FOXBORO, Mass. — On the Minnesota Vikings’ first third down Sunday evening, Kirk Cousins gazed across the line of scrimmage and saw chaos.
His opponent, the New England Patriots, had trotted out a defensive look it hadn’t shown in any of its first 11 games.
Defensive end Trey Flowers was the only down lineman. He was lined up over the center. Behind him, seven players — linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and John Simon and safeties Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung and Obi Melifonwu — formed an ever-moving blob, bouncing from left to right, toward the line and away from it as Cousins and Minnesota’s offensive linemen went through their pre-snap checklists.
The intention of this “amoeba” defense was to confuse and fluster the Vikings’ offense, which boasts arguably the NFL’s best receiving duo in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and a smart, savvy signal-caller in Cousins. It had its desired effect.
The Patriots employed this look 10 times during Sunday’s 24-10 victory at Gillette Stadium, trotting out primarily on third-and-5 or more. The Vikings moved the chains on just two of those plays as part of a 3-for-12 showing in third-down situations.
“You could tell (Cousins) was having a tough time reading what we were doing,” Van Noy said after the game. “We executed really well as a defense.”
The unsettled nature of New England’s amoeba D allowed de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores to dial up some creative blitz schemes. Flowers, Van Noy, Simon and Hightower were the Patriots’ primary pass rushers out of that look, but Melifonwu, Chung, Harmon and cornerback Jason McCourty all took their turns rushing Cousins, as well.
On fourth-and-11 late in the game, Flores brought the house, sending defensive tackle Adam Butler (who lined up in the Flowers spot), all three linebackers and three safeties after the Vikings QB. Cousins fired a quick slant to wideout Laquon Treadwell, who immediately was smothered by cornerback Stephon Gilmore well short of the first down.
“I thought our defensive players, starting with the defensive coaches … those guys did a real good job this week of disguising our packages on defense and with various personnel groups,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
“The safeties are always a big key to that, because traditionally they play deep (and) they were up. Sometimes they stayed up, sometimes they went back. And the linebackers, we moved around some up front. The defensive line and linebackers did a nice job of coordinating that, organizing it, and then we got some good pressure, especially early in the game and then late in the game. It was just a real good team defensive effort.”
The Patriots also utilized a two-down-lineman look at times that produced a Butler sack and a bone-crushing QB hit by Van Noy. And even when they used a more conventional front, they disguised the coverage behind it, with Harmon and Devin McCourty aligning near the line of scrimmage before sprinting back to cover deep.
Harmon used this tactic on a first down during the fourth quarter, and he came away with an interception 40 yards downfield off a J.C. Jackson pass breakup.
“(We were) just trying to give him different looks,” Harmon said. “He’s a good quarterback. If you just sit there in the same coverage and just sit back and let him know what you’re in, he’s going to kill you. He can make all the throws. He’s shown that all year. But if you just make it a little difficult on him, show from some place that you don’t usually blitz off of, then get to the middle of the field — just keep switching it up — it makes him a little cautious of where he can throw the football.”
Sunday’s defensive effort was arguably the Patriots’ best of the season. Gilmore and Jason McCourty held Diggs and Thielen to 77 total yards on 10 catches, and Cousins finished with season lows in yards per attempt and passer rating and tossed two fourth-quarter interceptions.
“I think it was more bluffing Cover-0 (man coverage with no safety help) and bringing Cover-0 and rotating between those,” Cousins said. “I think that they did that consistently throughout the game.”
New England’s defense has struggled at times this season, but it’s allowed just one touchdown or fewer in four of its 12 games, including each of the last two.
“It’s going to be tough for anyone to come to Foxboro and win when the defense is playing as well as they played (Sunday),” quarterback Tom Brady said Monday on WEEI’s “Mut & Callahan.” “They really locked in. I could see it all week. They had a lot of different confusing looks for the offense and they played their butts off. It was just a great performance by them. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images