Despite history, Patriots have vulnerability

The Patriots don’t lose back-to-back games often, but between injury and a lack of depth at some positions, there is an opportunity for the Vikings.

The Vikings face one of their most daunting challenges of the 2014 season in their home opener against the New England Patriots. The Pats are coming off a season-opening loss and have developed a longstanding history of not losing consecutive games often, which puts the Vikings into a difficult situation. The Pats have won 18 of the last 19 games they played following a loss under head coach Bill Belichick.

The Patriots have won 10 or more games in 11 straight seasons, including an incredible 51-13 record in the past four seasons. Beating them won’t be easy, but the Patriots do have some weaknesses that can be exploited.

Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, as evidenced by his win-loss record over the course of his career. When afforded time, he can pick apart defenses. If the Vikings can’t stop him, they will be a facing a long uphill battle on Sunday because Brady is the embodiment of the Belichick system and has consistently been one of the highest rated quarterbacks in the league.

What makes Brady’s success so impressive is that he has done it for the majority of his career without Pro Bowl running backs or wide receivers. The running backs are a committee group that has proved to be effective in their own roles. Stevan Ridley is the team’s primary runner, but the biggest weapon is Shane Vereen. An adept receiver and runner, he is the one the Vikings will likely have to concern themselves with most. But in the Patriots system, running backs come in and out of the game and they often roll with the hot hand. The backups include bruising Brandon Bolden, speedy rookie James White, and James Develin, who serves as a de facto fullback in the offense. They will mix and match all of them during the game, but Ridley and Vereen are the primary players in the backfield.

The same is true at wide receiver. The days of Randy Moss and Wes Welker are long since gone and the replacements are a collection of role players. Julian Edelman took over the Welker role in the offense, catching 105 passes last year and picking up where he left off with a team-leading six catches for 95 yards in Week 1. Also in the mix are frail former Ram Danny Amendola, a speedster with a long injury history, second-year players Kembrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, and former Panther Brandon LaFell, who was the Panthers’ leader in receptions the last two seasons. They mix and match them all and run them on and off the field with regularity, but Edelman is typically the primary target.

Their biggest receiving weapon is Rob Gronkowski, who is returning from a torn ACL. He was on the equivalent of a pitch count in Week 1 and was on the field sparingly in the second half. With the Patriots desperate to avoid a 0-2 start, Gronk may be on the field much more. The team also had Michael Hoomanawanui and Tim Wright. Both are primarily blocking tight ends, so Gronkowski will likely be the key player in the offense.

The biggest offensive question mark is along the offensive line. The Pats surprised a lot of people when they traded Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and have had problems along the line, especially on the interior. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are established bookends, but got burned for three of the four sacks allowed by the Patriots last Sunday. Right guard Dan Connolly is a solid veteran in his ninth season and Mankins has been replaced by fourth-year backup Marcus Cannon. Ryan Wendell is a decent center, but is playing hurt – he’s listed as questionable on the team’s injury report and may be replaced by backup Bryan Stork if he can’t go. With the Vikings adept at disguising blitz pressure, having questions on the offensive line isn’t an ideal scenario for the Patriots.

The defense is anchored by nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who, at age 32, remains one of the most dominant run stuffers in the NFL. He is flanked by DT Joe Vellano, who, along with backup Chris Jones, saw significant playing time last year after Wilfork went down. On the outside, the Patriots have a pair of strong defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Jones led the team with 11½ sacks and 30 quarterback hits last season and Ninkovich has good quickness and a motor that runs hot. Depth is relatively thin, but New England develops role players as well as any team in the league, so when they get the call, they’re usually ready.

Linebacker has historically been a strength of the team and this year is no different. They have three quality starters in Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Mayo is a dominant player whose loss last season severely impacted the Patriots defense. Hightower is a physical player who led the team in tackles last year, and Collins, obtained as part of the trade that gave the Vikings Cordarrelle Patterson, is a pass rushing linebacker who is expected to be a difference-maker in the defense. However, he missed the last two days of practice and his availability is unknown, which could open up playing time for Darius Fleming. Considering the Patriots only have five linebackers on the roster, they don’t have a lot of room for injury.

As a counterpart to the lack of linebackers, the Patriots have 12 defensive backs on the roster. When former Seahawk Brandon Browner returns from his four-game suspension, he will likely start opposite future Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis, who is a true shutdown corner. Until then, the Patriots have former starters Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington to fill in the slack. At safety, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are both solid starters and heavy hitters that patrol the deep middle of the field.

The Patriots haven’t started a season 0-2 since 2001 (they won the Super Bowl that year), so there are reasons why the Vikings are viewed as an underdog. When at full strength, New England is capable of dominating on both sides of the ball. As the Vikings prepare for their home opener, they do so against a team that is facing a situation it hasn’t been in for a long time and will likely do whatever is needed to avoid a 0-2 start.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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