Patriots will struggle to run the ball
After watching a lot of film on both the Patriots and Vikings, Gary Horton picks out some key points to watch in Monday night's game.
After watching a lot of film on both the Patriots and Vikings and talking to coaches and scouts, here are some key things to watch in their "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
• The Pats may struggle to run the ball against this tough Minnesota defense, and Tom Brady may have to use the passing game to move the ball on offense. The Vikings have two huge defensive tackles, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, who stack the interior. The front four uses a lot of twists and in-line stunts, which will make it tough for the Pats' offensive line to establish good blocking angles. Minnesota is only giving up 70.8 yards rushing per game.
• New England should be concerned about the pass protection on the right edge of its offensive line. ROT Ryan O'Callaghan is a promising young player, but struggles against blitzes when he has to make adjustments in his pass protection.
The Vikings' defensive line loves to stunt and loop, occasionally even bringing a LB off the edge. O'Callaghan needs to be patient and control his area, as the Pats would like to avoid being forced to leave a tight end in to block in passing situations.
• Brady finally has a vertical receiver in Chad Jackson, who gives the Pats some big plays. However, if Minnesota stays a lot in the Cover 2 shell, making vertical plays over the top will be tough.
However, if Brady can catch the Vikings in some blitz situations with man-to-man schemes behind them, he can take some deep shots against corners Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot. Winfield is a great player, but not a terrific turn-and-run corner, while Smoot is a pure cover guy. If Brady sees Jackson in one-on-one coverage against Winfield, he will likely attack.
• The Patriots' passing game is very conservative right now, but still very efficient. Defenses continue to load up and put eight defenders in the box to stop Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney. Brady counters with a lot of two-TE sets, and a passing game that consists of quick hitches, screens and safe passes off three- and five-step drops.
• Brady is not having a great statistical year, but is still dependable when it really counts. The Pats are second in the NFL in red zone offense, with Brady converting 22 possessions into 14 TDs. His play calling and ability to process information quickly to recognize good matchups close to the goal line is phenomenal, and he uses all of his offensive weapons.
• Look for the Pats to attack the middle of the field with the short to intermediate passing game. Minnesota's LBs are not great cover guys and the weakness of the Cover 2 is over the middle and between the safeties.
The RBs and TEs, as well as WR Troy Brown, could be productive against this defense, but patience is the key. Minnesota doesn't give up a lot of big plays and the TEs may be used as blockers in max protection schemes before releasing on short routes.
If the Vikings stay in their Cover 2 shell, with their corners squatting on the short perimeter, it will be difficult for the Pats to make big plays throwing the ball. They need to lure the Vikings out of their zones if they have any hope of stretching the field with some vertical passing plays.
• The Pats are doing a nice job of playing press schemes with their corners and trying to be physical with WRs, disrupting their routes and forcing the QB to take a coverage sack. The tactic could work against Troy Williamson, forcing an immobile Brad Johnson to hold on to the ball an extra second or two.
• Everybody assumes the Vikings' defense primarily employs a Cover 2 scheme with safe zone concepts, but that is not the case. This is a defense with a lot of good individual playmakers, like DS Darren Sharper, and it uses a significant amount of blitzes with man-to-man coverage behind them.
Defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin loves to take chances and give offenses a lot of different looks, but when they are playing with a lead, the Vikings will play a lot of Cover 2.
• It looks like the Vikings are starting to open up the offense after five games of very conservative play calling. Last week against Seattle, they finally took some deep shots and even scored on a halfback pass from RB Mewelde Moore.
Head coach Brad Childress loves the running game. While he puts together creative game plans during the week, Childress seems to be more conservative in his actual play calling on Sunday. As he gets more comfortable with this offense, look for the Vikings to be more explosive and less predictable.
• Minnesota's offensive line relies on size and power to get positive yardage in the run game. The Vikings like to engage opposing defensive lines by moving the pile with a zone blocking scheme, rather than cutting defenders with chop blocks. This philosophy gives RB Chester Taylor more room to run before he has to make a cut, and he can almost hide behind his linemen, especially Hutchinson.
The Pats are very effective in their 3-4 front with two-gap read and react techniques, and their DL does not penetrate a lot.
• Johnson continues to be efficient with the ball and does an excellent job of spreading out the defense. He completed passes to nine different receivers last week. When opponents blitz, Johnson is excellent at dumping the ball off to his back or tight end to avoid the sack.
The Pats love to attack on defense, but their aggressive approach may be reduced with the versatility of Minnesota's short passing game. The Vikings may be without WR Marcus Robinson, who has become the go-to guy for Johnson.
• The Vikings lead the NFL in run defense. It all starts with the two big DTs. They are big and physical, but their versatility makes them unique.
They can play two-gap schemes and stack at the point of attack if necessary, but also have the quickness to play one-gap, penetrating schemes. They are also athletic enough to be successful in all the looping and twists this front four likes to play. It is unlikely the Pats can run inside on this defense.
Not only is Minnesota's run defense the best in the NFL, the Vikings also make a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. They force negative run play almost 20 percent of the time, putting offenses in huge holes.
• Taylor is a perfect fit running behind the Vikings' massive offensive linemen. They come off the ball and try to get a good push at the point of attack. Taylor doesn't have great speed, but he runs behind them with excellent patience until he sees a crease. As a result, he only has to be a one-cut back and many of his runs come from a backside cut against an overpursuing defense.
• The Vikings will likely attack DC Chad Scott in the vertical passing game. Williamson has a real speed advantage. The Pats would prefer not to be forced to roll their coverage or double Williamson. Success on the perimeter will open up the middle for TE Jermaine Wiggins, who should have an edge against SS Rodney Harrison.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.