The Patriots cornerback play has been nothing short of spectacular this season. While the Patriots safeties have lagged behind in performance, Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty have stolen the spotlight and emerged as the Patriots most effective defensive unit.
Stephon Gilmore is tied for the league lead in pass deflections with 15 and Jason McCourty is tied for 30th with 9. Having two corners inside the top 30 is outstanding, especially considering McCourty wasn't a full time starting cornerback until week 3. Gilmore and McCourty's stellar play has helped lead the Patriots to their current 3rd place ranking in completion percentage against and Gilmore in particular has garnered praise as one of the best corners in all of football this season.
Nevertheless, Gilmore and McCourty have yet to face a offense quite like the Vikings. Of the 14 best passing offenses in the league, the Patriots have only played 3 of them so far this year. The Vikings, who rank 6th, will be the highest volume passing offense that the Patriots will have faced to date other than the Kansas City Chiefs. The difference is the Chiefs heavily utilize players like running back Ka'reem Hunt and tight end Travis Kelce in their passing game. While wide receiver Tyreek Hill certainly deserves credit for being one of the most explosive weapons in football, it was the Patriots safeties who spent most of the day covering Hill in different zone formations. Against the Vikings, it's all about Minnesota's wide receivers and New England’s cornerbacks.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have teamed up to form what is likely the best wide receiving duo in the league this year. Thielen and Diggs are 1st and 5th respectively in the league in receptions and 2nd and 20th in receiving yards. Thielen also broke the NFL record for most consecutive 100 yard receiving games to start a season and has gone for over 100 yards in 9 of his 11 games this season. Diggs missed 2 days of practice so far this week, but it did little to spark concern over his status for Sunday’s game against the Patriots as he expects to play, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
"We just gotta prepare a little harder." Gilmore said this week in regards to the Patriots matchup. "They got a lot of good talent on the offensive side of the ball and we gotta play good as a defense as a whole to beat them." While playing good defense as a whole is always important, Gilmore should recognize the importance he and Jason McCourty carry in this game. The receivers are the key to Viking offense. Shut them down and they’ll shut the Vikings down. This game may be a little less about “defense as a whole” then Gilmore is leading on and more about his ability to live up to his contract and matchup with Adam Thielen, the man some consider to be the best wide receiver in the league this year.
The Patriots will have a similar challenge in a few weeks against the Steelers with Juju Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown in a game that will have serious playoff implications. The Vikings matchup could give us a sense of how well we should expect the Patriots defense to perform against Pittsburgh's offensive personnel. Nevertheless, the focus this week is on Minnesota and shutting down their duo of elite wideouts.
It will be the #1 cornerback unit in the NFL vs the #1 wide receiver unit in the NFL. Who comes out on top between the two will likely be the deciding factor in Sunday's game and whether or not the Patriots drop out of the #2 spot in the AFC playoff picture.
Photo: (Michael Dwyer - AP Photo)