The Patriots aren’t too familiar with the Minnesota Vikings, playing them Sunday for the first time since 2014. But Bill Belichick has watched a lot of their film this year — they have had five common opponents — and has been blown away by their performance.
“This has really been an impressive team to watch,” Belichick said Wednesday. “It looks like, to me, they’re even better than they were last year.”
Heady praise from Belichick, considering the Vikings went to the NFC Championship game a year ago. Their record this year isn’t quite where they want to be — 6-4-1 after last week’s win over the Packers — but the Vikings still own the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoff race and will give the Patriots a tough challenge.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is now in his fifth season, but the team has a new look with Kirk Cousins at quarterback and John DeFilippo the new offensive coordinator, after winning a Super Bowl with Philadelphia last season
We took a deeper dive into their stats and the All-22 tape from their 24-17 win over the Packers last week; here is what you can expect from the Vikings and how the Patriots could attack them:
Points per game: 24.1 (16th).
Key personnel: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Dalvin Cook, RB Latavius Murray, WR Adam Thielen, WR Stefon Diggs, TE Kyle Rudolph.
Notable injuries: Right tackle Brian O’Neill is dealing with a concussion and his availability is unknown.
What to expect: A busy day for the Patriots’ cornerbacks. The Vikings are third in the NFL in pass attempts (40.6 per game), and Cousins is second in the NFL in terms of percentage of passes that go to his wide receivers (68.5 percent).
The lion’s share go to Thielen and Diggs, arguably the best receiver duo in the NFL, combining for 172 catches, 1,928 yards, and 14 touchdowns, with just six drops between them.
Diggs is a speedster who is incredibly dangerous after the catch. He can also open up a defense with end-arounds, bubble screens, and other gadget-type plays. Thielen is a big, physical receiver who likes to work across the middle of the field. His 93 catches lead the league, and his 1,138 yards and 124 targets are second.
Rudolph is more of a safety net and third option for Cousins, with 43 catches for 425 yards and two touchdowns, but still can be dangerous in the red zone.
Cousins has been a gunslinger, and an accurate one. He is second in the NFL in pass attempts (447), third in completion percentage (71.1), fifth in passing yards (299 per game) and ninth in passer rating (101.9). Cousins has a healthy 22:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and when you factor in his high number of pass attempts, he has done a good job of protecting the football. He feeds Thielen and Diggs early and often, and isn’t afraid to squeeze the ball into some tight windows.
Cousins isn’t a scrambling quarterback per se, but is definitely athletic enough to warrant attention from the defense.
Cousins also got the explosive Cook back a few weeks ago, and while his overall numbers are down, he is a threat every time he touches the ball, as he showed on his 26-yard touchdown on a screen pass on Sunday night.
And yet there just seems to be something missing with the Vikings’ offense — where maybe the individual parts are better than the collective whole.
They’re only 16th in the NFL in scoring. They’re 25th in the NFL in scoring touchdowns in the red zone (51.4 percent of the time). The offensive line has gotten pushed around a bit, surrendering the most quarterback hurries (124) in the NFL and the second-highest percentage of negative runs (13.7 percent of the time).
Cousins, while throwing a lot, isn’t exactly pushing the ball downfield — he’s 21st in the NFL in yards per attempt (7.36), and has just 18 completions of 25-plus yards all year, tied for 19th. Cousins has the most passes batted at the line of scrimmage (17), and has taken the fourth-most sacks on third down (16). He is also 18th in passer rating against the blitz (95.3).
Cousins hasn’t had much of a run game, either. The Vikings are 28th in the NFL in rushing attempts (21.8 per game) and 30th in yards per attempt (3.9). Having Cook back gives the Vikings a little bit more balance, but their offense revolves around a high volume of short passes.
If the Patriots can limit yards after the catch by Thielen and Diggs, they should be able to hold the Vikings to field goals and punts, and perhaps fluster Cousins into a mistake or two. The Vikings haven’t scored more than 24 points in their last four games, and might have another tough time putting up points against the Patriots.
Points allowed: 22.4 (10th).
Key personnel: DE Danielle Hunter, DT Sheldon Richardson, DT Linval Joseph, LB Eric Kendricks, CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Trae Waynes, SS Harrison Smith.
Notable injuries: Rhodes pulled a hamstring last Sunday and his availability is unknown. He did not practice Wednesday. Safety and special teams standout Andrew Sendejo went on injured reserve because of a groin injury.
What to expect: Zimmer has always been a top defensive coach, and the Vikings are stout as ever this year — 10th in points allowed and third in yards. They have given up the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (14) and fewer than 300 yards in six of their 11 games. The Vikings are the best third-down defense in the NFL (27 percent) and are the stingiest in the red zone, surrendering a touchdown on a league-low 43.2 percent of possessions.
Facing the Vikings’ defense means playing the game of “Where is Harrison Smith?” before every snap. The Vikings use Smith as their jack of all trades, positioning him as a deep center fielder, or bringing him down in the box for run support, or having him cover a tight end in the slot, or blitzing him right up the middle.
And Smith is constantly moving before and after the snap, disguising his intentions and baiting quarterbacks into bad reads. Smith has three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, and three sacks.. Belichick compared Smith, a three-time Pro Bowler, with future Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed in terms of how he makes plays all over the field.
“He’s a hard guy to read. He does an excellent job of timing his movement based on either the quarterback’s cadence, the offensive formation, motion, the play clock, all those combination of things,” Belichick said Wednesday. “All teams try to disguise what they do. I would just say Smith is really good at it. He’s a disruptive guy before the ball is snapped, let’s put it that way, and then he’s a good player after the ball is snapped, too.”
Schematically, the Vikings’ defense is somewhat similar to the Bengals’, where Zimmer was defensive coordinator from 2008-13. They almost always line up with four defensive linemen across and rely on their speedy linebackers to chase down running backs. They play a lot of press man on the outside and either drop off into a single-deep safety or a Cover 2, depending on what Smith does after the snap. The Vikings also will bring seven or eight players up to the line of scrimmage, and make the offense figure out which players are rushing and which are dropping.
The Vikings played a lot of Cover 2 against the Packers, and Aaron Rodgers hit them for a big 25-yard gain right down the middle to Jimmy Graham.
It was the same coverage, and same throw, that Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with for a touchdown on Sunday against the Jets.
The Vikings will blitz plenty — defensive back Mackensie Alexander has three sacks — but they can get pressure without it. Their front four is excellent — Hunter is second in the NFL with 11½ sacks, while Richardson (3½ sacks) is a force up the middle, and Everson Griffen is back, with 3½ sacks in six games. The Patriots’ communication on the offensive line will be tested by the Vikings’ defense — not only in identifying the pass rushers, but in dealing with the twists and stunts that the Vikings’ defensive linemen run so well.
The secondary is also one of the best in the NFL. A Smith-Gronkowski matchup would be really fun to watch. And they have the big, physical cornerbacks to match up with Josh Gordon and take a guy like Chris Hogan completely out of the game.
But the Vikings’ defense obviously will take a big hit if Rhodes can’t play with his hamstring injury. Rookie Holton Hill has good size at 6 feet 2 inches, but was beaten badly on what should have been a fourth-quarter touchdown from Rodgers last Sunday, but the ball was overthrown.
The Patriots’ offense may take a step back this Sunday against a tough Vikings defense. And expect the smaller guys — Julian Edelman, James White, Sony Michel, and potentially Rex Burkhead — to have a big role in the passing game.