This Scouting Report for Thursday night’s Patriots vs. Vikings game is produced by The 33rd Team’s Scouting Department, led by former Eagles, Cardinals and Ravens personnel executive T.J. McCreight and assisted by scouts Justin Casey, Kevin Cohn and Evan Pritt.
- This game features two of the most proficient pass rushers in the game, Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith, who have both elevated their defenses’ play while having standout years.
- Judon leads the league in sacks (13) while also generating the third most pressures on the year (47). Though New England has had their woes, Judon has helped solidify the defense. The Patriots smothered the Jets’ offense Sunday, holding them to 103 yards total. In the second half alone, the Patriots limited the Jets to an eye-popping 2.77 inches per play. Since Week 7, New England’s opponents have only averaged 140.3 yards passing per game and 81.5 yards rushing per game, while Judon has feasted with seven sacks.
- Judon owns a good blend of size, strength and athleticism for the position. He’s a savvy defender who can change his tempo to get off quickly, cross-face or gradually build to speed while processing the blocker. Judon is active-handed to pick and slip towards an edge when engaging. If blockers get a piece, Judon flashes his power to punch and press an OL off base before sliding through and finishing on the QB. In the run game, he plays square to sink and takes on blocks with minimal ground given. As carriers approach, he displays his strength to shed and discard bodies while giving good pursuit once free.
- Smith has been getting comfortable in the backfield, registering the most pressures (56) among defenders this season. Not only is Smith beating blocks, but he’s doing it regularly with a 24% win rate (sixth best). His nine sacks are the cherry on top and have him tied for the fourth most in the NFL. Smith’s play has been an integral role in the Vikings’ success, and though they stumbled against the Cowboys, they still sit at 8-2, with plenty of football left to play.
- Smith’s a muscular, long-armed defender with very good quicks and speed. On the snap, he displays twitch to trigger off the line, causing blockers to react fast. Smith’s a slippery pass rusher whose suddenness and use of hands create issues for OL trying to protect their edges. He’s violent when squared up at the point of attack, converting speed to power to walk opponents back into the pocket. Smith holds up well vs. the run, doing his job to create leverage and set the edge. He can struggle to shed consistently and shows an average motor to pursue.
- Overall, the Vikings’ defense will be looking for a bounce back after a bad outing vs. the Cowboys, while the Patriots defense will look to continue stacking solid performances. Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith provide a different flavor at DE, with Judon showing more power/strength to hold up against blockers, while Smith is quicker and twitchier to stress edges. When comparing, Judon looks to be the more complete player, making an impact not only vs. the pass but also the run.
Justin Jefferson vs. Patriots Corners
- The Patriots have been one of the stingiest defenses vs. the pass this year. New England allows the fourth fewest passing yards per game (188.3) and per play (5.83) this season. They are also intercepting passes at the third-highest rate this season.
- Jefferson ranks second in yards receiving (1,093) and is tied for the most 100-yard receiving games with six. For the season, Jefferson has caught 72 passes and has four TDs.
- The Vikings work to get Justin Jefferson favorable matchups by moving him to different spots on the field throughout the game. Jefferson is an outstanding route runner who understands how to set up his routes, get defenders turned, and how to separate and come back to the passer.
- I love Jefferson’s toughness. He will go over the middle, take a lot of hits, and keep getting up off the turf.
- He has deceptive strength as well. He shows a strong stiff arm, plus he’s tough to bring down and can kick out of low tackles.
- When I was studying Jefferson, two players I have been around come to mind. Kellen Winslow and Larry Fitzgerald were two players that could win with the ball in the air even when the entire stadium knew that the ball was going to them. Those three players have rare hands, ball skills and body control. As you saw against Buffalo, Jefferson can go up and get the football regardless of the defenders around his body, the weather, the situation and the depth of his route.
- Winslow and Fitzgerald could high-point the ball better than any player I was exposed to, and their control over their body was outstanding. I see the same in Jefferson. Jefferson can get his hands on the ball and secure it all while getting his feet down and finishing the play.
- The best player on the offense usually makes the tackle after an interception, which Jefferson did against the Bills. He did it all that day.
- Dallas did a nice job of slowing him down. Trevon Diggs traveled with him and did a nice job pressing. They also eyed him with linebackers and had a safety over the top. The few times Diggs was matched up one-on-one, Diggs won most of the battles.
- I don’t expect the Patriots to have a corner travel with Jefferson, but they have players who can cover. Jonathan Jones mainly plays on the left side as the outside corner. Jones does not have the size to match up with Jefferson, but he does have the movement skills. Jones has outstanding burst and lateral quickness. Because of his explosiveness, he can certainly run stride for stride with Jefferson.
- Jalen Mills mainly plays on the right side. Mills is very different from Jones, but some aspects of his game will help him in coverage. Mills lacks the big-time, down-the-field speed, but he has excellent strength and has the hands in press coverage to disrupt his path off the line of scrimmage.
- When you watch Mills, what jumps out at you is his savvy and experience. Mills understands leverage and route combinations and does an excellent job of jumping routes because he can see the weave and stem of the wideout.
- New England will have a plan for Jefferson, and they may do some similar things that Dallas did. Disrupt him off the line of scrimmage, have a linebacker at the mid-level and have a safety keeping eyes and cheating to his side.
- Despite the Vikings’ 8-2 record, Cousins is not having his most efficient season. While he ranks eighth in yards passing, he ranks 29th in yards per pass attempt and has thrown the fourth most interceptions (8) this season. His 85.7 QB rating would be the lowest of his eight years as a full-time starter.
- Cousins is a prime example of a guy who is good, not great. He is best when the pocket is clean, and can deliver the ball on schedule. He has good tools and physical makeup for an NFL QB. He has a good, not great, arm and is accurate. He can drive the ball down the field and has good zip to put the ball into a window. He is athletic enough to buy some time in the pocket and evades the initial rush. He is not a burner and should not be expected to rip off long runs, but he can gain a chunk with his legs when the defense isn’t paying attention. Cousins struggles when the play is not clean, and there is pressure in his face, preventing him from stepping up in the pocket and into his throws. The last three games (WAS, BUF, DAL) have highlighted this big time. Cousins will speed up his delivery and get sloppy with his feet when he feels rushed. Often this will lead to missed throws, typically high and long. When Cousins has protection, he is a winning Quarterback. With Christian Darrisaw most likely out this week with a concussion, the Vikings will have to give extra protection to Cousins’ blind side. The Patriots have a terrific pass rush and will look to disrupt Cousins as much as possible. If they can limit the pressure from New England, Cousins will have his opportunities to make plays. If not, this will be a long day for the Minnesota offense.
- Jones has had some struggles in his 2nd season. Despite missing nearly three full games, he has thrown seven interceptions, and his 3.6% interception rate ranks 34th among qualifying passers.
- Despite some early season struggles for Jones, I see a player turning the corner. Since coming back from his ankle injury, Jones has done a much better job of playing within himself. Early on, I saw him try to do too much. He was forcing bad throws and not taking what the defense gave him. He has recently done a good job of taking what is there and keeping the ball moving. He does not have an elite arm, but he can make most throws and has good zip on his ball. He does a good job of dissecting defenses and getting the ball out quickly. He is accurate and does a nice job leading his receiver in stride. He is just an above-average athlete, and the Patriots need to do a better job protecting him, ranking 26th in sacks per pass attempt. He can slip out and gain a few yards with his legs, but he is a much more productive player when he can stand in and deliver the ball on time. There are positive things in his game that are encouraging for the second-year player. The Vikings will also look to get a lot of pressure on Jones, who does a slightly better job against pressure than Cousins but is still a player who will be impacted by guys in his face.
- Both quarterbacks will have to withstand a lot of pressure from their opposing defenses. This game will come down to which player can do a better job standing in and delivering the ball.
- Both teams have a winning record on Thanksgiving. The Vikings hold a 6-2 record, while the Patriots are 3-2.
Patriots’ Keys to Victory
- They need to get to Cousins early and often.
- They must have a plan to slow down Justin Jefferson. Don’t always throw the same thing at him- but always be throwing something at him. Get hands on him right off the line, disrupt his routes, cheat to his side and have someone over the top.
Vikings’ Keys to Victory
- They need to get some easy throws early to T.J. Hockenson and get Hockenson involved in the offense. He had five catches against Dallas but for only 34 yards.
- They must also control Matthew Judon and not allow him to be a game-wrecker. Against Dallas, Cousins was sacked seven times, and if New England can get to Cousins, it could be a long day for this offense.
WATCH MORE: Keys to Beating Chiefs