By Brian Garland
The Minnesota Vikings stand out for their talent on defense, especially in pass coverage. They were the top defensive team in 2017, though this season they are down to tenth in points allowed per game with 22.4. The Patriots are 22nd in the NFL in yards allowed, but they are right with Minnesota with just 22.6 points allowed per game.
The Vikings made the NFC Championship last season with their top defense, but they are now a deeper team with new and better weapons on offense: quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook, receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
The challenge for New England thus far is pass coverage on third down, and Diggs and Thielen feature speed and hand skills that make them usual targets in crunch time.
Thielen’s statline for the day sums up New England’s day on defense, though: only five catches for 28 yards, though with one touchdown. The receiver’s highlight of the day was not his goalline touchdown catch but a verbal altercation with Patriots coach Bill Belichick in the third quarter.
Belichick tossed a challenge flag over ball placement that granted Minnesota a first down. Adam Thielen overheard Belichick arguing with officials and chimed in.
The New England coach’s presumptive response: “Shut the f— up.”
Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs was also a non-factor, finishing with five catches for 49 yards.
The Patriots defense applied more pressure against quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, especially in the first half. Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Adam Butler each recorded sacks in this game, but they most importantly altered Kirk Cousins’ timings to throw.
The defense mixed up its coverages to apply pressure. There were a few plays in the game that New England sent “spies” to look like they were dropping back in pass coverage, but sprinted straight at Cousins after a few seconds.
Once that worked, the linebackers would drop back and pick up players in pass coverage. The Patriots defense had their best game keeping receivers close and making tackles when it mattered, especially with safety Devin McCourty. Safeties are usually not expected to cover receivers like a cornerback would, but this was no issue.
Devin and his brother Jason double-covered Adam Thielen at the goal line and got beat by Thielen for Minnesota’s lone touchdown of the game but it was a solid game overall for the McCourty’s. They combined for fourteen tackles.
By the third quarter, New England felt comfortable dropping most of the defense to pass coverage as Minnesota gave up running the ball once the Vikings were behind on the scoreboard. Cousins could not break the box, and Patriots safety Duron Harmon intercepted a pass in the endzone after New England’s coverage forced Cousins to throw deep.
Patriots cornerback J.C Jackson kept tight coverage all game against his receivers since the Vikings avoided cornerback Stephon Gilmore on the other side. With cornerback Eric Rowe on injured reserve, the undrafted rookie Jackson is the second starting cornerback, a job previously held by undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler, now with Tennessee.
The variance in coverages and blitz packages kept Kirk Cousins guessing and rushing his throws, leading to an ugly line of 201 yards passing and two interceptions on the day.
New England’s offense started with a touchdown on its opening drive and was effective running and passing the ball in this game.
The offensive line gave Tom Brady enough time to make simple short throws and screen passes to move the chains. Running backs Sony Michel and James White and receivers Julian Edelman and kept drives going with important catches on short third downs.
Receiver Josh Gordon was not used in the first half but was a key contributor to New England’s runaway second half. Tom Brady found Gordon over the middle for a 24-yard touchdown to take a 17-10 lead, and he took a screen pass ten yards to set up the deciding touchdown.
Fullback James Develin was a weapon in the red zone for New England, scoring the first and last Patriots touchdowns from two yards out.
A Tom Brady interception with over five minutes left in the fourth quarter gave Minnesota an opening, but the Vikings were unable to convert.
The Patriots hit the road for a two-game road trip against the Miami Dolphins Sunday, December 9th and the Pittsburgh Steelers December 16th, and this trip will likely decide New England’s playoff seeding in January.
Brian Garland is the Sports Editor for The Comment.