The Patriots return to the Thanksgiving slate for the first time in a decade with a trip to Minneapolis to face the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night.
Minnesota came back down to earth in blowout fashion against the Cowboys last week, but the "easy" stretch in the Patriots schedule is now finished. Over the next seven weeks, the Pats play four games against three teams ranked in the top ten in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.
However, despite having the second-best record in the NFL at 8-2, the Vikings aren't one of those efficiency darlings. Minnesota (23rd) has the worst total DVOA for an 8-2 team as far back as the metric goes since 1981 (-9.3). Yes, the second-best team in the NFC has a negative output, and the Vikings also have a negative point differential (-2).
The biggest reason for this statistical anomaly is facing multiple backup quarterbacks and having some very fortunate luck in Buffalo, for example, where the Bills had a four-point lead until they botched a snap in their own end zone that was recovered for a Minnesota touchdown with 41 seconds remaining in the game (Buffalo wins that game 98.6% of the time).
Nobody is going to take an eight-win team with star power at the skill positions and some new-coach mojo lightly. But there are macro and micro reasons, the latter of which we'll get to next, suggesting the Patriots can come away with a win.
Here is a three-step plan for the Patriots to end Thanksgiving on a high note in the Twin Cities:
1. Attack Minnesota's Zone-Based Coverage System With Play-Action
Although it didn't lead to many points, the Patriots offense generated a handful of explosive plays with a familiar formula that could serve as their base offense for the rest of the season.
With better play designs that married run-blocking schemes with run fakes, quarterback Mac Jones was six-of-seven for 98 yards and 14 yards per attempt off play-action in Sunday's win over the Jets. Some of those concepts were similar to what the team ran with rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe under center in Weeks 5 and 6, while others were out of a new "full house" formation that was successful against another zone-heavy defense in New York.
This week, Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell also runs a zone coverage system that just so happens to struggle against play-action. According to Pro Football Focus, Minnesota uses zone schemes on over 75% of their coverage snaps, and 53.6% of those drop-backs are some form of a split-safety zone in either cover-six (29.9%), quarters (17.4%), or cover two (6.3%).
"A lot of quarters or some variation of quarters. Four-man front for the most part," head coach Bill Belichick told Patriots.com. "Shell coverage disguise, setting the edge, tackling, linebackers, fast linebackers. Exactly what they say they are, that's what they are."
Typically, zone defenses that want to fly to the football and ask middle-of-the-field defenders to handle coverage and run-fit responsibilities struggle against play-action, and the Vikings fall in that category. This season, they're allowing the third-highest yards per attempt (9.9) and expected points added per play-action attempt (+0.25) among all 32 teams.
With the Patriots potentially dialing up play-action early and often on Thursday night, we'll probably see similar or repeat plays to the ones that worked against the Jets. For example, the Pats found explosive plays in both the run and pass game out of their full house formation, with tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith both in the backfield as pseudo-fullbacks.
Here, they ran an inside zone-lead play with both tight ends serving as blockers for Damien Harris, and the blocking schemes pulled the Jets defense into the formation. Harris wisely sees the run force to his right vacate the edge and bounces the run out the backdoor for a 30-yard gain.
Later, the Pats returned to the same formation and run action, but Mac kept the ball on a play-action pass. This time, Jonnu Smith sneaks behind the linebackers for a 26-yard completion.
Like they did with Zappe, New England also ran a few of their eight-man protect play-action concepts from under center with two vertical routes stressing the coverage. This time, DeVante Parker's route puts the outside corner in conflict. He can either stay over the top of Parker or fall off to jump Jakobi Meyers's corner route, but he can't cover both. The Jets CB gets caught in between, and with a clean pocket due to the extra pass protection, Jones hits Meyers.
Along with their own success playing this style of offense, the Vikings have struggled against play-action heavy teams, making it a no-brainer to test them on play-action on Thursday night.
2. Patriots Defensive Front Must Exploit Matchups, Kirk Cousins's Weakness Under Pressure
Moving over to the defense, the other favorable angle for the Patriots is that Minnesota is a traditional rushing attack with a non-mobile QB in Kirk Cousins.
|Patriots Defense, This Season
|vs. Bears & Ravens
|vs. All Other Teams
|EPA per Rush
|Rushing Success Rate
Although the Patriots have struggled to stop the run against Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields, Belichick's defense has been excellent at slowing down traditional under-center teams.
The Vikings are another offense that majors in outside zone rushing with complementary schemes such as zone rollbacks and tosses, and then build play-action off the runs. Three-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook is a home-run threat who fits the system perfectly because he has the explosiveness to cut runs back and turn the corner to take it to the house.
New England typically plays a five or six-man front against outside zone offenses. We've seen their 4-3 tilt front against these teams in the past. But, more recently, they've used an odd front (3-4) alignment that accomplishes similar things as the Super Bowl 53 game plan. These tilt-like fronts feature three players outside the B-Gap, forcing runs back inside to their bigger bodies.
As is the case every week, shutting down a team's early-down sequencing allows the Patriots to unlock their pass rush, which has been terrific this season. Cousins' efficiency also plummets under pressure, and is a stationary quarterback who isn't going to elude pressure in the pocket.
"When you play teams like this, when they hand the ball to Cook, it's dangerous. He's a great back. But when they boot, and they hit Jefferson on a crossing route, that's dangerous. We all have to do our job. A couple of years ago, playing against the Rams when everyone kept talking about this style of offense, the play-action, the run game, and how hard it is, it really puts an emphasis on guys doing their job. That's why these offenses are so good because they have a lot of good players where guys get caught up. They love running outside zone, and now they're running it. It's Cook, and he just broke a run for 15 yards, and I have to go make this play, and then they hit you with the boot. That's why it's important to reset after every play."
"I always think of Vince Wilfork coming back there and telling us in a big game, 'hey, we have the run up front. You all stay in the back for the pass. Don't come up here running, and it's play-action because we got it,'" Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.
|Kirk Cousins (via PFF)
|Turnover-Worthy Play Rate
Cousins ranks in the middle of the pack statistically in passing while under pressure in passer rating (15th) and PFF grade (20th) among 39 qualified quarterbacks. Last week, Cousins was 4-of-11 for 40 yards and one turnover-worthy play while under pressure vs. the Cowboys.
Plus, without stud left tackle Christian Darrisaw, the Vikings offensive line allowed an insane pressure rate of 60% in their loss to Dallas, so the Pats should also come after Cousins.
The Patriots will have favorable matchups with their pass-rushers against the Vikings left tackle (Blake Brendel), right guard (Mark Ingram), and potentially center Garrett Bradbury.
With Cousins's skill set as a traditional pocket-passer, New England can flip the game in their favor if they can dominate in the trenches as they have during this recent stretch of wins.
3. Craft a Vintage Belichick Game Plan vs. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
Whenever Patriots head coach Bill Belichick goes up against an elite talent at receiver, it's always fun to see the game plan Belichick creates to slow down a player like Justin Jefferson.
This is one area of the game where the Patriots need to be careful. As the Bills can attest, Jefferson is a cover-one killer, averaging 12.0 yards per target against the coverage this season (third-best), and is now facing a defense that plays more cover-one man than another unit in football (41% of drop-backs, most in NFL), per NextGen Stats.
The question for Belichick is, does he trust the most likely man coverage option, Jonathan Jones, to take Jefferson, or does he scheme Jefferson out of the game?
Last week, the Cowboys mainly trusted All-Pro corner Trevon Diggs to shadow Jefferson, and along with the pass rush, held Jefferson to only three catches for 33 yards on five targets.
However, the Bills put their corners on islands with Jefferson the week before, and the Pro Bowler went off for 193 yards and a touchdown on ten catches, including seven contested grabs, which is a PFF-era record (since 2006).
If the Patriots want to help Jones or use #2 corner Jalen Mills in a bracket on Jefferson with Jones taking Adam Thielen, New England might run its "cone" brackets. Putting a defender inside and outside Jefferson prevents the Vikings wideout from running his dig-out-vertical route tree because he's cut off from both intermediate breaks (see above).
Belichick's bracket calls are particularly effective when the receiver lines up in the slot, which Jefferson does on 30% of his routes, or on third down to force Cousins to beat you elsewhere.
Regardless of who Belichick tasks with being the primary coverage defender on Jefferson, expect the Patriots to give that corner plenty of help, especially in critical situations.
The Bills learned how Jefferson can make you pay for playing single-high structures against him, and the Patriots won't suffer a similar fate.
4. Key Matchups in Patriots-Vikings
- Patriots EDGE Matthew Judon vs. Vikings LT Blake Brandel
After starting left tackle Christian Darrisaw left the game with a concussion in the second quarter, Brandel allowed two sacks and four total pressures in 28 pass-blocking snaps. According to PFF, his pass-blocking grade for the game was 26.5 out of 100. With Brandel back in for Darrisaw on the short week, the Pats should expose the backup tackle to Matthew Judon as often as possible. Cowboys star Micah Parsons beat Brandel with the same euro step-rip move that Judon loves. Get ready to see that again on Thursday night.
- Pats CB Jonathan Jones vs. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
It might not be exclusively Jones, and we anticipate he won't be on an island all the time either, but the Pats veteran CB has earned the respect of the coaching staff to shadow Jefferson. Jones can travel inside or outside with the Vikings wideout, while they'll probably give him help to the inside when he's playing outside leverage in man coverage. This is a heavy-weight matchup between two studs playing at a very high level.
- Patriots OTs Trent Brown & Yodny Cajuste vs. Vikings EDGEs Danielle Hunter & Za'Darius Smith
The Patriots have struggled mightily to find consistent tackle play this season, especially in pass protection, and these two Minnesota edge rushers are powerful dudes. Hunter and Smith are known for denting pockets and using brute force to bull rush into the quarterback. The Pats need more from the tackle position down the stretch; this is a legit test.
- Patriots NT Davon Godchaux vs. Vikings C Garrett Bradbury
If you're going to run an outside zone system as the Vikings typically do for Dalvin Cook, the center-guard exchange on the nose tackle is a key block to get the scheme rolling. Godchaux did a great job of penetrating the line of scrimmage against the Jets to string out runs and get New York's running backs deep in the backfield, and he'll need to do it again this week. Bradbury is a very athletic center with an explosive first step, which fits the system, but he can be overwhelmed by power if you get into his body early in the down.