It is already once again that time of the week where we exchange some intel with the folks that run the SB Nation website for this week’s Minnesota Vikings opponent.
This week, we’re talking with the gang over at Pats Pulpit, SB Nation’s home for everything about the New England Patriots. I had the opportunity to exchange some questions with Taylor Kyles from PP this week, and once he has the answers I sent him to his questions I’ll have them up here. In the meantime, here are the questions that I asked of him and his responses.
1) The Patriots come into this one sporting one of the top defenses in the NFL, ranking #2 in the league in points allowed. What has made the New England defense so great this season?
Team defense has been the most significant factor in the Patriots’ dominance. Sack master Matthew Judon has (justifiably) grabbed headlines, but he’s gotten plenty of assists from teammates off of line games and isn’t the team’s only formidable rusher. Josh Uche is blossoming as a rotational pass rusher, while Deatrich Wise is having a breakout season as a player who rarely leaves the field. Each week you’ll see a play where coverage makes a mistake, but pressure prevents a potential big gain.
That said, the backend has also held up its end of the bargain. Jonathan Jones has proven to be an outstanding corner regardless of alignment after spending most of his career in the slot. Rookie Jack Jones was forced into the starting lineup due to veteran injuries and quickly established himself as a confident player with great ball-hawking skills. Jalen Mills has missed time this season, but he’s been a much more consistent and competitive player than anyone could’ve ex[ected when he was signed from Philly last season.
The straw that really stirs the drink in the Patriots’ secondary is their stable of safeties, which includes Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jabrill Peppers. Each player can line up anywhere and execute virtually any assignment on the back end and in the box. McCourty is the veteran leader who gets everyone lined up and in the right play. Dugger is a human missile that brings rare athleticism and devastating physicality. Phillips plays much bigger than his size and provides excellent toughness and intelligence. Peppers’ role has increased recently as a Swiss army knife with explosive hitting ability.
Though they haven’t faced a lot of top competition this season, the defense is shutting down inferior offenses (besides a Monday Night nightmare vs the Bears) and playing competitively against better units.
2) Earlier this year, the Patriots had a bit of a quarterback controversy with second-year pro Mac Jones and rookie Bailey Zappe. Has that controversy been settled and how has it affected the offense?
Mac Jones is a leader on the team and by far the more talented player, so his role was never truly in question.
The only edge Zappe held over Jones was turnover avoidance. But now that the Patriots have gotten back to their roots and moved away from the aggressive downfield philosophy used before Jones’ injury, he’s done a much better job protecting the rock.
3) The Patriots won their game on Sunday thanks to what was, essentially, a walk-off punt return. Have the special teams for the Patriots been a strength this season or was that completely unexpected?
Though the Patriots’ special team units haven’t been perfect, they’ve provided a number of momentum-changing plays and kept the Patriots in a lot of games. The team’s rookie class in particular has been surprisingly impactful.
Marcus Jones, who sealed the game vs New York with his game-winning return, earned praise from Belichick for his growth and execution after a slow start. He’s provided juice on punt returns that the team hasn’t had on a consistent basis since Julian Edelman. Undrafted rookies Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell have also made great impressions, with Schooler using his speed to shut down returns and even recover fumbles.
Though he struggled last week due to inclement weather, Nick Folk has been one of the team’s MVPs this season. His consistency inside of 50 yards has been incredible and New England likely has another loss or two if not for his efforts.
4) Give us one “under the radar” player on each side of the ball for the Patriots that you think will play a significant role in this week’s game
Offense: RG Mike Onwenu. This may not be the sexy pick, but Onwenu has been the Patriots’ best blocker by a country mile. He’s a people-mover in the run game and a brick wall in pass protection, where he gets the majority of 1-on-1 matchups. For the Patriots to stand a chance against Minnesota’s front, he’ll need to be on his A-game.
Defense: Deatrich Wise. As I mentioned earlier, Wise is having a breakout season. He’s always been a productive pass rusher, but he’s become an every-down player after being part of a rotation since being drafted in 2017. He’ll make life tough on the Vikings’ tackles, and a strong day against the run should help the defense contain Dalvin Cook.
5) Our friends at the DraftKings Sportsbook currently have the over/under for this one set at 41.5 points, which is already down 1.5 points from the initial line. Given the way both offenses struggled this past week, which side of that number would you place your wager on if you were to do so?
Coming off a short week, it’s hard to confidently saw either team will put up 20+ points after what we saw last week.
Christian Darrisaw being out is a significant difference-maker which could result in another productive day for Matt Judon. New England rarely uses double teams in coverage, but I could see them being part of the game plan for a player of Justin Jefferson’s caliber. The Patriots have also been dominant against run games without a dual-threat QB, so it’s hard to imagine Dalvin Cook having an especially big day.
The Patriots moved the ball well against a very tough Jets defense, but they’ve sputtered in and around the Red Area all season, so predicting that to change on Thursday night would be a stretch.
Thanks once again to Taylor for taking the time to answer these questions for us.