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Patriots at Vikings Pregame Six-Pack

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The Patriots (0-1) aren't used to losing too many games. They're even less familiar with losing on opening day, something they've done just twice now in Tom Brady's time as a starter. Last Sunday's second-half wilting in Miami left a serious mark on the New England squad, creating a what Tom Brady called a "quality of life" issue within Gillette Stadium. The focus was clearly on cleaning up the many areas of ineptitude with an eye on taking out the opening day frustrations on Minnesota. The Vikings (1-0) were feeling good after an opening day win over the Rams in Mike Zimmer's debut as a head coach, although the situation with running back Adrian Peterson certainly has put a damper on things. The team has talented playmakers spread across both sides of the ball, but there is no question that when the schedules came out last spring that no one would have given the home squad much of a chance in this one. The feeling of confidence in the visitors might not be quite so strong given the events of the last week, but there is still great expectation that Bill Belichick's team will avoid its first 0-2 start since the pre-Brady days of early 2001. Until the 1 o'clock kickoff at the temporary home of the Vikings on the campus of the University of Minnesota, enjoy this Land of [11,842] Lakes-brewed edition of the Patriots at Vikings Pregame Six-Pack!

  1. The Peterson effect – Any team playing the Vikings generally starts its defensive game plan with a focus on stopping running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson is and has been the focal point of the Minnesota offense since he arrived. But his indictment on charges of child abuse was yet another eye-opening NFL off-field story this week that lands the star running back on the inactive list for at least one week. There is no question that makes the Patriots job easier on Sunday. The only aspect of Peterson being inactive from a New England perspective that forms any sort of challenge is the fact that his deactivation came on Friday when the Patriots game plan was already in place. So there will certainly be an adjustment in terms of what Matt Patricia's unit will be asked to do, but taking away the opposing team's best player certainly makes life much easier on any defense. Given the real-world issues in the Peterson situation, its effect on Sunday's game is a minor aspect of the story. But, from a Patriots perspective, it certainly should benefit the defense and make the road to victory a bit less bumpy. That's just the reality of the situation. Vikings backup running backs Matt Asiata (49 career attempts for 185 yards) and Jerick McKinnon (1 career attempt for 1 yard) are virtual unknowns who don't exactly strike fear in a defensive front.
  1. Corral Cordarrelle – While Peterson has been the horse of the Vikings attack, second-year wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is the spark. Now, he may need to take on an even bigger role. The former first-round pick – taken with the 29th selection last year that the Vikings received in a trade with the Belichick and the Patriots – made the Pro Bowl as a returner last season. He's a dynamic player, not only on returns, but any time he gets the ball in his hands on offense. He actually rushed for 100 yards on opening day against the Rams, including a 67-yard touchdown. Patterson is an energetic, talkative personality who can burn a defense in a variety of ways. Darrelle Revis, who says he's a fan of the young receiver, didn't do a lot of press man coverage in the opener. Even if he did have such a duty in the second week, it could be against either Patterson or veteran Greg Jennings, who had a team-high six catches for 58 yards and a touchdown in the opener. Old friend Matt Cassel took care of the football, was efficient with his throws and led Minnesota to victory on opening day. But Patterson was big boost to that effort and the young playmaker likely will be every time the Vikings find themselves victorious. Patterson is a guy who needs to be noted on every play, both on offense and in the return game.
  1. Fit front? – No matter how you slice it or break down the reasons (excuses?), New England's struggles up front on defense against Miami were many. Some thought the problems started with the 3-4 alignment, which put Chandler Jones in a 5-techinque defensive end spot. The athletic edge player seemed to be a bit overpowered and overwhelmed with that role. Joe Vellano didn't look much more suited to the same spot on the other end of the line. Vince Wilfork didn't have a great day in the middle. The linebackers didn't fill or tackle all that well. The run fits were off and the Dolphins took full advantage. Given similar holes and options the Vikings will try to do the same, even with unproven options working out of the backfield. So what's the solution for New England's front? Especially one which might be playing without second-year linebacker Jamie Collins after his missed practice on Friday with a thigh injury. A move back to the 4-3 the team has used in recent years, with Jones and Rob Ninkovich at defensive end, would leave Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and maybe youngster Darius Fleming with reps if Collins can't go. Regardless of the scheme or the players on the field, the run fits need to be together, the tackling must be surer and guys must do a better job getting off blocks. Wilfork and Mayo need to lead a resurgent run defense, no matter how they are lined up. It would have been a much bigger test against Peterson, but things still need to be cleaned up on defense regardless of the opposing ball carrier.
  1. Passing efficiency – New England's passing attack was not nearly at its best last week, especially in the second half. Tom Brady connected on just four of the 11 passes thrown toward Rob Gronkowski. He didn't hit a single throw toward Brandon LaFell. Brady completed just 51.8 percent of his passes against Miami, the lowest for any starter in Week 1, which according to ESPN had the highest cumulative completion percentage for any week in NFL history. Everyone is well aware that the passing game must be more efficient in throws to anyone other than Julian Edelman, who turned eight targets into six catches and 95 yards. But even Edelman was shut out in the second half. Brady is continuing to build a rapport with his weapons, and could get a boost if Aaron Dobson is active for the first time. Josh McDaniels is still figuring out how to pull it all together and make it work. Regardless, it must be more efficient this time around and begin to look like the type of aerial attack that's expected from Brady and the Patriots. At least one piece of good news is that after missing a day of practice and being listed as questionable due to a calf injury last week, Brady was on the practice field all week and not on the injury report this time around.
  1. Protection correction – A big part of Brady's problems in Miami were due to the Dolphins pass rush that recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles. Cameron Wake owned Sebastian Vollmer and the rest of the line wasn't all that much better. The Vikings will bring pressure under Zimmer's direction and test Dave DeGuglielmo's line this week. Everson Griffen takes over the defensive end role formerly held by Jared Allen in Minnesota. The new $40 million pass rusher had a pair of sacks in Week 1 against the Rams. On the other end, Brian Robison is one of the more underrated sack men in the game in recent years. If he can get on the field, Sharrif Floyd can be a horse in the middle with Linval Joseph. On the Patriots side Ryan Wendell was limited all week with a knee injury suffered in Miami and is questionable. Wendell didn't start at center against the Dolphins but rotated through. With much less of a concern about the weather and condition in Minnesota, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots rotate on the offensive line again. Similar to the defensive front, whatever the lineup, the rotation or the game plan, the front five need to do a much better job protecting Brady if the offense is going to click more. Zimmer and Co. will be doing their best to disrupt that.
  1. 60 minutes – As bad as the second half was in Miami, the Patriots led 20-10 at halftime. Brady had a 95 passer rating through 30 minutes and the defense had forced three turnovers. New England seemed well on its way to a potentially impressive road win to open the season. Then it all fell apart. Some of that could certainly be attributed to the weather and players not being ready to play a full game in those conditions. That should be less a factor this week given the change in climate and the fact that the players have a full game under their belt. Regardless, Brady himself emphasized the need to play a full game this week. That a common theme in many seasons for many teams, but it's certainly true coming off the Patriots opening day performance. Half good and half bad equaled a loss last week. We've seen a number of teams fail to play full 60-minute games in the first week of action and it cost them. Belichick's team is young and that's a lesson to be learned, but the coach will clearly be emphasizing that point this week.

Prediction:
Zimmer's Bengals gave the Patriots major problems last fall in the Cincy win. The coach doesn't have quite the same horses with the Vikings, but he does have guys who could give Brady problems. That said, I expect a healthier, motivated Brady to bounce back from a pretty dismal performance a week ago. I don't expect any one player to impact the game for the Vikings defense the way that Wake did for Miami. I also expect Gronkowski to look a little more fluid and comfortable with a week of action to build on. The conditions should also be palatable for the Patriots passing attack. Minnesota had the NFL's 31st ranked passing defense last fall and I can't believe that Zimmer will be enough to turn that around this quickly. The group faced second and third QBs with the Rams last week. This time it's a future Hall of Famer looking to bounce back. Look out, Vikings defenders. I wasn't quite as confident that the Patriots defense would bounce back quite as well, but Peterson being out of action is a major advantage for New England. For his faults, Matt Cassel can take care of the football and manage a game when he's on. He has some weapons to work with, but without Peterson it's unlikely the Minnesota will be able to be balanced and consistent. But Patterson is a scary weapon for a team that didn't tackle well last week. I'm gonna give New England credit for being able to make some plays on the ball last week and assume that will continue. The Patriots are the better team and the Peterson absence makes life that much easier for the visitors. I'm going to say New England pulls to .500 on the season with a 30-10 victory to calm the natives of Patriots Nation coming off an ugly week.

What's your prediction for this game? Which factors are most key to a Patriots victory? Let us know with a comment below!

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