Curran's Hard Truths Preview: Can Patriots make a run at Minny defense?

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We spent all last week talking about how the Patriots need to run the ball for success. They ran the hell out of it against the Jets and a path to both increased potency and neutralizing track-team offenses was again laid bare. It’s been the common denominator in their best offensive performances this season – the ability to get Sony Michel going on the ground. Can they do it against the Vikings? Only once in the past six games has Minny allowed more than 300 total yards in a game (308 to the Bears two weeks ago). 

The Vikings are fifth in the league in passing yards against, fifth in the league in rushing yards against. There’s no simple path. So the Patriots should be who they are becoming. A physical team. Phil Perry wrote about it for us this week and spoke to center and captain David Andrews.

“The games where you go out there and you're not the most physical team, you feel that," Andrews said. "And sometimes you're fortunate to skate by and get a 'W.' A lot of times you're not. It's nice when you can go and finish the game like we did last week with the four-minute offense. There's something about that, getting that last first down when you need it. Ending the game running the ball is definitely kind of [contributes] to that emotional, psychological side you're talking about."

By Land: The Vikings’ front-seven personnel is as good as any team in the NFL. Across the front, it’s Everson Griffen, Sheldon Richardson, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter. The linebackers are Ben Gedeon, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. They also get good run support from safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo and their corners – Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes – are tacklers. They are fifth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and rushing yard per carry. When you go further inside the numbers, they are really good at preventing longer runs. Football Outsiders has them sixth in second-level yards and first in open field yards. What’s that mean? It means that guys get past the line of scrimmage (23rd in stuff rank) but get hauled down at the second level. 

The Patriots – particularly last week – benefited from some of those explosive chunk runs. Minny is good at stopping them. But the Patriots can’t just shrug and say, “Too good. Can’t run.” In order to get play-action going, in order to stay away from second-and-10, they have to be persistent with Sony Michel. They should be able to do it. The Patriots’ interior offensive line – Shaq Mason, Andrews and Joe Thuney – and fullback James Develin are developing into a force. And Michel’s ability to hit fast in the interior and then be shifty at the second level is unique. The Patriots get Rex Burkhead back this week so it will be interesting to see if he makes any contribution. To me, the game could hinge on first-down runs and staying out of a situation where Minny can dial up pressure.

By Air: For years, the Patriots could look across at a very good defense and say, “Screw it. Let’s spread them out and paper-cut them to death.” So far, this hasn’t been that kind of year. Julian Edelman still wins quickly with regularity. James White isn’t a waterbug and has a smallish catch radius but he’s shrewd and dependable as hell. But that’s it. The other primary pass-catchers – Josh Gordon, Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski – take time to uncover. So can the Patriots go spread/up-tempo against the Vikings or should they use play-action to suck up the Minny linebackers and their talented safeties? Probably the latter. The Vikings lead the NFL in sacks per pass attempt. Hunter has 11.5 but six other Vikings have at least three. That’s an indicator that Mike Zimmer likes to bring heat. And he will. The Patriots did a poor job of identifying and dealing with disguised pressure against Tennessee. The Vikings love doing that.

Rhodes is dealing with a hamstring injury so that could benefit the Patriots. Regardless, the Patriots are going against a team that’s outstanding on third down, in the red zone and at getting after the quarterback. This is the best defense the Patriots will deal with.

Kicking Game: Stephen Gostkowski is having an outstanding season. He hasn’t missed inside 50 yards and is 2-for-5 beyond 50. That’s an advantage for New England relative to Dan Bailey.

Key Matchup: Tom Brady vs. Harrison Smith. Bill Belichick said Smith is in the mold of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Brady used to have great cat-and-mouse games with both (he usually made Polamalu the mouse). Tinkering with Smith will be a big part of the passing game.

Who’s Hurt: Rhodes’ injury could be a problem for the Vikings. The Patriots are mostly healthy on offense except for dings to Brady, Edelman and Gronkowski.

Recent Past: The Patriots handled the Jets last week in New York for their seventh win in eight games. Coming out of the bye healthy after the loss to Tennessee was a big boost. The team is definitely headed in the right direction but this test is pivotal. 

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