FOXBORO -- Kyle Van Noy knew the Patriots had Kirk Cousins out of sorts.
The Patriots came into their matchup with the Vikings armed with perhaps their most creative defensive game plan of the season, and it confounded Cousins. Van Noy could sense it.
"Yeah," Van Noy said. "You could tell he was having a tough time reading what we were doing."
What exactly did the Patriots do to confound a quarterback whose brains helped him sign a record-setting contract this offseason? They wandered about in the box, not allowing Cousins to figure out what was coming. It was an amorphous front.
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On eight passing downs -- typically third-and-five or more, but also on second and fourth-and-long plays -- the Patriots had just one down lineman. On those plays they often had two corners out wide. The other eight players? They'd stroll around between the tackles and within 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, talking to each other and refusing to declare their intentions to either rush or cover.
The players you'd expect to rush in those situations often did: Trey Flowers was typically the lone lineman on the nose; Van Noy and fellow linebackers Dont'a Hightower and John Simon were frequent rushers as well out of that look.
But the defensive backs on the field were the ones who were hard to pin down, particularly the safeties. At times, the Patriots used four safeties -- Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Obi Melifonwu -- and they all rushed at different points.
"The safeties are always a big key to that because traditionally they play deep so they were up," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "Sometimes they stayed up. Sometimes they went back. And the linebackers, you know, 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 . . . We were just trying to keep them off balance, force the communication."
As difficult as the Patriots' muddied fronts made life for Cousins, it required a significant amount of communication on their end as well. That meant defensive coaches like linebackers coach and playcaller Brian Flores, defensive line coach Brendan Daly, cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, safeties coach Steve Belichick and assistant DeMarcus Covington all earned their money this week in refining the plan.
Then it was up to Patriots players to get things communicated in the moment, after the Vikings had aligned, doling out coverage and rush assignments on the fly.
"I think the cool thing is we have a secondary where you look at guys in this system that have played a long time," Devin McCourty said. "We have different calls where Trey is down and everyone's walking around, and while we're walking around we're saying, 'Hey, you got this. You got that. I got him. You got him.' I think with J-Mac in there at star -- even when [Jonathan] Jones is in there, they're both smart guys -- it's enabling us to do more."
In the Patriots' system, the "star" is the slot corner spot. That was the significant personnel change in this game for the Patriots. When in three-corner looks, Jason McCourty bumped from the outside to the slot, and undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson came on to take on outside-the-numbers duties. For the majority of the season Jones has been the primary "star," but he played only two snaps at the end of the game Sunday (making a pick on the last play of the game for the Patriots defense).
Jackson started and played 54 of 61 possible snaps. His previous season high was 31 snaps in Chicago, when he helped fill in for injured corner Eric Rowe. As McCourty explained it, with Jackson on the outside opposite Stephon Gilmore, and with Jason McCourty in the slot, the Patriots could get a little weird with what they did in terms of mixing and matching.
"Between me, Chung, all our safeties when we get out there, and then J-Mac is turning into that, [too]," Devin McCourty said, "we'll change whatever position is supposed to cover a guy and be like, 'I'd rather you cover him, and I'll cover him.' Today, they went two backs, [Ameer] Abdullah came in and [Jason] was like, 'I'll take Abdullah,' even though it's probably supposed to be somebody else. 'I take him, you take him,' and it works out."
If the Patriots are still sorting out who's going to be doing what before the snap, how can an opposing quarterback?
On top of the eight one-man fronts the Patriots used, they used two two-man fronts on two third-and-long snaps. The look wasn't as muddled -- the Patriots secondary was more sorted out on those -- but linebackers and safeties crowded the line of scrimmage to confuse protection calls.
If you include those plays, that meant on 10 of 46 drop-backs -- including almost every gotta-have-it passing situation -- the Patriots had Cousins' wheels spinning.
"You could call it a 2-5 or a 2-7," Devin McCourty said. "You can call it anything. But that's what it is. You don't know who's coming. And the good thing is this year we've sent everybody so you have to kind of respect everyone.
"I've blitzed. We've sent Obi. Du has blitzed. Some years you could be like, 'They're rolling down, but we're going away from [No.] 32 because he's not coming.' They don't know that now so that makes it even harder."
We've highlighted a handful of the plays in which the Patriots rolled out these amorphous fronts below. Each has a story of its own that contributed to the Patriots baffling the Vikings and coming away with a 24-10 win -- arguably their most impressive defensive performance of the season.
FIRST QUARTER: THIRD AND EIGHT, MINNESOTA 27
With 10 seconds left in the play clock, on the first third-down snap of the game for the Vikings, they were still trying to get their communication in order.
Flowers was on the nose. Four safeties were in the game. The Patriots had three defenders over Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen, likely in an attempt to double Thielen. Devin McCourty and Harmon dropped late into what looked like a Cover-1 coverage. But with 10 seconds left in the play clock, Cousins had no way of knowing that's what he was looking at.
The Patriots' four-man rush didn't get to Cousins -- Stefon Diggs caught a screen for six yards, which was short of the first down -- but it was enough to plant a seed in Cousins' mind and in the minds of Vikings coaches.
“They did a good job whether it was Cover-0 or bluffing Cover-0 or having a bit of a walk-around where they’re not really giving any tells pre-snap, that certainly seemed to be an emphasis for them this week,” Cousins said. “They were going to basically keep you guessing until after the snap.”
“They did a good job of mixing up what they were doing defensively and changing to a lot of different things,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “A lot of guys standing up and coming from different areas, and so I thought they did a nice job of trying to confuse us.”
SECOND QUARTER: THIRD AND SIX, MINNESOTA 28
Once again, Flowers was the lone down lineman. He was a one-man wrecking crew on this particular snap, using a push-pull move to get center Pat Elflein off-balance. But the Patriots also brought an odd melange of rushers that the Vikings had to sort out. Jason McCourty joined Flowers, Hightower and Simon.
"It's just being able to mix up the looks and not allow them to be comfortable and know what they're looking at," Flowers said. "Any time you can have guys kind of confused before the snap, it'll allow you to be effective after the snap."
Flowers flushed Cousins out of the pocket and forced a bad throw to Dalvin Cook, who was blanketed by Harmon.
Thielen? He was doubled again out of what appeared to be a Cover-1 look post-snap. But because Jason McCourty (who was aligned on Thielen in the slot) rushed toward the backfield, it was Devin McCourty and Van Noy who doubled the wideout. Cousins looked Thielen's way, thought better of it, and had to scramble with Flowers in his face.
THIRD QUARTER: THIRD AND EIGHT, PATRIOTS 21
There was Flowers on the nose yet again. He was one of five rushers on the play along with Hightower, Van Noy, Simon and Chung.
The coverage? It looked like Cover-1 again, with the McCourtys doubling Thielen. (Remember the NFL Films clip of Belichick talking to Chad Johnson before a Patriots-Bengals game? Remember Belichick's defensive call for the game that had Johnson frustrated well before kickoff? "One, double 85?" Felt like a night when the Patriots called for a lot of "One, double 19.")
The play before went to Thielen, but Jackson -- the beneficiary of the biggest personnel change the Patriots made this week -- helped disrupt it and it fell incomplete. Jackson admitted he should've turned his head around on that particular snap. "I panicked a little bit . . . I was supposed to look back," Jackson said, smiling. "But I was panicking, man."
This particular play, the third-and-eight, was sent in Jackson's area as well. But it was Aldrick Robinson who was in Jackson's sights instead of Thielen. Jackson was tight in coverage, gave Robinson a little bump, played the ball, and it fell incomplete.
Later in the game, Jackson made one of the plays of the game by batting a Cousins pass up in the air for Harmon to pick off in the fourth quarter.
"He makes plays in practice," Devin McCourty said of Jackson, "that you guys haven't seen in the game but our whole secondary is like, '[Expletive.] There he goes again.' One-handed catches. Great ball-skills. Like today. It's a long throw, it looks like the guy might have a step. As soon as J.C. turns his head, he locates the ball as good as anybody I've seen that we've had at corner."
In all, Jackson was targeted seven times, allowing four catches for 23 yards. Not bad for an undrafted rookie out of Maryland who played just five snaps against the Colts in Week 5 and was inactive the following week against the Chiefs.
"The first game of the season, I played six plays," Jason McCourty said. "You don't know how the season is going to go. You don't know when your number is going to be called. But I feel like when you form those close-knit relationships within this locker room, it doesn't matter what happens, what the matchups are, who's playing, who's not, you make sure that you're studying and you're prepared for the guys next to you."
FOURTH QUARTER: FOURTH AND 11, PATRIOTS 48
This time it was Butler who was the lone down lineman on the nose. But this time it wasn't "One, double 19." This time the Patriots brought the house.
The Patriots sent Butler, Hightower, Van Noy, Simon, Melifonwu, Chung and Harmon on this snap. Seven rushers. That's Cover 0, meaning no safety in the middle of the field, meaning all defenders in coverage had their receivers one-on-one.
In this case Jason McCourty had Thielen, but Cousins didn't go in that direction. Instead he went to Laquon Treadwell, who was lined up across from Gilmore and ran a slant. The pass was completed, but it wasn't close to a first down. Turnover on downs.
It was an aggressive call, indicative of what the Patriots had done all night, and it worked.
"The play of J.C. and Steph outside tonight, there's a bunch of times where we have everyone on the inside, eight yards, walking around, moving around," Devin McCourty said. "Sometimes I shoot out. Sometimes Du shoots out. But when you do stuff like that, that puts a lot of pressure on the corners.
"I think the way they're playing, what we're able to do, quarterbacks are struggling to pick that up. Whether it be Green Bay. Whether it be Minnesota tonight. I think we're getting more and more comfortable with it where Flo is having the confidence to say, 'We're going to do this because we're getting it right and it's been effective for us.' "
On the plays when the Patriots went with one down lineman and a mass of players wandering about in the box, they forced Cousins to go 5-for-8 for 24 yards. The Vikings were 1-for-7 on third and fourth-down plays when the Patriots used one down lineman.
Want to factor in the two plays in which the Patriots had two down linemen but used an amorphous front? If you do that, the Vikings were 6-for-10 for 26 yards total against those looks, and they were 1-for-9 on third and fourth downs in those situations.
It wasn't perfect. The McCourtys were nearly beaten by Thielen for a big gain on one muddled-front look on third down, but Cousins out-threw his target by about a foot and the pass glanced off of Thielen's hands. Minnesota's one first-down conversion, meanwhile, was a five-yard completion to Rudolph that the Patriots challenged because Melifonwu knocked the ball loose as Rudolph fell out of bounds.
All in all, the Patriots had to have been pleased to see Cousins take home a 2.6 yards per attempt number on those plays, especially since he averaged 9.0 yards per pass coming into the game. His 11 percent third and fourth-down conversion rate on those plays Sunday was significantly below the 40 percent third-down conversion rate the Vikings had coming in.
They'll take that.
"It's just a lot of guys buying in, a lot of guys understanding it's not just one position here," Flowers said. "It's not just one thing you're doing on this play. If they give us a look, we can change it up . . . We got a lot of guys that are smart enough to learn different things so you can do things like that and be effective."
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