The New England Patriots offense got back on track last week against the New York Jets: the unit scored 27 points and gained almost 500 yards of offense while starters Rob Gronkowski and Shaq Mason finally returned off injury. It was no perfect performance but certainly an encouraging one that showed the Patriots’ enormous offensive potential when having all hands on deck — something that basically is the case today as well.
And having all players available will be big against a Minnesota Vikings defense that is one of the most productive in the NFL: the unit surrenders just 19.8 points a game — the sixth best number in the NFL — and is especially productive on third downs and in the red zone. Safe to say that New England will need to play its best offensive football to find success against a 6-4-1 Vikings team that is currently the fifth playoff seed in the NFC.
Ahead of today’s matchup, we spoke about Minnesota’s defense with Christopher Gates who covers the Vikings for our sister site Daily Norseman. According to him, there is a simple explanation why the unit is as productive as it is: experience. “The starters on this defense, for the most part, know this scheme like the back of their hands,” Christopher said about the unit coordinated by George Edwards and also closely coached by Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.
“It’s a combination of having talented players at pretty much every level of the defense and that the majority of those players have been in the same defensive scheme for so long that nearly everything is second nature,” Christopher continued when asked what makes the unit as productive as it is. “This is Mike Zimmer’s fifth season as head coach, and he’s had great players at all three levels of his defense for his entire tenure.”
Despite some early-season inconsistency — Minnesota surrendered 38 points and 556 yards against an excellent Los Angeles Rams team in week four, for example — the 2018 Vikings are no exception: the team has stars from the front seven to the secondary, and will challenge a New England offense that also is among the deepest and most talented units in all of football.
“Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, and Linval Joseph have been with Zimmer all five seasons, and they’ve added pieces like Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, and Trae Waynes (among others) since he took over,” Christopher said about Minnesota’s offensive depth. “After the early part of this season when teams found a few holes, Zimmer has apparently figured out a way to patch those holes, as the defense has taken things to another level over the past six or seven weeks.”
The results speak for themselves. The Vikings have created turnovers in seven straight games, have held four of their last six opponents to under 20 points, and did not allow a 300-yard passer since week four — and that includes a game against MVP-candidate Drew Brees. The quality atop the roster is a big reason for that, as is the depth behind the team’s defensive stars.
“They’ve also put together some quality depth all along the defense as well, and that helps when players have to head to the sidelines for whatever reason,” said Christopher about the unit. “The Vikings brought Mike Zimmer to coach this team after the 2013 season because the defense was a disaster, and Zimmer’s defensive acumen and some great personnel moves have turned things completely around in that department.”
But while Minnesota has a high quality defense there are still areas that the Patriots can take advantage of today. “I think if the Vikings have a really exploitable weakness on defense, it would have to come from a team that can utilize a lot of different motions and things of that nature to attempt to confuse the Vikings’ defense and set up potential mismatches,” Christopher answered when asked about the group’s weaknesses.
“We saw that in a big way when the Vikings played the Los Angeles Rams back in Week 4, as Sean McVay and company managed to get wide receiver Cooper Kupp one-on-one with Anthony Barr in numerous situations,” he continued. “Barr is a great linebacker and a talented athlete, to be sure, but he’s got no chance covering wide receivers 40-50 yards down the field. Unfortunately, that was the matchup that the Rams got and Cooper Kupp and Jared Goff took advantage of it.”
Personnel mismatches were just one of the unit’s early-season issues, the communication — despite all the experience on defense — was apparently also a problem at times. “The Vikings were, reportedly, having some communication issues in the early portion of this season,” Christopher said about the group’s early-season flaws. “It appears that they have managed to make those a thing of the past.”
That being said, New England still could find a way to challenge the group today. “If the Patriots can use players like Julian Edelman or even Cordarrelle Patterson to create matchup problems — I won’t include Rob Gronkowski, because that guy is a matchup problem regardless — then they might be able to exploit the Minnesota defense in that regard,” Christopher pointed out.
As noted above, the Patriots will have all of their top offensive players available today so they should have the flexibility to force the Vikings defense in unfavorable situations.