Just four days removed from a 10-3 win over the New York Jets, the 6-4 New England Patriots will already encounter their next challenge: they will take on the Minnesota Vikings, owners of an 8-2 record and the second seed in the NFC, on the road on Thanksgiving night.
The game will be a test for the Patriots, not just because of the Vikings being a quality team playing at home. New England, which is listed as 2.5-point underdogs, per DraftKings Sportsbook, also will have to adjust to the quick turnaround following the victory versus the Jets.
How will they do that? According to veteran safety Devin McCourty, the secret lies in the mindset — something he pointed out immediately after Sunday’s game against New York.
“You have just got to realize that tonight is Wednesday, it’s Wednesday already. Whatever you would normally do, you can’t do after a game. You want to hang out, you want to stay up, we can’t. We have to reset and realize this is Wednesday,” McCourty said during his postgame presser.
“We are going to go play a tough team on the road, Thanksgiving. They’re at home, I’m sure it’s going to be rocking in there. They have been on a heck of a streak this year winning football games so we are going to need our best game going into Minnesota. That’s what I plan on bringing and trying to lead the guys in. We will have a tough week, a short week, not as much practice time. So it will have to come from watching the film and working together and then being ready to adjust within the game.”
The players’ preparation and recovery over such a short period of time will be tested, as will the coaching staff’s ability to build a game plan on a short turnaround. It remains to be seen what it will look like, but here is our best guess estimation what New England can do in order to beat the Vikings on Thanksgiving.
Patriots offense vs. Vikings defense
As we mentioned earlier this week, the matchup between the Patriots offense and Vikings defense can best be described as a battle between a “very stoppable force and a pretty movable object”. Neither unit, after all, has stood out so far this season — something that is especially true in the red area.
Whereas New England is ranked 31st in the NFL in red zone percentage, coming away with touchdowns on 12 of 28 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (42.9%), the Vikings are even worse than that: Minnesota’s defense has allowed 20 touchdowns on 28 drives into the red zone (71.4%), the worst rate in the league.
Execution in this critical part of the field will be crucial, but the fact is that both the Patriots offense and the Minnesota defense have been uneven in the rest of the field as well. New England’s issues have been well documented around here, so let’s focus on their upcoming opponent.
The Vikings, after all, are an average to below-average unit in several categories. They are ranked 19th in points against (23.1/game) and 29th in yards (388.9/game), and are 15th in expected points added (0.012/play).
One number stands apart from the others, though, and is a big reason why Minnesota is 8-2 despite an uneven defense and an offense that is not a lot better: turnovers. The Vikings defense is ranked third in the league, having taken the ball away 18 times through 10 interceptions (7th) and eight fumble recoveries (t-4th).
Needless to say that ball security will be key, and the Patriots’ offensive game plan will likely try to put the team in a position to take care of the football especially in the passing game. After all, the Minnesota defense invites relatively safe underneath throws.
Take last week’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were able to score a decisive 40-3 victory in part because they took what the defense gave them. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s average depth of target (5.6 yards) is a reflection of that approach, and it led to the team having plenty of success.
The reason behind that is that the defense coordinated by veteran coach Ed Donatell, is playing a lot of match-zone coverages within its two-high structures.
Match zone follows the same principles as regular zone coverage, with defensive backs dropping back into their coverage zones after the snap and not following their assigned players wherever they go. Those drops, however, are coordinated with the routes that are being run which basically means that the defender switches into man-to-man mode once an opponent is entering the zone in front of him.
The advantages of this scheme is that it allows for tighter coverage than regular zone while also keeping players’ eyes toward the quarterback. On the flip side, however, underneath routes can get open because defensive backs will align over the top of those patterns.
The Cowboys took advantage of those off-man coverages by relentlessly targeting the short zones. Take the following 7-yard completion from Prescott (4) to Noah Brown (85) as an example:
The play itself is nothing fancy — just a quick sit-down route against rookie cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. (23) — but it is an example for how New England might be able to find space. It might not be sexy, but it proved to be successful.
When New England does want to go downfield, though, the team can get in defenders’ blindspots on similar out-breakers but deeper. There are also exploitable 1-on-1 matchups in their match coverages, especially with Cameron Dantzler on injured reserve and both Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans ruled out. The same is true for when Minnesota plays straight man coverage, which it does rarely, though.
Adding to all of that is the fact that Minnesota’s tackling has not been great. Yards after the catch can be had — something that also might prove itself true for the running game: if Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris are patient running down the middle, there may be some opportunities to be had after contact.
That being said, the Vikings run defense as a whole is no joke. Led by long-time Buffalo Bills defender Harrison Phillips and standout off-ball linebacker Eric Kendricks, the unit is ranked seventh in EPA per run play (-0.106) despite being just 18th in yards (1,216) and 25th in touchdowns (12) given up on the ground.
Considering the issues the Patriots face along their offensive line, blindly running into this defense is asking for trouble. That does not mean New England will completely abandon the ground game; the team has built its offensive identity around running and will not completely move away even with as talented a run defense as the Vikings’ on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
And investing in the run game might actually be helpful from a big-picture perspective: setting up play-action and RPO concepts. Starting center David Andrews, who is questionable to play this week with a thigh injury, touched on this topic just last week.
“When they’re not really fearing the run, obviously play-action’s not as fearful,” he said. “But when you got guys, linebackers, knowing they have to step up, they have to fill, maybe they’re rolling a safety into the box, whatever it is, that’s when you’re going to open up more of those lanes behind you. It all starts in the run game, in my opinion.”
The Cowboys also used the run to set up some positive plays like the following 8-yard pass to Michael Gallup (13) on 1st-and-10:
As can be seen, Dallas is using run-pass option (RPO) to manipulate the defense. With the O-line moving to its right in a zone-blocking motion, off-ball linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) flows along. This, in turn, vacates a spot for Gallup to attack on his in-breaking route.
The overarching theme, however, remains the same: going for the underneath areas will be key for New England against the Vikings’ zone-based defense.
Patriots defense vs. Vikings offense
One of the biggest issues for the Vikings against the Cowboys on Sunday was their inability to keep quarterback Kirk Cousins protected. The veteran QB was sacked seven times and pressured a total of 18 times on just 30 drop-backs — a disruption rate of 60 percent.
That number is obviously a massive problem, but par the course for the Minnesota offense so far this season. The team has had a hard time providing consistently stable pockets for Cousins, and the task will not get any easier this week: not only do the Patriots have one of the most potent pass rushes in the NFL, the Vikings will also be without their best offensive lineman; left tackle Christian Darrisaw has been ruled out with a concussion.
The Patriots will likely try to take advantage of his absence, and also of the problems Minnesota has had along the interior. The starting group of Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury and Ed Ingram, after all, has surrendered a total of 13 of the team’s 27 total sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Second-round rookie Ingram alone has been credited with eight. While the Patriots’ interior pass rush will be without its most disruptive player — Christian Barmore remains on injured reserve because of a knee injury — the matchup against the youngster and the Vikings’ interior O-line as a whole can be exploited nonetheless.
How? Look no further than the Patriots’ game against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9, when they registered nine sacks — tying a post-merger franchise record — and pressured quarterback Sam Ehlinger on 19 of 42 dropbacks.
The sacks were the result of several factors, with one of the biggest issues being communication on the interior. New England exploited this by running stunts on several occasions.
The following play, a takedown from wide-9 linebacker Matthew Judon (9), is an example of that:
Here, Judon simply loops inside after the snap behind teammate Lawrence Guy (93). Ideally, the Colts’ right guard and tackle would switch assignments to stay on track but a lack of chemistry up front was an issue all day — and might be something Minnesota might have to deal with entering Week 12 as well.
While Cleveland, Bradbury and Ingram have played a lot of football together, the Patriots might try to pick their weak spots: the rookie Ingram on the interior, and Darrisaw’s likely replacement — Blake Brandel — at tackle.
Obviously, rushing the passer is not applicable on every down; the Vikings will run the ball as well with talented Dalvin Cook as their main man. Cook is ranked second on the team with 945 yards from scrimmage and first with seven touchdowns. An impressive between-the-tackles runner who can also make plays in the passing game, he is as valuable a player as any for the Minnesota offense.
Luckily for the Patriots, they have actually been quite solid stopping the run outside of their breakdown versus dual-threat quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields in Weeks 3 and 7, respectively. Despite those two debacles, the team still ranks 10th in the NFL in run-game EPA (-0.096/play).
The bigger issue therefore might be defending one of the best wide receivers in the NFL has to offer: Justin Jefferson has been nothing short of spectacular this season, and is leading the team with 72 receptions for 1,093 yards and four touchdowns.
Defending Jefferson out of the Patriots’ Cover 1 scheme is a risk because he is good enough to win his battles against any cornerback New England — or most teams in the NFL — has to offer. Then again, the Vikings’ receiving corps as a whole has not been able to get a ton of separation versus Cover 1.
In fact, they have mostly relied on Jefferson making ridiculous contested catches against New England’s preferred defense. He will make his plays, and New England may give him extra attention to eliminate him from reads, but beating man is not Minnesota’s strength right now.
Accordingly, the Patriots might stick with what they do best against Jefferson while adding some wrinkles. For example, they might not use their No. 1 cornerback, Jonathan Jones, on him, but rather might employ their No. 2 in a bracket-style coverage: Jalen Mills with either a deep safety over the top or with inside help to take away the horizontal element of Jefferson’s game.
One thing is certain, though: the third-year man is able to take over a game (just ask the Buffalo Bills), so the Patriots need to be flexible enough to mix things up on him. Having an advantage in the trenches should help with that, too.