FOXBORO, Mass. — In last year’s season opener, Tom Brady threw for a career-high 517 yards. But while the effort led the Patriots to a big 38-24 win down in Miami, Brady wasn’t the only quarterback having a career game that night.
Chad Henne, who began last season as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback, threw for a career-high 416 yards on that night nearly 16 months ago, and he’s transferred that success into his play with the Jaguars this season.
After beginning the year as Blaine Gabbert‘s backup, Henne finally got his opportunity to lead Jacksonville’s anemic offense in Week 11 in Houston. Gabbert went down with a season-ending shoulder injury during the first quarter, and Henne stepped up to nearly dethrone the AFC-leading Texans with 354 passing yards and four touchdowns.
Henne has taken over the Jaguars’ starting job since then. He’s put together some decent numbers (throwing seven touchdowns to just four interceptions) during the five-game stretch, and now he’s zoning in on dismantling an enigmatic Patriots secondary. That’s something he’s experienced a few times before.
In five career starts against the Patriots, Henne has completed 60 percent of his passes, thrown for an average of 269 yards — his most against any opponent — and tossed six touchdowns.
Bill Belichick is well aware of Henne’s past successes against his defenses, and explained on Wednesday just how impressed he is by the Jaguars’ quarterback.
“With Henne, you really have to defend everything. You have to defend all the receivers, you have to defend the short balls, you have to defend the play-action, the deep balls, a little bit of scrambling. I think he does a pretty good job at everything.” Belichick said. “He’s certainly done it well against us. He’s had some of his best games against us, so we have a lot of respect for Henne.”
That respect for him might have even grown since joining the Jags, given his bevy of offensive weapons. The combination of Cecil Shorts, Justin Blackmon and tight end Mercedes Lewis in the passing game offers Henne the consistent pass catchers and deep threats that he seemed to lack for much of his time in Miami.
While Lewis, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2010, remains a constant in the Jaguars’ passing attack, Blackmon and Shorts are relatively new commodities to the team. Blackmon came to the Jaguars as the fifth overall pick in last April’s draft. Mike Mularkey and his staff knew, at least partly, what they were getting in the tall, athletic receiver, but Shorts has been nothing short of a revelation this season.
Blackmon leads the Jags with 51 receptions and Lewis has provided his typical steady production, but Shorts has become the Jags’ best weapon in the passing game. He has developed into a consistent playmaker on offense since joining the starting lineup just nine short weeks ago. He’s caught 49 balls and a team-high seven touchdowns on the year, while ranking second in the NFL with 19 yards per reception.
The trio has given opposing secondaries fits for much of the season, and the Patriots aren’t expecting anything different this weekend.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Devin McCourty said of the Jaguars’ threesome. “They have three guys that make a lot of plays in the passing game. I think obviously Mercedes Lewis has been doing it, you know Pro Bowl tight end. Blackmon and Shorts, they’ve made a lot of big plays. Whether it’s on deep balls or five- or six-yard routes, they can go 80 yards.”
McCourty and the secondary have faced a number of tough challenges already this season; defending the likes of Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Michael Crabtree is no treat. But this weekend presents an unexpected challenge for the Patriots’ secondary, as they’ll have to deal with three talented wideouts.
Henne has killed the Patriots with his arm in the past, and with his trio of receivers now at hand, the Patriots could be in for some serious trouble once again.