The Patriots, starting a reshuffled offensive line in front of a struggling quarterback on the road in a short week, threw quickly — very quickly — in the Vikings' 33-26 win last week.
Only six quarterbacks league-wide got the ball out faster last week than the Patriots' Mac Jones, who gave Vikings defenders an average of 2.47 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. One of the only speedier passers was the Jets' Mike White — the Vikings' next foe at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
The Vikings defense wasn't exactly lights out against Jones, who threw for a career-high 382 passing yards. But Minnesota got key stops and shut out New England in the fourth quarter. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell turned up the heat with extra rushers, which he rarely does, to get stops on three of the Patriots' last five drives in the game.
The last two blitzes forced Patriots punts in the fourth quarter.
"Ed had some real timely pressures that he called," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "He activated some kind of mugged-up looks, sent some pressure. Both times, I think, were successful either getting him off the spot or potentially getting the sack."
Overall, the Vikings blitzed Jones just six times on 39 passing plays — a 15.4% rate that's on track with a season average that is the eighth lowest league-wide. It's a philosophical approach from Donatell, who wants a strong four-man pass rush and often deeper zone coverages to keep a lid on throws. But the Vikings' pressure rate of 19.6%, according to Pro Football Reference, is ninth lowest league-wide. The last two opposing QBs, Jones and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott, produced without much disruption.
That is until Jones was blitzed thrice at the end and threw two hurried incompletions and took a sack. So should the Vikings just blitz more?
Many factors need to be considered. Donatell didn't blitz Jones until he knew the Patriots quarterback had to hold onto the ball. He clearly wanted as many bodies in coverage as possible against a quick-throwing attack. The first extra Vikings rusher didn't come until a hurry-up drive — a push-the-ball-downfield situation — before halftime. And three successful blitzes at the end were all on longer third downs.
The Vikings' seldom-blitzing ways can also increase effectiveness of their extra rushers, said linebacker Jordan Hicks, the team's primary blitzing defender.
"The majority of our pressure looks, a lot of times we're dropping out," Hicks said. "Week after week, we've kind of showed that and I think they weren't expecting it. When the time came for Ed to dial it up, he did a great job and called it at the right time. Keeping them honest, keeping them on their toes."
Below is a Vikings blitz on a third-down incompletion in the fourth quarter. Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson is focused on helping in the middle, where Hicks and linebacker Eric Kendricks hover over center. Safety Harrison Smith hides the blitz off left tackle. Stevenson actually does a nice job recovering to stop Smith, but Jones is flushed from the pocket. Safety Cam Bynum, who had some issues in this game, made a nice deflection on a throw to Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers.
Whether blitzing or not, the Vikings defense needs to find a way to stop the aerial attacks.
White, the Jets' starting quarterback who replaced a struggling Zach Wilson, was barely pressured by a bad Bears defense that gave up 315 passing yards and three touchdowns in New York's 31-10 win last week.
White — with dangerous targets like receivers Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore — can do the same to a Vikings pass defense that is struggling. Bynum appeared to be lurking over replacement corner Duke Shelley's side a bit too much when Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor caught a quick 34-yard touchdown over the middle. Bynum and Smith missed tackles on Patriots tight end Hunter Henry on a 37-yard catch and run for a score.
"Good enough to win, but never good enough to our standard," Bynum said. "We gave up a lot of passing yards, a lot small detail things where we'd get out of our assignment and they would exploit that."
All a few days after Prescott barely saw a ball hit the ground against the Vikings, completing 22 of 25 throws for 276 yards and two scores.
Perhaps Donatell could turn up the heat earlier in games on third downs, but the answers for the Vikings defense aren't in a total philosophical change that isn't feasible at this point. The Vikings don't blitz very often — and it doesn't always go as well as it did last week. It's also the first year with a new coaching staff, therefore they don't have layers of complex blitzes like they did under Mike Zimmer.
What they could use is a more consistent four-man pass rush, which also generated some late-game pressures on Jones through stunts with Za'Darius Smith, as well as some games without major coverage busts. The expected return of defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson, who was the team's best interior pass rusher before going down Oct. 30 with a right calf injury, will help.
Without Tomlinson, the Vikings have generated little interior push without bringing the edge rushers into the middle. Hicks, the 30-year-old veteran of the Cardinals and Eagles, has played for a range of defensive styles and knows the importance of the Vikings' four-man rush.
"I've been on both," Hicks said. "We were very successful in Philly because we had a dominant [four-man] pass rush and I think the mentality is similar here. We got a pass rush that can get back there and be very disruptive, and when you have that you don't have to bring five or six guys. We got a lot of faith in those guys."