Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 13: Patriots vs. Vikings

Things to consider while appreciating the people of Minnesota spreading their … culture … in New England:

–So yet another 2-touchdown win where the Patriots rip an opponent’s windpipe out of their throat late in the game. Only unlike last week, it’s against a quality opponent with the best 3rd down defense, the best red zone defense and the second best sack percentage in the league. They held a middle-of-the-pack offense to 10 points, their second lowest total of the year. All despite another unforgivably high total of penalties and a few egregious calls going against them. Meaning the Pats have yet to play up to their potential for a full 60 minutes. And yet they’re 9-3 and currently the No. 2 seed in the conference.

–They did it with their most aggressive game plan of the season on the defensive side and with a Mighty Morphin Power Offense that completely changes its identity from play to play, depending on which running back gets swapped in. And they did it thanks to some of the kind of straight up, old school hatred from the Dark Lord there is no getting enough of.

–All things considered, that had to be the most successful unsuccessful replay challenge in the history of challenges. First of all, because Belichick not knowing which sock he put the flag in was like that old Far Side where the kid at the School for the Gifted is pushing the door marked “PULL.” Second, because Adam Thielen wanted no part of Kyle Van Noy’s hands. Third because Thielen immediately went into a shell after that:

…But mostly because you have to love going to a Bill Belichick live show where he plays all his old hits:

…Some day someone’s going to release a video of Belichick uncensored, and it’s going to be the most important recording since the one they put on the Voyager space probe to show other beings what the people of Earth are like.

–Now here’s a sentence I never thought would be coming out of my keyboard: I thought the most pivotal play on either side of the ball for the Patriots was JC Jackson. As expected, Stephon Gilmore lined up on Stefon Diggs (Stephon on Stefon crime) while Jason McCourty drew the Thielen assignment, leaving Jackson with the slot guy. That was most often Laquon Treadwell but also included Thielen and Aldrick Robinson. The Vikings threw a lot of 3X1 formations at them, which usually left Gilmore on the single-receiver side playing YOYO (“You’re On Your Own”) and the bunch side playing what Nick Saban likes to call “Mable,” which is code for Cover-3 Man, but with the usual Pattern Match techniques he and Belichick invented in the lab back in Cleveland in the mid-90s.

–And Kirk Cousins was not the least bit shy about which defender he thought was the weak one of the herd. He tried to hit Thielen in the end zone with Jackson iso’ed on him, pass broken up. He tried to hit Robinson in the end zone with Jackson in solo coverage, no chance. He tried again with Robinson, only this time Jackson actually had help, tip ball to Duron Harmon who made the Julian Edelman Super Bowl-like grab for the interception. Overall it was a hell of a Debutante’s Ball for Jackson, who stood out so much in Training Camp but who’s been brought along slowly in the regular season. Slot corner has been a weak spot this year and I’d still like to see what Duke Dawson can bring. But after this I’ll be stunned if Jackson didn’t earn himself 95 percent of the snaps for next week.

–I was actually expecting Obi Melifonwu to play a huge role (Unlikely Sentence No. 2), as he got a lot of reps last week in a fairly groundbreaking 4-safety look. But the only play I can recall seeing him was in coverage on Kyle Rudolph on that disputed catch along the sidelines where the Pats lost the challenge. That was the first terrible non-reversal of the day, but it did set the tone for the later one as Fox came back from commercial just in time to catch Belichick screaming “It’s fucking bullshit!” in the official’s ear. It was a hell of a job by Obi Wan to knock the ball out of the hands of one of the stronger tight ends in the game, but for virtually the entire rest of the game it was a 5-11 Patrick Chung on him instead of the 6-4 freakish athlete out of UConn. Stay tuned on how they use him going forward.

–Circling back to how aggressive they were, the Patriots haven’t hidden the fact that they like to come out with a defensive scheme that isn’t vanilla as much as it’s plain yogurt. They get a sense of how they’re being attacked, adjust accordingly and ratchet up the complexities as the game goes on. Yesterday was none of that nonsense. They came right out from the opening series, loading up the line of scrimmage against a struggling Vikings offensive line (30th in the NFL this year). Elandon Roberts set the tone with a sternum-cracking hit on Dalvin Cook on the first play. On 3rd & 8, Brian Flores had his safeties and linebackers rotating around prior to the snap like the princesses at Disney on Ice to force a punt. The middle of the line – Tom Compton, Pat Eflein and Mike Remmers – saw a ton of Dont’a Hightower blitzing the A-gaps. I think we even saw some Bear fronts, with a 0-nose (sometimes it was Trey Flowers) and two 3-tech tackles with a safety inside the tight end, trying to give the middle three linemen four to block.

–But, sticking to the script, Flores still did add more looks as the game wore on. None better than the sack when Flowers was coming off the edge and Van Noy shot the tackle-guard gap. That drew a double team and Flowers ran a twist behind Van Noy, coming in untouched to drill Cousins and force a punt. With a 14-point lead he took the whole front off the leash, with 1-down lineman sets, bodies moving everywhere, all-out blitzes with Cover-0. I hope the way they came out of the gate in this one is a sign that it’s December in New England, the playbook is all installed and the days of passively sitting there letting the Blake Bortles of the world hang the defense on a hook by the wedgie are long since over.

–Offensively, they came out matching their own defense’s aggressiveness. And it worked. Not with shots up the field, but with a Master Class in play actioning the bejezzus out of an opponent that struggles against it. None better than the big catch and run by Cordarelle Patterson on the first possession. It’s amazing the lengths the Pats will go to sell the run on these play actions. On this one, not only did Patterson motion in to block Devante Downs, Gronk motioned from the flow side, meaning the play side if it were a run, to block Downs after Corduroy peeled off him. Tom Brady did what he does, which is turn his back completely to the play to sell the handoff, then turned with the ball knowing full well he was going to find his target left alone. Brilliant design, perfect execution, and yet another thing that will be on tape for future coordinators to account for, as Josh McDaniels works on a counter to it.

–At least the Vikings had an excuse for losing Patterson in the shuffle there. On the prior play, there was no forgiving them for leaving Chris Hogan unattended. It was a 3-man version of the D-Slant, in which the outside receiver runs a slant and the inside man runs a diagonal under him/them. To the McOffense, that play is what “Chicken Tenders and Fries” is to my son’s restaurant menu choices, the obvious and automatic one. Watching Mike Zimmer’s defense have a breakdown on that one – not to mention a blatant facemask tackle on Hogan that went uncalled – had me thinking the Patriots were going to hang 50 on them.

–Unfortunately, that didn’t work out as I’d hoped. That second drive was a thing of beauty. Like I said early, morphing from play to play, depending on which back was in there. From a power run attack with Sony Michel to an outside zone scheme behind Rex Burkhead (welcome back) and Patterson to a passing offense with James White, each with its own distinct personality.

–A check down Frisbee pass to White. Then a drop pass into White’s hands sweeping with Trent Brown blocking out front. Then White does a delayed release screen behind Shaq Mason taking out both Kendricks and Alexander. Followed by a Patterson end around in which he lowers his shoulder and blasts Alexander. Then Michel fighting for short yards behind a 2-tight end set of Gronk and LaAdrian Waddle. The a screen to Burkhead and a shallow cross to White scraping behind the linebackers. It was like watching a Robin Williams appearance, without the horribly tragic ending.

–But then they got to the red zone and got conservative enough to win a primary in Alabama. Granted, the Vikings are good at collapsing their zone coverages with a short field. And Edelman got mauled by Anthony Harris on a play that gets a flag 99 percent of the time no matter how big a boner Troy Aikman had for it. But the fact is the Pats had 1st & goal and attempted exactly zero passes into the end zone. No fade routes. No crossing patterns along the back line or tosses to the cone. Instead they’ve fallen in love with the idea of hitting someone inside the five and hoping they’ll break tackles. Which I thought was the worst idea in the world until I saw promos for The Masked Singer. So it’s the second worst.

–Though what do I know? It sure as hell worked out on that touchdown to Josh Gordon. Who, speaking of bad ideas, spent way too much time on the sidelines in favor of 2-back sets with Burkhead and White for my liking early on. Minnesota had no Rhodes, no Waynes (can stop me baby … sorry. I said the same thing on Twitter and I just can’t stop hearing the locker room song from Remember the Titans) and you’re not exploiting them with your most gifted receiver that makes no sense to me. But I guess it speaks to the depth we suddenly find at the skill positions that they can keep a guy like Gordon in the bag and not pull him out until the back nine. On his touchdown, he simply sat down in the zone behind Eric Kendricks and in front of the Vikings’ Cover-2. Meanwhile, that just happened to be the one play Gronk sat out after getting his legs twisted under him. And Jacob Hollister actually drew a double team from Harrison Smith and the corner, while Gordon was left alone. Go figure.

–You know how you can tell that’s not really Future Gronk in that Tide Pod ad? He’s not using a walker and a service dog. (Too dark? Yeah, that’s probably too dark. But I’m leaving it here.)

–One of those 2-back sets actually came on Brady’s 1,000 rushing yard play. And even that had layer upon layer of presnap shenanigans going on. The Pats were originally in spread but Brady motioned Burkhead and White into the backfield, so the Vikings flexed from 4-2 Nickel to Single High Safety with an 8-man box and linebackers in both A-gaps. So Burkhead stepped up into pass protection. MacKenzie Alexander tried to time a blitz but Brady delayed the snap. But Alexander came anyway, forcing him out of the pocket. The good news is he got the yards he needed. The better news is he’ll probably be taking several knees at the end of the Dolphins game next week so we’ll get to see him crack 1,000 yards all over against the Steelers.

–This Week’s Applicable Move Quote: “Don’t mess with the bull, young man – you’ll get the horns.” – Richard Vernon, The Breakfast Club

–We did get a couple of other moments of historical significance. First, Thielen’s touchdown set a record that might be tied but never broken for Most Twins Burned on a Single Play: 2. And as far as I can tell through my limited research, when Hunter made a stop early on it was the first time in NFL history a Danielle tackled a Michel. #TheMoreYouKnow

–This was just an atrocious job by the officials. The aforementioned facemask non-call, the non-reversal of Rudolph’s non-catch, the non-pass interference call on the goal line. But nothing was worse than the spot of the ball on that 4th & 1 call that started the Belichick-Thielen War. On both that play and the one that preceeded it, Lawrence Guy did such a number on the middle of that Minnesota line that their insurance premiums are going up. Flowers put a rip move on Compton, and Hightower knocked Riley Reiff two yards into the backfield. Trump should hope his border wall is half as effective as the Pats front was. Latavius Murray couldn’t have reached that line of scrimmage without a Thunderball-like Jet Pack to carry him over the defense. And I’m not buying that “no conclusive angle” ragtime either, because we see these crews change the spot in the middle of a massive pileup of bodies all the time. We didn’t need a replay to tell us he didn’t come close. You could’ve proven it with Google Earth.

–I don’t disparage anyone earning an honest living. But am I the only one who keeps expecting Ray Liotta to say “I’m doing Chantrix ads like an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook”?

–Which finally brings us to where I actually could’ve started, which is the tough running by James Develin, who’s on a one-man crusade to bring credibility to the most hated, most disparaged play in all of football: The Short Yardage White Guy Fullback Dive. His two touchdowns give him three on the year. Plus he added a 1st down conversion. Which brings the success rate of that particular play up to about 1.5 percent. After his first TD, Brady immediately turned to the sidelines and pumped his fist like he was celebrating not just the score, but the play call. Plus Jimmy Neckroll added a 10 yard reception, giving the rest of the teams on the schedule yet another thing to prepare for.

–I’m still waiting for that full 60 minute game. Miami in December would be as good a time as any to start.