’s going to be a fun and exciting game.”
And Jones-Drew and Taylor stay in touch to this day. The two trained together this past offseason in South Florida.
“You hear all these stories about how veteran players give you the cold shoulder, thinking they brought you in to take their spot, but it was different when I got here,” Jones-Drew recalled this week. “Fred came to me with open arms. He said, ‘I’m willing to teach you if you are willing to learn and listen.’ To hear one of the best players at the time — and still, now — say something like that turned our relationship into what it is now.
“It was more off the field than on the field. He showed me the ropes around Jacksonville and obviously coming from Los Angeles with no money to Jacksonville, having a little bit of money he helped me with how to manage my money and with whom to talk to. We talked about a lot of different things.”
Just listening to Jones-Drew, you get an appreciation of how much Taylor’s mentoring meant to him.
“When I didn’t have someone to cook for me at home when my parents weren’t out here, he would invite me over to his house to come eat and hang out with his family,” Jones-Drew said. “Those things definitely opened my eyes to the man. A lot of people don’t know Fred because he is quiet, but he opened up with me and we talked about everything from football to life, money, to going back to school and graduating, to pretty much everything. He definitely put a big impact on my life.
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio and the Jacksonville personnel department made the decision to hand over the reigns to Jones-Drew last year and the UCLA product in his fourth season has made the decision look wise. With an NFL-leading 16 TDs, MJD is already second behind Taylor in franchise rushing touchdowns with 49. Taylor had 62.
“Obviously, that decision was made in the offseason to make Maurice the featured guy,” Del Rio said. “He’s delivered and had an outstanding season for us. It was never in any way meant as type of disrespect or anything like that toward Fred [Taylor]. I think the organization felt great about the contributions he made here for the time that he was here. But it was time for more of Maurice, so that’s what we elected to do. And he’s delivered and had a great year for us.”
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