Good quarterback. Elite weapons.
Thus far, the Patriots haven’t come up against many teams who have both and fall into that category.
But the Minnesota Vikings certainly qualify, and are the first in a succession of several teams who fit that bill down the stretch.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has an arsenal that includes the NFL’s No. 2 receiver in Justin Jefferson, and a very good sidekick in Adam Thielen, along with dual threat running back Dalvin Cook and tight end T.J. Hockenson.
They’re dynamic, explosive and can put up points in a hurry.
“They’ve got a wealth of talent at the skill positions,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said at the beginning of the week. “There’s a lot of guys to stop. They’re as explosive as anyone we’ve seen.”
The Vikings, who are 8-2, beat the Buffalo Bills with that explosive offense two weeks ago, but then got walloped by the Cowboys last week, scoring just three points.
On Thanksgiving night, the Patriots are planning on seeing the team that beat the Bills, as opposed to the train wreck that showed up against Dallas.
No doubt, Cousins & Co. will try to set off some fireworks on Thanksgiving night. It’s been well-chronicled how much Cousins has struggled in prime time, so he’ll want to change that narrative.
Here’s how the Patriots defense can tame the Vikings explosive offense:
1. Double Jefferson
Basically it’s double-cover wide receiver Justin Jefferson, and pray the damage is minimal.
As Belichick pointed out, sometimes tag teams aren’t enough to silence the Vikings uber-talented wideout.
“Some of the catches he’s made you couldn’t cover him much better than he’s being covered, and he comes down with the ball,” Belichick said Tuesday. “But they move him around. Doubling him sounds a lot easier than it really is. You’ve got to find him, get the right guys on him and then there’s some other guys to worry about, too.”
The Patriots shouldn’t assign one corner to follow him around. Whether Jefferson is lined up on the left or right, either Jonathan Jones or Jalen Mills will mark him, with safety help from Devin McCourty over the top.
Whether the Pats play man-coverage, which has been their primary scheme, or zone, they’ll need two sets of eyes on him at all times, and take their chances with Adam Thielen and T.J. Hockenson.
2. Rush four
The Vikings have lost several key players on the offensive line, most notably left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who left Sunday’s game with a concussion. With the quick turnaround on a short week, it’s tough imagining him being able to play.
But whether it was with, or without Darrisaw, the Cowboys basically ran roughshod over the Vikings offensive line, and in turn, feasted on Kirk Cousins to the tune of seven sacks.
The lesson here? They were able to consistently get to Cousins rushing just four, with everyone else in the secondary deployed to take care of Jefferson, Thielen and Hockenson.
The Patriots should be able to do the same with Matthew Judon, Josh Uche and Deatrich Wise leading the charge up front. The Cowboys are No. 1 in sacks followed by the Patriots. Even if the Vikings get more creative in their protection schemes, the Patriots should still be able to make Cousin’s life miserable.
3. Don’t let Dalvin cook
Running back Dalvin Cook can beat teams whether he’s running the ball, or catching passes out of the backfield.
He busted a run against the Bills, going 81 yards to the house.
If he gets in the open field, just kiss him goodbye. As Belichick said, Cook, one of the best backs in the league, can “kill you in a hurry.”
So the Patriots need to be sure of their tackling, and also contain him.
“He’s fast. He’s got good balance, really good contact balance. Does a good job at making yards after contact,” Belichick said of Cook, who is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. “Good vision. He’s good in the passing game. So, it’s not just handing him the ball. They can throw it to him and he can get open. Once he gets out in space, he’s a tough guy to handle.”