By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
It is Halloween night and into Foxborough come the Minnesota Vikings and their cast of unique characters which includes Head Coach Brad Childress, Quarterback Brett Favre and former Patriots receiver Randy Moss. The struggling Vikings, who many experts had as a Super Bowl contender, may of course be without Favre as he is in danger of his first missed start in many, many years.
Childress and Moss will be there, however, along with a lot of other talented Vikings players. There is no doubt this team has many quality NFL players. They are better than their 2-4 record. And they are very dangerous to the Patriots. Any loss, even to an NFC team, could be the difference in the Patriots division as its likely to be very, very close between them and the Jets the rest of the way in the AFC East.
It is Halloween night. Moss returns. Favre’s a question. You have one of the best running backs in the NFL to contend with. Head coach Childress made suggestive comments about the Patriots and there has never been any love lost between him and Patriots coach Bill Belichick anyway. And the Patriots, despite a win last week, need to right their ship on offense after a very down week for them. It should be a compelling game.
Tarvaris Jackson (#7), Quarterback: Jackson was selected in the 2nd round in 2006 to be the quarterback of the future for the Vikings. At the time, there were wildly differing opinions on Jackson, who is known to his teammates as “T-Jack.” Some felt he had a lot of talent, excellent arm, good size and mobility and could be developed into an excellent NFL quarterback despite playing at a low level of college ball. But the majority seemed to feel he lacked the necessary ingredients to be a top QB and that the Vikings severely reached in taking him in the second round.
While they may have thought they were getting the next Daunte Culpepper/Randall Cunningham, most seemed to feel he wasn’t and never would be in their league talent-wise. Brad Childress, then in his first season, was particularly interested in Jackson and thought to be largely behind the selection. Early in his rookie year, Jackson took over late in a blowout loss for a struggling starter Brad Johnson, who had thrown four interceptions that day. After the game, Jackson was asked if he was ready to take over as starter to which Jackson replied “Not really. We still have a chance at the playoffs.” This created a minor stir in Minnesota about Jackson’s competitiveness. In 2007, his second season, Jackson did start 12 games and led the team to an 8-4 record in those games. But his 70.8 passer rating suggested the team won despite him that year and the team missed the playoffs. Two games into the 2008 season, Childress benched Jackson in favor of veteran Gus Frerotte. After Frerotte was again injured late in the year, Jackson came in again as the starter and played well, even earning NFC Player of the Week Honors one game. But with Frerotte still out, Jackson starter the Vikings wildcard playoff game and again was back to playing terribly in a loss at home.
Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Jackson has served as Brett Favre’s backup. Jackson at times has played well. He never seemed to get a full opportunity to grow as a starter in the NFL before being benched. He did put up pretty good numbers in the games he played in 2008, playoff performance not withstanding. Now having sat for essentially two years, he may get a chance to start this week or at least play depending on Brett Favre’s injured ankle. It seems probable Jackson will play and unlikely Favre could get thru a whole game. This could present problems for the Patriots. Jackson is mobile, has a good arm, played well at times and has had a chance to learn from the sidelines for quite awhile now. Sometimes when a player comes in after a layoff like that, it takes some adjustment time for opponents to learn his game again. It would almost seem with Favre struggling anyway, and now hurt, it would actually improve the Patriots prospects for Sunday if he played instead of Jackson.
Adrian Peterson (#28), Running Back: Peterson is, of course, the Vikings best player and an elite running back. He has to be considered among the two best at the position in the entire NFL, along with the Titans’ Chris Johnson. He has it all; speed, power, size, hands out of the backfield – everything. He has had a tendency to fumble in past years, but so far this year he has improved and it hasn’t been a problem. The Patriots have done a pretty good job against the run this season, but this will be their biggest test. In addition to the run game, Peterson really can break some long plays on swings and screens out of the backfield. The Patriots have used rookie linebacker Dane Fletcher in coverage a lot in the past few weeks and he has done a good job. But this will be a huge test for him and you can be sure the Vikings will want to exploit any matchup of their All-Pro running back being covered by an undrafted rookie linebacker.
Randy Moss (#84), Wide Receiver: Moss, who was just traded weeks ago, returns to Foxborough to play against the team he put up one of the greatest statistical years for a receiver in NFL history just a few short years ago. He’ll know the spotlight is on him and he also knows the Patriots defensive backs very well. He spent the entire summer practicing against them, or in some cases several years. Patriots coach Bill Belichick always said Moss was amongst the smarter players he’s coached, so the knowledge he’s gathered of the Patriots defense through the years, I’m sure he will use to his advantage. It is Halloween and it should be a wild scene with Moss masks and costumes populating the crowd. The Vikings have a lot of weapons and the Patriots defensive backs are still young and a bit banged up. If they hope to avoid a very scary scene, they’ll need to find a way of dealing with Moss while not ignoring all the other Viking options. Perhaps the best hope would be a solid amount of pressure and seeing if Devin McCourty can be competitive on his own and without too much help with Moss in the early drives.
Jared Allen (#69), Defensive End: The Patriots struggled with some speed rushers last week and this has been a periodic problem for Patriots left tackle Matt Light. Light has generally done an extraordinary job for now into his 10th year protecting Tom Brady’s blind side. In many ways, he’s a completely underrated player. But, one area of problem for him is the occasional speed rusher who is so quick, Light can’t use his trademark strength and technique to get properly engaged quickly enough all the time. The now-retired former Buffalo Bill Aaron Schobel was one guy like that who gave Light fits. Some speed rushers Light has done well with, such as Dwight Freeney. While Freeney is quick, I think he’s not quite as fast as guys like Schobel, Jason Taylor and Allen. He just has a variety of moves and some strength. So he is different. But Allen could cause problems as he fits the mold of the type Light struggles with. And you won’t find a more productive defensive end as Allen has been voted All-Pro three seasons running now. Going back and looking at Allen’s matchups versus the Patriots, he’s faced them only two times. As a rookie in 2004 with Kansas City he had 4 tackles and 1 sack. In 2005 with KC he had 1 tackle an 1 sack in a Kansas City win during which Tom Brady was under a lot of pressure. Two sacks in two games is a bit worrisome given the Patriots struggles last week. One thing to watch for, however, is that Allen is off to a very slow start for him. He only has 1 sack thru 6 games after racking up 45.5 over the last 46 games he’d played going into this season. Still, slowed or not, the Patriots better give Light some help or it could be a very long day for Tom Brady.
Chris Cook (#31), Cornerback: The rookie Cook was the Vikings second round pick this year and reportedly the Patriots showed some interest in him pre-draft. He is a big kid who played for Al Groh in college. He also tested quite well athletically at the combine and has good speed and strength. At times this year, Cook has been the nickel back for the Vikings and has really struggled. With the Vikings losing one of their better corners for the year recently in Cedric Griffin, finding guys back here has been a problem. The way the Patriots like to spread out the field, particularly against the Vikings who typically play tough run defense, their could be a lot of matchups for Tom Brady to exploit if he gets the time. Cook was abused repeatedly by the Packers last week and ended up benched for part of the game, but the Vikings don’t have a ton of alternate options. One of their better remaining veteran corners after Antoine Winfield, Lito Sheppard, has a broken hand and didn’t play last week. Its a question whether he can go this week, but should be limited even if he does. So the Vikes are going to have to rely on young corners such as Cook and the Patriots will likely be able to make some plays on them.