It’s really incredible how much an NFL team can change on a weekly basis. Seven days after being slugged in the Miami heat, the Patriots took care of business in Minneapolis, beating the Vikings 30-7. Sure, this performance wasn’t quite the 36-point turnaround that it seems like statistically, but that isn’t stopping Patriots nation from letting out a collective sigh of relief. There was some good, some bad, and some in between, but luckily for New Englanders, it was more than enough to subdue an undermanned, emotionally damaged Viking squad.
The thing that stood out the most to me was the stellar play of third year defensive end Chandler Jones. Evaluating a DE often comes down to how much pressure he can produce on the opposing quarterback. Jones did that and much more on Sunday. He finished with 8 tackles, 2.0 sacks, and a blocked field goal which he returned 58 yards for a touchdown (I searched for 20 minutes trying to find how many QB knockdowns and hurries he forced, but apparently no one keeps track of those, so we’ll just say several). The TD showcased Jones’ elite athleticism for someone who goes 6’5” and 260 pounds.
The secondary also shined, forcing four Matt Cassel interceptions, something that has become a trademark of modern Belichickian defenses. The four picks were spread out over the course of the game, with Devin McCourty, Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan, and Dominique Easley all snagging Cassel throws. To illustrate New England’s defensive prowess on Sunday, I think it’s best to give some statistical game notes. Revis allowed as many catches as he had INTs. Minnesota totaled 217 yards of total offense while New England had 184 yards on punt, blocked kick, and interception returns alone. Matt Cassel had a total QBR of 17.2 (on a scale of 100 with 50 being average). Finally, after an opening drive touchdown, the Patriots held the Vikings scoreless for the remaining 55:54.
It was great to see the offense get situated, even with Minnesota’s cupcake defensive unit. Tom Brady looked like the quarterback we’re used to seeing, especially in the first half. A week after launching 56 passes in Miami, Brady only needed 22 to pick apart the Viking secondary. He seemed to target second year cornerback Xavier Rhodes more than anyone else, and burned him a couple of times. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels abandoned the pass in the second half, giving Stevan Ridley 25 total carries, which he turned into 101 yards and a touchdown. McDaniels was actually a little creative, running a fly sweep to Julian Edelman on 3rd down and even calling for a read option at one point. More than anything, though, it was reassuring to see the offense get back to their businesslike mentality, effectively mixing rushes and passes while working efficiently.
Like any game, however, there is certainly room for improvement in next week’s home opener against Oakland. The Patriots’ 15 accepted penalties on Sunday were the most for the team since Bill Belichick took over in 2000. Over the first two weeks of the season, New England has racked up a whopping 263 penalty yards. Most of the calls, just like last week, were correct, so there should be no one complaining about the refereeing. The optimist will point to the Patriots being the 4th most disciplined team in the NFL last season, with the pessimist’s response likely highlighting the two games lost on bogus penalties (@ New York and @ Carolina). Either way, Belichick, McDaniels, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia must find a way to not lose another 100 yards against a traditionally feisty Raiders bunch next week.
Moving to the offensive line, left tackle Nate Solder struggled again, while no other lineman really showed a huge improvement. The unit as a whole played better, and it seems they’ve recovered from losing both coach Dante Scarnecchia and captain Logan Mankins. At the same time, though, it seemed that the interior of the line was getting pushed around in the run game. Ridley ran for 100 yards, but only averaged four yards per carry, which is slightly below average. The pass protection was solid, but Minnesota rarely blitzed. Going back to Solder, his mistakes were put in bold when he committed three separate penalties over the course of just two plays. Solder is young, but he is the franchise LT for a Super Bowl contender, so it would be wise of him to fix his mistakes soon. The good news here is that next week brings another soft defense in the form of Oakland before facing a talented but injured Chiefs front. Then comes the real test, a home, primetime tilt against Geno Atkins and the Bengals.
The last nitpick I’ll make about a 23-point win was the sort of casual way in which the coaching staff handled the second half. As I said before, Brady wasn’t asked to do much after 30 minutes as McDaniels leaned heavily on Ridley and Shane Vereen. The offensive playcalling went very conservative, trying to kill time instead of putting up more points. That kind of stuff will work against Minnesota, but may need to be adjusted against more resilient competition. I think we all remember the Denver game last November where the Broncos sat on a 24-point halftime lead and wound up losing in overtime. Fortunately for the Pats, the defense continued to play excellently for 60 minutes, which is the kind of effort Belichick admires.
So there you have it. A week of football marked by controversy and lawsuits ended nicely with a bunch of entertaining games, the best being our Patriots’ 23-point triumph over the Purple People Beaters…….. too soon? Whoops.