Deep inside Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, Stefon Diggs retreated from the crowd. After declining to be interviewed, with a few choice words, emotions finally simmered below the surface. Diggs sat alone on the floor in the entrance of the visitor’s locker room following the Vikings’ 24-10 loss in New England.
It was the empty calm following a low the Vikings hadn’t experienced in 27 games. The Patriots defense had just held Diggs and receiver Adam Thielen to the duo’s worst production (a combined 10 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown) in a losing effort since last year’s Week 2 trip to Pittsburgh, where quarterback Case Keenum made a rusty first start for the Vikings.
Tempers flared in every direction: at opposing coaches, players, officials and teammates. Diggs, with a brace on his left knee, was shadowed by Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore nearly everywhere he went. Thielen was doubled on key plays by the McCourty twins.
That game plan, combined with creative pre-snap disguises and defensive fronts, helped attack the Vikings’ strength that is one of the NFL’s best receiving duos. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had chances, but either he or the receiver (Thielen had two drops) missed them. The offense was unable to effectively adjust.
“They were giving us a lot of really unorthodox looks defensively,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday.
Let’s take a look at why the Vikings’ heavily-used passing game fell flat in New England.
1. Pressure report: The Patriots’ blitzes were the story of the game out of Boston media. But really, Cousins wasn’t awful against extra rushers. Against 10 blitzes, Cousins completed 6 of 9 passes for 62 yards and four first downs. One incompletion was a Thielen drop. He did take one critical sack on this third-and-5 to open the fourth quarter. But the O-line gave him little time on this play below.
The Vikings offensive line’s issues against twists (or ‘stunts’) by opposing defensive fronts has been on display throughout this season. The Patriots undoubtedly saw this and turned it up a notch.
This ‘blitz’ by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower is really just to occupy Vikings left guard Tom Compton, who was again the line’s biggest liability on Sunday alongside center Pat Elflein. It allows Patriots sack leader Trey Flowers (#98) to rush on a wide twist that both guard Mike Remmers and Elflein fail to adjust. The result is a free runner at Cousins, and the sack.
The Vikings offensive line protected Cousins better than their season average, but three holding calls (two on Compton, one on left tackle Riley Reiff) put them in situations they could not overcome.
2. Pre-snap disguises. decision making hurt Kirk Cousins, which led to some of the missed opportunities for Thielen and Diggs. Right after the miscommunication with Diggs, when Cousins threw the corner route and Diggs stopped on a curl on 2nd-and-17, the Patriots showed a 2-deep safety look and blitzed on the ensuing 3rd-and-long. Cousins saw an open checkdown to Latavius Murray, but safety Devin McCourty had crept upward and got the easy tackle for a 2-yard gain — leaving Thielen an opening downfield without a deep safety covering him.
This also happened on 2nd-and-9 near the red zone, when Cousins took his first sack after nearly four seconds in the pocket. Watch below as the Patriots put both safeties in the box, then drop one deep. Cousins appears to target Aldrick Robinson on the outside go route, but the defense is Cover-3 (deep), not Cover-1 or Cover-0 as it’d appeared before the snap. Diggs is left waving his arms on the out route along the left sideline.
In the fourth quarter, Cousins left Thielen and Diggs with openings downfield to take a 4-yard checkdown to Cook.
On a first-and-10 in the second half, Cousins had Diggs in a one-on-one matchup open downfield, but he threw toward Robinson on the opposite side of the field. He lamented that decision after the game.
“There was one time we took a shot over the free safety’s head, but I didn’t put it on the right side of the field where Diggs was,” Cousins said.
3. Anatomy of a play: How the Patriots targeted center Pat Elflein, whose second NFL season has been a struggle. He was in the crosshairs of the Patriots’ rush plans on plays like the 3rd-and-6 below.
You’ll see the ‘psycho’ alignment the Patriots used in various forms to create confusion and pressure. Seven defenders, including just one down lineman: Flowers (#98) whom you can’t see but is lined up over Elflein, crowd the line of scrimmage. These defenders are clustered and seemingly out of order compared to the strict alignments of the Vikings’ defensive front.
Now look at the assignments below. All that Patriots’ window dressing is used to set up a typical 4-man rush. But much like the Vikings’ own double A-gap schemes, it’s dressed up to cause confusion and better matchups for the attacking defenders. A thinking player can be a slow one.
This frame below also exemplifies the Patriots’ game plan for Thielen and Diggs. Gilmore (#24) is in aggressive man-to-man coverage on Diggs. The McCourty twins, Devin (#32) and Jason (#30), crowd Thielen like they did much of the game. This time, Jason blitzes from the corner and Devin is man-to-man on Thielen. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53) drops into a zone under Thielen.
The pre-snap motion is the really ‘unorthodox’ part of this Patriots approach; eleven seconds of pinball action. “They do a lot of moving around,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “You can’t really get focused in on what they’re doing in moving guys around.”
Once they settle, you’ll see Patriots linebackers Hightower (#54) and Simon (#55) attack Vikings guards Compton and Remmers. This widens the interior lane for Flowers (#98) to breeze past Elflein and force immediate pressure on Cousins.
4. Tom Brady averaged 2.22 seconds in the pocket, the fastest among any quarterback in Week 13, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a big reason why the Vikings defense failed to sack the quarterback for the second time in the past five games. Defensive end Danielle Hunter came the closest, and likely saved a deep touchdown pass on the first drive when Brady checked down to Rex Burkhead for a 15-yard completion. Brady had James White open deep on a wheel route against linebacker Anthony Barr.
On the next play, receiver Julian Edelman sped past Barr for a 15-yard run on a jet sweep to set up the Patriots’ 1-yard touchdown run.
5. The Vikings’ cornerback injuries were too much to overcome, but safety Anthony Harris appeared to be the culprit on Josh Gordon’s 24-yard touchdown catch to put the score at 17-10 entering the fourth quarter. Brady rattled off four straight completions on the 75-yard scoring drive. It started with cornerback Marcus Sherels’ missed tackle on Gordon during a 24-yard completion. It ended with Harris hesitating in 2-deep coverage between Chris Hogan and Gordon, leaving Gordon open between Harris and safety Harrison Smith for the score.