The New England Patriots’ offense has struggled in two particular areas in recent weeks: third down and red zone. Improving in either category this week won’t be easy against a Minnesota Vikings defense that leads the NFL in both.
The Vikings, led up front by the likes of Sheldon Richardson, Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph and in the secondary by All-Pros Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, have allowed opponents to convert on just 27.6 percent of third downs this season and find the end zone on just 43.2 percent of their red-zone opportunities.
Both of those marks are tops in the league, the former by a wide margin — no other NFL team has held opponents below 34 percent on third down through 12 weeks.
“This is the best third-down team in all of football, easily,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “So there’s a lot for us to wrap our minds around, and we’ve really got to have a great week of preparation. This is as big of a challenge as we’re going to have all year so far, and we’re excited to start our preparation.”
McDaniels’ Patriots offense has been average this season on third down (39.9 percent; 14th in the league) and in the red area (63.2 percent; 13th), but their numbers of late paint a bleaker picture.
Over its last three games, New England has converted just 12 of 38 third downs. That’s 31.6 percent, good for 26th in the league. Over that same span, the Pats have scored five touchdowns in nine red-zone trips — a 55.6 percent clip that ranks 24th.
In Sunday’s 27-13 win over the New York Jets, the Patriots went 5-for-12 on third down and 1-for-3 in the red zone, settling for two field goals after driving to the Jets’ 16- and 14-yard lines.
The Vikings, meanwhile, have rebounded defensively after allowing 27-plus points in three consecutive games early in the season. The NFL’s second-best unit behind the Jacksonville Jaguars’ last season, Minnesota currently ranks near the top of the league in most prominent defensive categories, including third in total defense, fifth in passing yards allowed, tied for fourth in rushing yards allowed and fifth in DVOA.
“Coach (Mike) Zimmer does a tremendous job,” McDaniels said. “He always has. We’ve competed against him a number of times in different places, and his defenses have always been this way. I mean, they rank highly in every statistical category — deservedly so.
“They have really good players at all three levels of the defense, they’re really well-coached, they’re extremely sound and they really challenge you on third down and in the red zone, some schematically and some just based on their personnel, their rush, the way they cover and how they mix up their calls.”
Minnesota, which will visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday for the first time since 2010, remains in the playoff hunt in the NFC after knocking off the Green Bay Packers 24-17 on “Sunday Night Football.” Green Bay managed a season-low 254 yards of total offense in that game and converted just 2 of 10 third downs.
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