FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots continued their winning ways at Gillette Stadium on Sunday evening with an impressive 24-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
The Patriots’ defense, led by its terrific coverage on Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, delivered its best performance of the season holding Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to only 201 yards on 4.6 yards per attempt.
Offensively, there were some rocky moments in the second quarter, but Josh Gordon emerged in the second half to help the Patriots put together two touchdown drives that put the game to bed.
Also, the Patriots’ coaching staff, which has taken on some criticism in recent weeks, out-coached Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota staff with a tremendous game plan on the defensive side of the ball predicated on disguising both pressure and coverage schemes.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from the Patriots’ ninth win of the season:
1. Patriots’ Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty Shutdown Vikings’ Wide Receiver Duo
The story of the game for the Patriots was the performance by the secondary on Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The prolific duo had only 77 yards on 15 targets combined, a terrific showing most notably from top corner Stephon Gilmore and his number two Jason McCourty.
Let’s start with McCourty, who followed Thielen into the slot for most of the game. After the game, McCourty told me that film study was critical for him when it came to covering Thielen. McCourty talked about studying Thielen’s route tree, body language, and any tells out of his release that would give him indicators as to what route the Pro Bowler would run out of a particular formation or in a certain route stem. Although McCourty held Thielen to only 28 yards, there were a few breakdowns when the Patriots bracketed the Vikings wideout with his twin brother Devin. The Patriots deployed a bracket coverage from time to time on Thielen with Jason playing on the outside of him and Devin playing inside.
(h/t @Ftbeard_17 for video)
On this close call, Thielen hit the McCourty twins with a stutter and go move. Both Pats DBs bit on the double move and Thielen got behind them for what would’ve been a huge play if the throw was a little bit better from Kirk Cousins. Although it’s impossible to know for sure, my understanding of the assignments on these brackets, or “cone” brackets as the Patriots call them, is that Jason is responsible for protecting against double moves with Devin sitting on all in-breaking routes. However, both players likely will shoulder some of the blame for losing Thielen on this play.
As for Gilmore, he did an outstanding job on Diggs mostly playing him on an island in man-to-man situations. Gilmore told me that he noticed on film that a lot of Diggs’ yards this season have come when corners play off-coverage against him, so he got in the Vikings wideouts’ face in press coverage most of the game. Gilmore said the key was, “getting up there, getting up there on him. A lot of plays he makes with people playing off, so I was going to get up there on him as much as I could and get my hands on him.”
Gilmore and McCourty’s ability to win their matchup against Diggs and Thielen will go down as one of the best performances of the season from a player execution standpoint.
2. Patriots Pass Rush Critical in Victory Over Vikings
Along with the coverage, the Patriots’ pass rush exploited a weak Minnesota offensive line with a variety of different pressure looks and some great execution by the players. Coming into the game, the Patriots led the league in unblocked pressures as their line stunts and linebacker blitzes have produced a number of free rushers at the quarterback this season, and Sunday was no different. Defensive tackle Adam Butler credited physicality at the point of attack for the Patriots’ success with line stunts, where you often see Butler as the point man with a rusher looping around him to go after the quarterback.
On Trey Flowers’ sack, the Patriots use two players to penetrate the Vikings’ offensive line with both Butler and linebacker Kyle Van Noy creating an opening for Flowers to come around on the stunt unblocked to get to Cousins.
Credit the Patriots’ coaching staff with their terrific designs on plays like these, and as always, the players on the field with executing the play calls.
3. Patriots Stall Kirk Cousins With Disguises on Defense
One of the themes of this game defensively for the Patriots was the defenses ability to disguise both pressures and coverages throughout the game. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins tends to make a lot of predetermined throws based on how the defense sets up before the snap (pre-snap reads). To combat this, the Patriots were careful not to tip their hand pre-snap by not setting themselves until late in the play clock or by showing one thing and playing another after the snap.
“I thought our defensive players, starting with the defensive coaches, did a real good job this week of disguising our packages on defense and with various personnel groups,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Here, the Patriots have only one down linemen, Trey Flowers, but put five guys around the line of scrimmage that could rush the quarterback. Also, watch the two safeties, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, as they are moving around before the snap as well. Chung starts at the snap on the line of scrimmage and drops all the way to the deep half of the field in a two-deep safety look. Cousins seems unsure of the coverage when he gets the ball, and Trey Flowers puts a great bull-snatch move on Vikings center Pat Elflein to flush Cousins out of the pocket and force the throwaway on third down.
Multiple Patriots players credited the defenses ability to disguise, and the coaches stressing that all week, for their success on Sunday.
4. Patriots Save Josh Gordon For Second-Half Explosion
Better late than never. During the first half, my twitter mentions blew up with people asking where Josh Gordon was? On the one hand, it’s entirely possible that the lack of targets in the first half for Gordon was indicative of a problem in play calling, but from this perspective, Josh McDaniels was saving Gordon for the second half. Against a good defense, it’s critical that you don’t show your hand too early, and McDaniels lulled the Vikings’ secondary to sleep with a plethora of short passes before pushing the ball down the field to Gordon in the second half. Speaking about his lack of targets in the first half Gordon said, “I just had to be patient. I think that’s just how the flow of the game was going. I didn’t really question the game plan, and I just went along with it.”
On Gordon’s crucial touchdown catch in the third quarter, the Pats wideout displayed a skill of his that I’ve been impressed with since he got on the field in New England. Gordon has a great ability to find the soft spots in zone coverage when he works across the field, which is excellent with a quarterback like Tom Brady that’s terrific at finding the openings in zone coverages. As you see above, Gordon comes across the Vikings’ cover-3 zone, finds the pocket of space in between the linebacker and safety, and sits down for Brady before running into the end zone after the catch.
We knew Gordon would be a matchup problem for opposing defenses in man coverage, but his feel in zone has been a pleasant surprise.
5. Rob Gronkowski Struggles vs. Vikings
On initial viewing, this was one of Rob Gronkowski’s worst performances of the season. The coaches film may tell a different story as it’s possible that Gronk attracted multiple defenders and created space for others to find openings in the passing game. However, Gronk struggled to create separation against an athletic Vikings defense from an individual standpoint. Furthermore, Gronk also made a slew of mental errors with two penalties, and physical mistakes in the running game.
On the direct snap to James White on third and short, Gronk was supposed to chip the cornerback in the slot (Mackensie Alexander) to help White get the edge and then widen out to lead the way for White. Gronk didn’t get enough of Alexander allowing him to jump into the backfield and then couldn’t wall off Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter who did a great job of working his way through a crack block by Julian Edelman.
Gronk made a nice grab over the middle of the Patriots’ second scoring drive, and his presence likely opened up things for others as it always does, but this wasn’t his best performance.
6. Patriots Use Fullback James Develin as Goal-Line Back
Is James Develin the Patriots’ new goal-line back? Entering Sunday, the Patriots were tied for 24th in the NFL in rushing success inside the two-yard line. They’ve tried Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, and even Cordarrelle Patterson in that role to no avail. So what did Josh McDaniels do on Sunday? He turned back the clock and went with two fullback dives on the goal line to his battering ram of a fullback in James Develin who had two scores against Minnesota.
On his second touchdown, Develin gets a great block from center David Andrews on Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph and follows Andrews in for six.
The Patriots don’t have a LeGarrette Blount-type running back on the roster with most of their backs of the smaller variety, but Develin brings the Patriots size and physicality in an area where they need it most down by the goal line.
7. Running Back Rex Burkhead Returns
Patriots running back Rex Burkhead returned to action after missing the teams last eight games due to a neck injury. The Patriots got Burkhead involved early, and he ended the game with nine touches and 41 yards from scrimmage. However, it wasn’t a flashy play from Burkhead or a gaudy stat line that caught my eyes, but rather the flexibility that Burkhead gave offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. With Burkhead back in the fold, the Patriots deployed more of their “pony” formation, which has two running backs on the field at the same time. This gives them two pass catchers out of the backfield, Burkhead and James White, which creates some matchup issues for the defense if they can get single coverage on a linebacker for either of the two pass-catching backs.
“I think that is what’s great about this offense,” Burkhead said in the postgame locker room. “We have guys who can do multiple things and line up anywhere and hopefully when your number is called, you step up.”
Rookie running back Sony Michel has struggled at times in the passing game, so the return of Burkhead gave the Patriots another dual-threat back to deploy in the passing game.
8. Patriots Left Tackle Trent Brown Developing as a Run Blocker
One of the truest testaments to the importance of coaching this season for the Patriots has been left tackle Trent Brown’s development as a run blocker. When Brown got to the Patriots, there were concerns about his ability to hold up in the running game as his footwork was often sloppy and he had difficulty controlling his large frame in space. However, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has worked his magic with Brown, and the big tackle is now a plus-run blocker instead of a perceived liability.
On this 12-yard gain by White, Brown leads the way with a terrific block on an outside zone scheme. Brown opens up and takes his first step out reaching the block on Danielle Hunter with a solid two-hand punch. Then, you see Brown extend with his inside arm and push Hunter backward nearly five yards clearing a path for White. That’s some grown man strength against a very strong player in Hunter.
We knew Brown would be a solid pass protector, and he was good in that area of the game as well, but he has made significant strides as a run blocker under Scarnecchia.
9. Tom Brady Hits 1,000 Career Rushing Yards In Somewhat Quiet Performance
It’s not every week that Tom Brady is towards the bottom of this list, but this game was mostly about the defense. Brady did finally hit the 1,000-yard threshold on the ground, becoming the oldest player in NFL history to reach that plateau, and averaged an impressive 9.7 yards per attempt against a stingy Vikings defense. Above all else, my biggest takeaway from Brady’s performance was that he took what the Minnesota defense gave him. Early in the game, partially due to the game plan on offense, that was the short stuff as Brady dinked and dunked the Patriots’ offense down the field. Later in the game, he started pushing the ball down the field to Gordon, Gronk, and Patterson. When Brady is at his best, he’s not forcing things and spreading the ball around to nine different targets as he did on Sunday night.
10. Play of the Game: Duron Harmon’s Fourth Quarter Interception
Although Harmon gets credit for the pick in the box score, it was rookie cornerback JC Jackson that made a terrific play to tip the ball to the Patriots’ safety.
On the play, Jackson told me that he anticipated that the Vikings would take a shot down the field, so he was able to stay on the double move by Vikings wideout Aldrick Robinson. Due to that anticipation, Jackson stayed in-phase on the play (in position) which allowed him to look back for the ball and break up the pass. Jackson also told us that he was an All-American receiver in High School, which is why he has such terrific ball skills. The ability to stay in-phase on the stutter and go by Robinson, locate the ball, and get his hands on the pass is great stuff from the Pats rookie.
BONUS: Jackson also made the correct play on an end zone target to Adam Thielen earlier in the game. Thielen wanted pass interference, but Jackson played the ball almost exactly how the Patriots’ coaches teach it. When Jackson gets out of phase, he plays through the receiver to make up the ground with the ball in the air. Ideally, Jackson would turn his head at the last second, but he does the right thing by going through Thielen.
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