Hard Truths: Patriots defense confounds Cousins, Vikings

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FOXBORO -- Kirk Cousins isn’t some long-range sniper to begin with, but the confusion the Patriots caused him Sunday turned him into Checkdown Charlie and completely neutralized what – on paper – should be a very good offense.

It was a defensive plan that Bill Belichick waxed poetic about after the game, starting with the defensive coaches.

“Those guys did a real good job this week of disguising our packages on defense and with various personnel groups,” Belichick explained. “The safeties are always a big key to that because traditionally they play deep so they were up. Sometimes they stayed up, sometimes they went back and the linebackers, you know, we moved around some up front.

“The defensive line and linebackers did a nice job of coordinating that, organizing it and then we got some good pressure, especially early in the game and then late in the game. It was just a real good team defensive effort. The coaching staff – give the defensive coaching a lot of credit there and the players for executing it. We were just trying to keep them off balance, force the communication.”

PATRIOTS 24, VIKINGS 10

The Patriots made Cousins think. And while he’s no dummy, the uncertainty they caused pre-snap combined with the attention they gave post-snap to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (massive hat tip to both Jason McCourty and Stephon Gilmore on those guys) made him play it safe. And, because of the Patriots mostly outstanding tackling effort, especially after-the-catch, the Vikings were forced to string plays together. They could not.

“They did a good job whether it was Cover-0 or bluffing Cover-0 or having a bit of a walk-around where they’re not really giving any tells pre-snap, that certainly seemed to be an emphasis for them this week,” said Cousins. “They were going to basically keep you guessing until after the snap.”

 “They did a good job of mixing up what they were doing defensively and changing to a lot of different things,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “A lot of guys standing up and coming from different areas and so I thought they did a nice job of trying to confuse us.”

PATRIOTS 24, VIKINGS 10

Coming into the game, it made sense for the Vikings to involve running back Dalvin Cook in the passing game. The Patriots linebackers aren’t great in coverage. But the Patriots neutralized that beautifully. Cook was targeted 10 times, caught eight but gained just 22 yards as the Patriots sniffed out the tendency and attacked it.

Meanwhile, Jason McCourty was the prime guy on Theilen and the NFL’s leading receiver was held to five catches for 28 yards on 10 targets.  

The Patriots defensive edge and aggressiveness was obvious from their first play of the game when linebacker Elandon Roberts hit Cook in the flat as the ball arrived and blew him up. A three-and-out ensued when Kyle Van Noy – another very solid game for him – hauled down Diggs short of the sticks.

On the second drive, when Minny drove, Adam Butler came up with an 8-yard sack after the Vikings got to the Patriots 22 and forced a longish field goal that Dan Bailey missed from 48.

The next drive, again, the Patriots got the Vikings behind the sticks when Donta Hightower sniffed out a screen for a 2-yard loss. And the next Vikings drive – also across the 50 and into Patriots territory – was set back by a hold.

PATRIOTS 24, VIKINGS 10

It was so much work for the Vikings to make yards because the Patriots were so locked in with communication and their game plan.

“First and second down have a lot to do with third down,” said Belichick. “If you can make good plays on first and second down, it makes third down – I won't say easy – but easier. It's still tough, but you've got to, you know, when they're in those third-and-8's, third-and-9's, third-and-11's, I mean, that's a lot better than third-and-2 and third-and-3 when they can get you with everybody.

“Those are big stops for us,” Belichick added. “Incomplete passes. [Dont'a] Hightower made a play on a screen pass early, things like that that create some long-yardage situations. I thought our early down defense was good. It was competitive.”

The Patriots held Minnesota to 3-for-12 on third down.

Mention should also be made of the performance from rookie corner J.C. Jackson who the Vikings tried to target three times on deep throws to the end zone. Two were incomplete. The third was picked by Duron Harmon on the ricochet.

This was the Patriots best defensive performance of the season. And with games against the Dolphins, now-struggling Steelers and the moribund Jets and Bills closing out the season, they are peaking at the right time.

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