FOXBOROUGH, MASS. – Mike Zimmer’s motto when it comes to cornerbacks is “Just one more.”
Turns out the Vikings coach needed two more in Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
With All-Pro Xavier Rhodes already on a limited snap count because of a freshly pulled hamstring, the game plan was to rotate the clearly slowed Rhodes with undrafted rookie Holton Hill opposite Trae Waynes.
Twenty minutes later, Waynes exited with a concussion. That left Zimmer armed with an undrafted rookie and a punt returner — Marcus Sherels — manning the outside corner positions — against Tom Brady — for parts of the game’s final 40 minutes.
Zimmer, Sherels and Hill actually made a game of it thanks to a defensive adjustment designed to force Brady to throw the ball underneath or hand off to a running game that racked up 160 yards, a 4.1 average and two touchdowns on 39 carries.
“They did a good job taking away our outside receivers with a lot of split-safety coverage for a while,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “When they changed, we were able to change.”
That happened when the Patriots took possession with 2:20 left in the third quarter of a 10-10 game. Big receiver Josh Gordon hadn’t caught a ball the entire game when Brady changed the first play after seeing favorable coverage from Sherels.
“They threw a 5-yard hitch, and he broke a tackle and got up the field,” said linebacker Anthony Barr, who made the tackle 24 yards upfield.
Actually, as Sherels admitted, “I missed the tackle. I have to wrap up and make that tackle.”
But, in Sherels’ defense, he hadn’t played this much defense since Zimmer arrived in 2013, with a cornerback as perhaps the highest priority on the team. According to Pro Football Focus, Sherels had played only 51 snaps on defense since 2014, including eight this season.
Covering Gordon must have felt like a bad déjà vu for Sherels. The only other time Gordon has faced the Vikings came in 2013 at the Metrodome, when he caught 10 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown in an upset win for the Browns.
In that game, starting corner Chris Cook went down after three snaps. Sherels had to step in and play 64 snaps (88 percent).
“I do remember that game,” Sherels said. “Gordon is still the same receiver. Still big, fast and physical.”
Three snaps after that 24-yard gain, with Rhodes back on the field for Sherels, Gordon ran a deep crossing route and caught a 24-yard touchdown pass against two-deep zone coverage. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks appeared to be too shallow on the play, creating a bigger window for Brady to throw through.
“They have playmakers, and they got the guy who can get them the ball,” safety Harrison Smith said.
“I think we were in the right call on that touchdown,” Barr said. “We just needed to be a little tighter. But it was a great throw by a guy who’s the greatest.”
The Vikings offense answered by going three-and-out on a 10-yard sack of Kirk Cousins on third-and-5. The Vikings converted only three of 12 third downs — none longer than third-and-5 — while the top third-down defense in football allowed the Patriots to convert seven of 14 third downs and go 1-for-1 on fourth down.
After the Vikings’ three-and-out, Brady saw Hill isolated on Gordon. He let loose with another deep ball.
Hill couldn’t handle Gordon. The pass interference was so egregious, three officials threw their flags at Hill’s feet.
The 20-yard gain moved the Patriots to the Vikings 30-yard line. Five plays later, the game essentially was decided when James Develin scored a 2-yard touchdown for a 14-point lead.
“We can’t use injuries as an excuse,” Smith said. “I don’t like saying, ‘Oh, we didn’t have so and so.’ It’s part of the game.”
But being without rookie Mike Hughes (injured reserve), Waynes and a healthy Rhodes did affect the game, and leave the coach who wants “just one more” coming up two short.