Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a second straight road game, against the Minnesota Vikings (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: Tedy, the Patriots' season-opening loss to the Dolphins was a surprise to many, and you covered some of the issues for the team earlier in the week. So let's get right into this one and focus on the quarterbacks -- Tom Brady vs. Matt Cassel. They are former teammates (2005-08), close friends who still golf together, and they talk every few weeks. Now they face off for the first time as professionals. What are your memories of playing with Cassel?
Tedy: When Tom went down and Cassel came in 2008, I remember having many thoughts. You're a teammate and you have to have confidence in the guy. He's also a friend of yours. But deep down inside, you're thinking to yourself, "Oh man, we're going to be fighting and scrapping for every win. If we can get 10 it would be a great accomplishment." Then what happened is that week to week, he just kept getting better. The coaches realized it too, because they started off very elementary, with nice, easy concepts. But soon enough, I remember there was a time when the coaches addressed the team and said, "We're taking the handcuffs off and letting it rip." With that, Cassel showed he could handle the load. He helped drive that team, and I would have loved to have seen what he could do in the playoffs, maybe breaking some hearts of teams, but we lost out on some tie-breakers.
Mike: Cassel said this week that even he had some doubts that year. His direct quote was, "I think everybody was skeptical, probably even to a point myself, because I hadn't started a game since high school."
Tedy: I remember we played the Jets in the Meadowlands in Cassel's first start, and after we beat them [19-10], Shaun Ellis took his helmet and slammed it into the ground. You could see the look on his face. It was like, "I can't believe we just lost to these guys without Brady." I think teams thought they would just roll over us, but maybe they didn't understand how good the overall team was. When a team is tested like that, taking away the starting quarterback, it proved how good we were [finishing 11-5]. And truthfully, that was after Spygate too. We had a little bit of a stick-it-in-your-face attitude still in our hearts. It was like, "We may not have Tom Brady, but we're still kicking your butt!" That was one of the teams that was a pleasure to be on, and Cassel stepping in at quarterback was a big part of it.
Mike: As for the team Cassel is on now, the Vikings, they are coming off a solid road win over the Rams. Priority No. 1 for the Patriots is to play better run defense. They gave up 191 yards last week because they didn't fit well in the running game. I'm expecting some scheme and personnel alterations to fix that.
Tedy: Some runners are one-dimensional in the sense that they excel at outside runs. Or maybe they're more inside runs. But Adrian Peterson does it all. He can hit the hole hard, juke in a telephone booth, break tackles, stiff-arm and outrun you. The Vikings have downhill tosses, outside tosses, fake-toss counters, counters from the shotgun, one-back sweeps, shotgun offset-back counters and traditional two-back runs. There's a lot to defend, and Peterson can get to the edge and he'll cut it back and hit the hole hard. He has great vision. Basically, he's the best in the business and he can do it all.
Mike: The Rams did a pretty good job on him last week [21 carries, 75 yards], but Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia pointed out that Minnesota had six rushes of 10 yards or more, which led the NFL in the opening week. Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was part of that too.
Tedy: On Patterson's 67-yard touchdown run last week, he initially lined up at wide receiver, then motioned into the backfield and they tossed it to him. The Vikings have a book full of ways to get Patterson the ball, and he breaks tackles and has breakaway speed. You also have to worry about him on kickoff returns. Stephen Gostkowski's powerful leg will need to blast kickoffs through the end zone or that ball is coming out. Patterson took the ball out from 9 yards and 7 yards deep in the end zone last week. He is the Percy Harvin of the Vikings now. The same way the Patriots used Julian Edelman on jet sweeps, and how the Seahawks did it with Harvin, the Vikings do the same thing with Patterson.
Mike: So it starts with the running game for the Vikings, which plays to the strength of their offensive line -- left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt. Of the group, Johnson might be the weak link. I saw him give up one big hit last week, so let's keep an eye on the team's 3-technique players, such as Dominique Easley, to possibly have a matchup edge.
Tedy: When the Vikings get the running game going, it sets up a lot of nice things for them in the passing game. They'll run screen passes to Peterson off of decoys to Patterson. And of course, play-action off a run fake to Peterson is very effective. They also get Cassel on the move and he can deliver an accurate throw on the run. But one weakness that shows up with Cassel is that he throws hard and sometimes his receivers can't handle his fastballs. The Patriots' defense is going to want to make him throw the ball outside the hashes. He's more effective between the numbers.
Mike: It looks like he also adjusts his arm slot at times, dropping it down, which could lead to tipped passes at the line of scrimmage. Let's see if Patriots defensive linemen can get those arms up and bat down a few. We touched on Patterson and Peterson as the main weapons, and then there's crafty veteran receiver Greg Jennings as the No. 2 receiver. Who else do the Patriots have to be concerned with?
Tedy: Their top tight end, Kyle Rudolph, is more of a traditional-type tight end. He can be dangerous off play-action. Rudolph caught a 7-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the season opener, and it started with the Vikings in an empty formation, before Peterson motioned into the backfield from the right side. At the snap, the offensive line slid to the left and there was play-action to Peterson on a sweep to that side. Rudolph, who had lined up as part of the YY wing on the right side of the line, ran an up-and-out route to the corner of the end zone for a rather easy touchdown. Those are the types of plays you have to be ready for with him.
Mike: So we know they'll use two tight ends quite a bit, with Rudolph [second-round pick, 2011] and Rhett Ellison [fourth-round pick, 2012]. Fullback Jerome Felton looks like a solid lead blocker; he's sort of like the Vikings' version of James Develin, bringing a hard-nosed approach. When they go to three receivers, it's usually Jarius Wright as the No. 3, and he dropped one pass last week. What are you seeing on defense from Minnesota?
Tedy: With head coach Mike Zimmer in his first year, this defense has a Cincinnati-type of feel. You remember that was a defense that gave the Patriots some trouble last year [13-6 New England loss on Oct. 6], and what that means is that you expect seven- and eight-man pressure looks up front. You see linebackers in those A-gaps, and sometimes they will rush and sometimes they will drop out. Defensive backs will sometimes blitz off the edge. The combinations Zimmer throws at an offense are endless. As an example, look at the initial third-down play from their season opener last week [7:37 remaining in the first quarter]. He puts two linebackers in the A-gaps, and one rushes while the other drops back into coverage. You also had two defensive backs on both ends of the line of scrimmage, with one rushing and the other dropping out. It turned into a five-man pressure with zone coverage behind it, and safety Harrison Smith ends up with a free shot on the quarterback to force a quick throw short of the first down.
Mike: That puts pressure on the offensive line to correctly identify who is coming and who isn't, which we saw was an issue on one play last week [12:52 remaining, second quarter]. If the Patriots don't play better up front, it will probably be a similar result as last week.
Tedy: Going back to the Vikings' pressure looks, they'll put eight defenders right up at the line of scrimmage at times, like they did in the third quarter [11:00 remaining]. One of the linebackers in the A-gaps drops out and it ends up as a seven-man pressure. You just can't block them all, and safety Harrison Smith is free off the edge, and he sacks the quarterback. That is the quarterback's man to beat with a quick release of the football, but it didn't happen. So one thing to watch for Sunday is that if the Vikings do that, and play man behind it, the Patriots' receivers have to get open quickly.
Mike: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels described the Vikings' defense as one that isn't overly complex: "It's not a team that is going to trick you a whole lot. You just have to be able to execute and be disciplined."
Tedy: It's a base 4-3 with penetrating defensive linemen that want to get into the backfield. Sometimes you might see one of the D-linemen assigned to drop out. One time in Sunday's opener that happened -- maybe he was looking for a crossing route -- but he got caught in traffic and got out late. On Harrison's Smith pick-six, you saw more of those pressure looks and how it puts stress on an opposing offensive line. Linebacker Chad Greenway dropped out to create a five-man pressure, and linebacker Anthony Barr ran a pick stunt with one of the defensive linemen and delivered a big hit on the quarterback. Barr's pressure created that play. Josh McDaniels is correct in terms of the looks that they show, but the combinations off of the same looks are what they have to worry about.
Mike: Barr is the Vikings' first-round draft pick [No. 9 overall] and he's playing a lot. Zimmer said it's rare to have a linebacker at his size [6-foot-5, 255 pounds], and he looks like an intriguing prospect.
Tedy: Yes, I think he's best going straight ahead. They have him playing on the strong side in their base defense. That puts Jasper Brinkley as the middle linebacker and Chad Greenway on the weak side. Up front, defensive end Everson Griffen is a great player that fans haven't necessarily heard of. He played behind Jared Allen the last four years, but now he's a starter and he's a good pass-rusher. This defense may not be known by many, but one thing that stands out watching them is how hard they play. Safety Harrison Smith rushes the quarterback, supports the run and makes plays in coverage. Up front, you have Brian Robison, Shariff Floyd, Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, but they'll rotate a bunch of guys in there throughout the game. They may not be the most well-known players and don't have shoe and sandwich commercials, but they get the job done.
Mike: I think the Patriots might be able to exploit their linebackers in pass coverage, so a running back like Shane Vereen could be big in this game. But more than anything, as you've pointed out, it all starts up front and how that offensive line identifies those pressure looks. Getting more of a running game going is imperative to ease some of the pressure in pass protection.
Tedy: The Vikings want to stop the run, get you in third-and-long, and then they will drop to the sticks and make you throw it short of the sticks and break to the ball to make the tackle. They tackled well in the season opener.
Mike: The last thing to point out is how this game will be played at University of Minnesota, as the Vikings' new stadium is currently under construction. Bring back any memories for you of that 2002 game against the Bears in Champaign, Illinois?
Tedy: It was a different feel being in a college stadium. With it being outdoors, I don't anticipate the crowd noise being as big of a factor as if it was in the dome.
Mike: I think the Patriots players and coaches bounce back this week in a hard-fought victory. I added the coaches in there because the season-opening plan seemed flawed defensively, not putting the players in the best position to succeed (e.g. Chandler Jones as a 3-4 defensive end), and it was hard to tell if there was any noticeable in-game adjustment. This is a solid coaching staff and this is a solid team. They should show better against the Vikings. Specifically, I think it will help that Cameron Wake isn't on the opposite sideline. The Vikings have a good defense, but no pass-rusher with that get-off and explosion as Wake, who helped turn that game around last Sunday. Patriots 27, Vikings 20.
Tedy: I will be paying close attention to the starting offensive line and if they try to rotate the same way they did in Miami. Big test for the new offensive line coach. I also would like to see them get back to a four-man front and be consistent with it. Pats bounce back 28-24.