Pick Six: Observations from Game Twelve

The Patriots contained the Minnesota Vikings 24-10 in Foxboro on Sunday afternoon. Two memorable aspects to this game for this observer were unique game planning by the Patriots and poor ball spotting by the officials. Midway through the 4th quarter Minnesota faced a fourth and inches and ran running back Latavius Murray right into Lawrence Guy’s tackle at the line of scrimmage. The game officials gave the Vikings a first down – which was not overturned in review – which led the FOX broadcasting team to opine: “another bad spot.”

Six Observations from Game Twelve

1. Minnesota came into the game averaging over 26 points per game, and the Patriots’ defense held them to 10 points. Only three of the Vikings’ 11 possessions resulted in scoring opportunities, meaning that the Patriots’ defense ended eight opponent drives with a punt, turnover, or failed fourth down conversion. One significant game plan for the defense was to often put Stephon Gilmore man-to-man on receiver Stefon Diggs and double teaming receiver Adam Thielen – frequently with safety Devin McCourty and corner Jason McCourty. A second wrinkle for this game was derivation of a Bill Parcells-era scheme that had most of the defensive front seven on their feet, walking around prior to the snap. On Sunday the Patriots ran this defense eight times in passing situations – six of those with Trey Flowers lined up over the center – and the Vikings completed six of eight for only 25 yards. When the special defense was called on five third or fourth down situations, Minnesota converted only one first down.

2. Vikings’ running back Dalvin Cook ran the ball only nine times, but three of those carries were big gains totaling 68 yards. In the 1st quarter Cook got loose for 32 yards when linebacker Kyle Van Noy ran quickly upfield, toward the quarterback, and linebacker Elandon Roberts couldn’t fight through the traffic to contain Cook near the line of scrimmage. In the 2nd, Cook picked up 18 off right end when tight end Kyle Rudolph blocked Kyle Van Noy into Dont’a Hightower, and right tackle Brian O'Neill pulled to the outside and smothered Jason McCourty. In the 3rd, Dalvin Cook picked up another 18 yards on a misdirection as defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. was easily blocked and Stephon Gilmore took a bad open field angle on the running back. With New England playing a lighter, nickel defense most of the game, it raises the question as to why Minnesota didn’t run Dalvin Cook more often.

3. Patriots’ cornerback JC Jackson played 89% of the defensive snaps (data from pro-football-reference.com) and was in on three notable plays in the second half. Late in the 3rd quarter Jackson made some contact in the end zone with Adam Thielen, but no flag was thrown on an incompletion up the right sideline. Two plays later quarterback Kirk Cousins went back to JC Jackson, this time throwing a third-down ball too high for receiver Aldrick Robinson, leading to a field goal attempt. Late in the 4th quarter – with the Vikings trailing by two touchdowns – Cousins underthrew Aldrick Robinson with JC Jackson in a trail position. Jackson tipped the pass up, which allowed Duron Harmon to collect the second Cousins’ interception of the game.

4. New England put together a strong, eight-play drive for a touchdown on their opening possession and they clearly were intent on attacking the defense at the flats. On four consecutive plays the Patriots gained 55 yards, including a third-down bubble screen to Chris Hogan for 18 yards. That was followed by a Cordarrelle Patterson slip out to the left flat for a 24-yard catch-and-run, and then play action and pass to Rex Burkhead in the right flat for 15 yards. A Julian Edelman jet sweep followed the Burkhead catch and put the ball at first and goal on the one yard line.

5. New England running backs – Sony Michel, James White and the recently returned Rex Burkhead – combined for 30 carries, 109 yards, and zero touchdowns, which is comparable to what the Vikings have held their other opponents to in 2018: an average of 25 carries, 94 yards, and 0.5 touchdowns per game. However, the Patriots cashed in on some unconventional runs, including three wide receiver jet sweeps for 41 yards and two rushing touchdowns by fullback James Develin. Three Develin runs – including two touchdowns and a third-and-one conversion – were another example of unique game planning against the Minnesota defensive front. Each time, guard Joe Thuney stood up the Minnesota defensive tackle and tackle Trent Brown collapsed the pile into the center, giving the fullback a brief opening before the linebackers could respond. It was telling in the 1st quarter when the Patriots ran Sony Michele from the I-formation on first and goal and the Viking linebackers swarmed the hole for no gain. On the next snap, Tom Brady handed off to Develin on a shorter runway and the fullback crashed in behind Trent Brown’s block for the score.

6. First year Patriot Josh Gordon made a big impact in the 2nd half as the Patriots were pulling away from the Vikings. Late in the 3rd quarter Gordon took a short pass on a comeback route, juked past cornerback Anthony Barr, and picked up 24 yards up the left sideline. Three plays later, Gordon got free on a crossing in the middle of a Minnesota zone and took the catch-and-run 24 yards into the end zone. Early in the 4th quarter, Gordon picked up 20 yards off a pass interference penalty by cornerback Holton Hill, and then five plays later took a quick pass on the line of scrimmage and ran ten yards down to the two yard line. That play set up James Develin’s second touchdown to make the final score 24-10.

Originally posted on PatsPulpit.com

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