The New England Patroits don't have a defense lined with veterans, but the young players are becoming increasingly more effective and opportunistic as they prepare for the Vikings.
Though some of the team's statistics don't yet show defined growth, New England's defense has made significant strides in recent weeks.
The young, developing defense has been a big factor in each of the Patriots' last two victories — over the Chargers and Ravens — as part of the team's overall four-game winning streak.
Sunday in San Diego that included four first-half takeaways that not only gave Tom Brady
& Co. extra possessions and field position, but gave the offense time to work through its own early-game struggles. Brady had just 11 net yards passing in the first half against the Chargers, but the Patriots still went to halftime leading 13-3 thanks largely to the defense.
"What offense?," Brady said of the first-half effort after the win, before going on to praise a defense that includes eight first-year New England starters, including six rookies or second-year players. "It feels good to win, see the defense play the way they did, get those turnovers."
The defense, not surprisingly, felt pretty good with the 23-20 win. The effort came after the overtime victory against the Ravens in which the defense forced Baltimore to punt five straight times to close the game, affording the New England offense the chance to kick both a game-tying and game-winning field goal.
"Overall, we came out and played well," said Vince Wilfork
, co-captain of the defense. "We played how we wanted to play. We were physical. We were aggressive. We caused turnovers, created turnovers, and kept our offense in good field position for the most part. This was another team win."
It gave New England a four-game winning streak, pushed the team into a first-place tie atop the AFC East with the idle Jets and was its second win on the road this season, a place New England struggled mightily a year ago.
And in many ways it was a very young, inexperienced defense leading the way.
"We've got a lot of young players, but they're working hard," coach Bill Belichick said.
It wasn't perfect. Philip Rivers
put up over 300 passing yards and had his team in place to attempt a game-tying field goal in the final seconds, but it was a road victory against a pretty veteran Chargers team. It was another step in the growing process.
"It shows that we are a mentally tough team. We played in a hostile environment. They have a lot of good players on their team, even though they had some down. We made the plays at the end that we needed to make to win the game," safety James Sanders
QB Tom Brady was sacked a season-high four times in San Diego, including times in the first half when he had just 35 yards passing on only six completions. Brady finished the day completing 19 of 32 attempts for 159 yards with one touchdown and no picks for an 82.7 passer rating. After getting sacked just twice in the first three games, Brady has been sacked 10 times in the last three contests.
RB Danny Woodhead continues to show is diversity in the Kevin Faulk-like role for the Patriots. At San Diego Woodhead had eight rushing attempts for 24 yards to go along with three catches for 28 yards. Having been with the team for just four of its six games, Woodhead ranks second on New England with 30 rushes for 165 yards and a touchdown. He has nine catches for 91 yards and another score.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis had just 24 yards on 11 attempts in the win at San Diego, the second-straight week he has been held to 2.0 yards a carry. But Green-Ellis did find the end zone for the fourth consecutive week and he now leads New England with 68 carries for 259 yards (3.8-yard average) and four scores on the season.
TE Aaron Hernandez bounced back from a couple tough drops late in the game a week earlier to catch Tom Brady's first throw of the game against the Chargers for a 6-yard gain. The rookie went on to lead the team with give catches for 54 yards in the victory and paces the team on the season with 355 receiving yards on 27 receptions.
WR Deion Branch had four catches for just 39 yards in the win at San Diego, giving him 13 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown in two games since returning to New England.
WR Wes Welker had four catches for just 25 yards in beating the Chargers. The All-Pro continues to lead New England with 37 catches for 295 yards and three touchdowns, although he per-catch average continues to fall to 8.0 yards a catch.
TE Rob Gronkowski had a 1-yard touchdown reception in the win at San Diego, giving him three touchdowns on just nine receptions through six games of his rookie season.
ILB Jerod Mayo again led the Patriots in tackles at San Diego, finishing with 11 tackles including 10 solo stops. Mayo leads New England with 76 tackles through six games.
LS Jake Ingram struggled with his snaps in San Diego, especially on punts. It's the second time in three games that the second-year player has had a noticeably shaky outing.
DL Mike Wright notched his team-leading third sack of the season when he brought Philip Rivers down for a 5-yard loss in the fourth quarter.
DL Brandon Deaderick notched his second sack in as many weeks when he brought down Chargers QB Philip Rivers for a 6-yard loss in the third quarter. The seventh-round rookie is now tied for second on the team with two sacks, both coming in his first two career starts over the last two weeks.
S Sergio Brown, an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame, made his NFL debut against the Chargers and finished with four tackles, including a third-down stop of Antonio Gates that forced San Diego's failed potential game-tying 50-yard field goal with 27 seconds to play.
WR/PR Julian Edelman returned from a concussion a week earlier to help New England to victory with a 34-yard punt return late in the second quarter of Sunday's win at San Diego that led to a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal just before the half.
PK Stephen Gostkowski hit all three of his attempts in San Diego (40, 35, 35) and has now hit nine straight attempts after going just one of his first four to open the season.
S Patrick Chung left the game at San Diego in the first half with a knee injury and did not return.