The Vikings have had several difficult opponents early in the 2010 schedule. The Saints and Packers on the road were both formidable foes, but perhaps no team is as interesting in terms of preparation as the New England Patriots. Without a go-to running back or a consistent big-play receiver on offense and a defense ranked 29th in the league, it would be easy to assume the Patriots would be struggling at 1-5 or 2-4. Instead, they're tied with the Jets and Steelers for the best record in the league and already have wins over 2009 playoff teams Cincinnati, Baltimore and San Diego. They aren't the prettiest team in the world, but they find a way to get the job done week in, week out, year in, year out.
It can be argued there are as many familiar names on injured reserve as there are on the field Sunday. The MIA's include OT Nick Kaczur, RB Kevin Faulk, WR Torry Holt, DT Ty Warren, CB Leigh Bodden and safety Brandon McGowen, among the nine players already on I.R.
With all the talented players that have come and gone when their salaries got too high or they were traded, the one constant throughout has been Tom Brady. Blessed with the intelligence to find the weakness of a defense on almost every play and the pinpoint accuracy to complete passes when receivers get in the open zone, Brady is on his way to climbing the all-time passing charts to the upper echelon. Despite playing against some of the league's better defenses, Brady has been having a typical year. He has completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 1,362 yards with 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 96.0. The Vikings defense will be tested often and, if Brady is given time to set up and throw, he will pick the Vikings apart like surgeon. He doesn't have his bomb threat in Randy Moss anymore, but he won all his titles without Moss and can bring it as well as anyone in the league when given time to survey the field.
What makes Brady's passing prowess so impressive is the lack of a functional running game. The primary backs have fallen like dominoes this season. It was supposed to be Laurence Maroney, but he found himself in Bill Belichick's doghouse and was shipped off to Denver. It was then supposed to be Fred Taylor, but he went down to injuries and won't play Sunday. Sammy Morris? He's been banged up too. Kevin Faulk? He's done for the season with a gruesome knee injury that will likely end his long career. The depth chart has been pushed deeper than any team in the league (this side of Green Bay), which is why the Vikings can expect to see the combination of Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. BGE has by far been the most consistent runner, carrying 10 or more times in each of the last five games, but he has been limited to just 44 yards on 20 carries the last two games combined and Woodhead, an undersized pinball who rarely goes down on first contact, has stepped in and picked up some action. He has averaged 10 carries a game the last three weeks and has gained more yards and with a better rushing average than Green-Ellis. Because of the Vikings' aggression on defense, don't be surprised if Woodhead sees more than his share of the action.
If the Vikings can stuff the run and force Brady to pass, he will be looking to replicate his 372-yard, four-touchdown performance in 2006 when the teams last met. He doesn't have a go-to guy like Moss, but he has a stable of receivers to throw to. Wes Welker is his favorite target. Lining up in the slot, he and Brady have a great rapport and understanding of soft spots in zone defenses. He may not break long touchdowns, but he is the type of player typically good for eight catches and 80-100 yards a game. His forte is making yards after the catch. To replace Moss, the team brought back Deion Branch, who left three years ago via a trade with Seattle. He was re-acquired for a much cheaper price and is expected to provide some deep pass help. However, he is battling a hamstring injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Julian Edelman is a clone of Welker, but has yet to be used extensively – catching just four passes. Hopes are high that Brandon Tate, a second-year player, can provide some big plays down the field, but he has just 12 catches. His contribution has been primarily in the return game, where he has brought two kickoffs back for touchdowns. The players who have emerged have been rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Rated as two of the top tight ends in the 2010 draft, the Pats grabbed Gronkowski to bring a big presence as a blocker and receiver. When Hernandez was still on the board in the fourth round, they grabbed him to be a field-stretcher. The results have been excellent. Hernandez is second on the team with 27 catches and Gronkowski is tied for the team lead with three touchdowns. The Vikings have struggled against athletic tight ends and, aside from Welker, they may be the players the defense will be the most concerned about in the passing game. Alge Crumpler, a former Pro Bowler, has been reduced to a glorified blocker.
One of the problems with the Patriots offense has been a turnover on the front line. Second-year pro Sebastian Vollmer, who was impressive as a fill-in spot starter last year, has moved into the right tackle spot, replacing Nick Kaczur, and with veteran Logan Mankins gone at left guard spot, fifth-year backup Dan Connolly has stepped in. The rest of the group is a veteran unit that includes 10-year veteran Matt Light, eight-year center Dan Koppen and nine-year pro Stephen Neal at right guard. This is a unit that knows all the tricks. They're going to face a tall challenge from the Vikings' front four, where another veteran unit with savvy and experience will come into play.
The Patriots defense is as dismal as it has been in years. They are ranked 29th overall and 30th against the pass. However, they have been solid in run defense, which is the domain of nose tackle Vince Wilfork. One of the most dominating players at his position for the last several years, Wilfork is the heart of the Pats 3-4 defense. He requires double-teaming on every play and still wins most battles. He is flanked by veterans Gerard Warren and Mike Wright. Wright leads the team with three sacks and Warren is a veteran who has held off Myron Pryor for the LDE starting spot. Pryor may get called upon because Wright is battling a knee injury and is questionable for Sunday's game. While expected to play, he is less than 100 percent. Depth beyond the starters is thin, with second-year men Pryor and Ron Brace joining seventh-round rookie Brandon Deaderick and undrafted rookie Kyle Love as reserves. As long as the starters are healthy, this group should make a strong accounting of itself. If not, the Vikings should be able to exploit the running game, especially if Wilfork is worn down.
The linebacker corps seemed like it was the same for years, with guys like Willie McGinest, Tedi Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin making plays. But all of those players are gone. Vikings fans may not be as accustomed to the new crop of LBs, but they are just as talented. On the outside, Tully Banta-Cain has been the primary pass rusher and fifth-year man Rob Ninkovich has beaten out third-year vet Shawn Crable on the other side. In the middle, a youth moment has created a couple of dynamic playmakers in 2008 first-rounder Jerod Mayo and second-round rookie Brandon Spikes. Both are susceptible to play-fakes, but are athletic and always zooming to the ball. They will be critical to stopping the run game of Adrian Peterson. There is decent depth with former starter Gary Guyton and veteran Tracy White (acquired in trade this year from the Eagles) providing backup help in the insider, and Crable and second-round rookie Jermaine Cunningham on the outside.
If there is a glaring weakness in the defense, it is in the secondary. Despite hauling in eight interceptions, the Patriots have allowed opponents to complete a whopping 70 percent of their passes for 1,753 yards (400 more than Brady) with 12 touchdowns and an impressive combined passer rating of 94.1. The Patriots threw rookie Devin McCourty into the mix at right cornerback. He is joined by second-year man Kyle Arrington, who was a part-time backup as a rookie. With two young corners, a veteran like Favre can take advantage of them by giving pump fakes that young players tend to bite on. They aren't much older at safety. Injured free safety Patrick Chung is in his first year as a starter and, in his fourth season, hard-hitting Brandon Meriweather is the greybeard of the group in just his fourth season. There is solid depth, but injured veteran Jarrad Page, who has been ruled out this week due to a calf injury, is putting more pressure on six-year pro James Sanders, who started six games for the Pats last year, backing up at safety. Darius Butler, who started five games as a rookie last year, is the nickel back in three-receiver situations. Potentially, this group could be dominant for years to come, but, as it stands for the Vikings purposes, they are a young group that can be exploited.
To look at the Patriots, you see just one player who is a lock for induction in the Hall of Fame – Brady. However, few if any teams over the last decade have been able to get as much out of talent as the Patriots have gleaned. They may not have had the best NFL Combine numbers, but they buy into the system and, more importantly, they win … and win a lot.
The Vikings desperately need a win this week. Dropping to 2-5 will make the hole they've dug themselves as deep as it has been all year, and it's been pretty deep since Week 2. The Vikings will have to play mistake-free football to steal a win in New England. On paper, it looks much easier than it will live on turf. The Patriots are looking to assert their dominance as the top team in the NFL and a win over the desperate Vikings would be a big feather in that cap.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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