Hard Truths: Patriots undressed Vikings D by spreading the wealth

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FOXBORO -- In years past, the Patriots would come up against a team with a nasty pass rush, go empty, spread them out and paper-cut them to death because they had guys that got open in short spaces.

This year, they don’t as many “separators” (aside from Julian Edelman) so they instead decided to screen the Vikings to death on Sunday. Or at least to distraction.

It was really a masterful game plan by Josh McDaniels as he made sure the Patriots didn’t get overly reliant on any one player (eight players touched the ball on the first drive) as they had before the bye. Nine different players caught passes; seven caught more than one of Tom Brady’s 24 completions. Seven different players carried the ball (eight if you include Brady).

By the time the first drive was over, Minnesota’s pass rush had been somewhat neutralized and the team leading the NFL in sacks per attempt never got to Brady. It was just the second time all year the Vikings didn’t have a sack. The other time was against the Saints and Drew Brees. They had 14 in the two games preceding this one.

PATRIOTS 24, VIKINGS 10

The Patriots also converted 7-of-14 third downs because of the short-passing game that kept them out of third-and-long. That 50 percent conversion rate equaled the highest against Minny by an opposing offense.

“We can’t give them third down and manageable,” lamented Vikings defensive end Steve Weatherly. “We have to do better on first and second downs to get them in a third and medium and especially we need third and long. You have a better chance of stopping them so they don’t have 50 percent on their third-down conversions, so we have more opportunities on offense to go do what they did.”

With the front-seven neutralized by the controlled passing game and the jet sweep action that made the Vikings have to defend horizontally, this became a game the Patriots were playing on their terms.

Their terms this season aren’t the same as in past years for a variety of reasons we’ve pointed out in the past. But Brady’s tendency to get a bit over-reliant on Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon seemed to get game-planned away as well as Cordarelle Patterson was targeted downfield for one of his first straight “wide receiver” receptions of the season while Chris Hogan and Rex Burkhead both got early usage.

PATRIOTS 24, VIKINGS 10

The “spread-the-wealth/neutralize the pass rush” approach requires some ingenuity. And there are occasions where McDaniels’ innovation backfires – a direct snap on third-and-short to James White went nowhere and led to the Vikings having enough time before the half to go down and get a touchdown.

But the tweak came in the second half. After an ugly three-and-out when the Vikings were all over the Patriots screen game, the Patriots went downfield more often and got Gordon involved, catching two 24-yard passes on one drive (the second a touchdown) and Gronk made a catch down the seam.

“We came in and saw how they were attacking us and we did what the coach told us to do at halftime,” said Weatherly.

Meanwhile, the Patriots were able to take some of the burden in the running game off of Sony Michel (17 carries, 63 yards) by getting 13 carries combined from White and Burkhead and three carries for 41 yards by Edelman and Patterson. The Patriots wound up with a “quiet” 160 yards on the ground. They again ran it more than they threw it (39 to 32), another indication of the morphing offensive personality they’re embracing.

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