The Patriots did a masterful job disguising their defense. Here’s how
FOXBOROUGH — Duron Harmon will never be confused with Von Miller. At 6 feet 1 inch and 205 pounds, Harmon’s specialty is playing deep center field, not getting after the quarterback.
“That’s not what I’m good at. I’m not even going to lie,” Harmon said on Sunday. “But whatever I can do to make the ball come out quick, to make the quarterback second-guess his reads, I’m going to do that.”
Harmon’s blitzing — or at least the threat of it — played a big role in the Patriots’ 24-10 win over the Vikings.
The Patriots did a masterful job of disguising their defense before the snap, and a lot of it revolved around Harmon and fellow safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung playing up near the line of scrimmage.
It’s called a “Cover 0” look — with a lot of players near the line of scrimmage and no deep safety. On some plays, Harmon got after Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins. On others, he raced backward into the secondary to take his position as the deep center fielder.
“Just give them one look and then just get to where you needed to be,” Harmon said. “It might not be pretty all the time, but just messing with the quarterback, making him second-guess himself, it usually works out well for the defense.”
It certainly did for the Patriots on Sunday. The defense had a banner performance in slowing down the Vikings’ high-octane offense, holding Minnesota to 278 total yards, 3 for 12 on third down, and 26:39 of possession.
Cousins threw for just 201 yards, averaged a paltry 4.6 yards per attempt, threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, and took two crucial sacks that took potential points off the board for the Vikings.
Adam Thielen, who had gone for 100 yards in nine of his 11 games this season, was held to just five catches for 28 yards. Stefon Diggs, having a potential Pro Bowl season, had only five catches for 49 yards.
“I think from a coaching standpoint we did a really good job of disguising,” Jason McCourty said. “We talked all week about disguising, mixing it up, trying to make it tough for Cousins.”
Cousins said the Vikings weren’t totally caught off guard by the Patriots’ disguises, but said the Patriots ran the defense more than usual.
“I think it was more bluffing Cover 0, and bringing Cover 0, and rotating between those. I think they did it consistently over and over throughout the game,” Cousins said. “They had shown it — probably not as much as they did tonight.”
Bill Belichick praised defensive coordinator Brian Flores and the Patriots’ safeties for helping disguise the defense so well.
“The safeties are always a big key to that, because traditionally they play deep,” Belichick said. “Sometimes they stayed up, sometimes they went back. The linebackers moved around some up front, defensive line and linebackers did a nice job of coordinating that and organizing, and they got some good pressure, especially early in the game and then late in the game.”
“We were just trying to keep them off balance, force the communication, just try to make it tough on their offensive line. And I think we had some success with that.”
Linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, and Elandon Roberts also did plenty of disguising. The Patriots had plays where they had seven or eight guys up on the line of scrimmage, yet the Vikings didn’t quite know who would be rushing and who would be dropping.
Add in the Patriots’ defensive linemen frequently criss-crossing and running stunts throughout the game, and the Vikings’ offensive line was back on its heels for much of the night.
Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler got a free sack on Cousins in the first quarter thanks to one of those stunts, and the sack pushed the Vikings back far enough that they subsequently missed a 48-yard field goal. And Trey Flowers got a huge third-down sack early in the fourth quarter to force a Vikings punt and put the Patriots in control of the game.
“You prepare for that look,” Vikings center Pat Elflein said of the Patriots disguising their pass rush with so many defenders at the line of scrimmage. “You want to find the most predominant pass rusher, and you can kind of see where they’re at. But they’re moving all over the place. They do a good job of running it, so yeah, they brought a challenge tonight.”
Vikings guard Tom Compton said the Patriots had shown some of these defensive looks on film before, but not at the frequency they used them on Sunday.
“They just did more of what they hadn’t shown a lot of, and they took something they did sometimes, and did it a lot more,” he said.
And the Patriots’ cornerbacks certainly did their part, too. The coverage plan was classic Belichick — use the No. 1 cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) on an island against the No. 2 receiver (Diggs), and use the No. 2 cornerback (Jason McCourty) and a safety to double-team the top receiver (Thielen).
“When you look at our defense, one thing that we pride ourselves coming in is not letting their best guy beat us,” Devin McCourty said.
Thielen had just one catch for five yards (a touchdown) through three quarters, and Diggs had 24 yards on one catch and 25 yards on his other four catches.
“They didn’t let me get going,” Thielen said. “They’re always in the right coverage, they didn’t drop guys free. They’re obviously athletic, they’re great players, they don’t make mistakes, they don’t leave guys open, the assignments they have they execute them. To beat a team like that, to beat a defense like that, you have to make plays and contested catches and we obviously didn’t do that tonight.”
The Patriots mixed in plenty of zone coverage with man. They brought the big blitz, and faked the big blitz. They kept Cousins on his toes all night.
“I don’t know that they line up in any one defense over and over where you feel like you know what you’re going to get,” Cousins said.
Mission accomplished for the Patriots’ defense, which held a team to 10 or fewer points for the third time this season.
“Anytime I can blitz from playing the middle of the field it’s a little exciting because you get a chance to make a play,” Harmon said. “The thing we just had to do was make it hard on him. Couldn’t give him any easy looks. Had to make him try to go to his second read, give our rush a chance to get there.”