By: Steve Balestrieri
There should be no shortage of fireworks on Sunday when the Dallas Cowboys (2-2) travel to Gillette Stadium to play the New England Patriots (4-1).
Dallas is rested after its bye week and healthy and should have a full complement on both sides of the ball for the first time this year. Tony Romo has plenty of weapons to throw the ball to, with Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten.
The Patriots have balanced out their offense with a healthy dose of the running game to off-set the passing of Tom Brady, who has thrown for less yardage lately (sounds strange with 321 yards) but is making the offense more dangerous.
The Patriots have scored 30 points or more for 13 straight regular season games. The last time they didn’t, was against Cleveland whose Defensive Coordinator was Rob Ryan, who coincidentally now holds the same position with Dallas. So this one should be a great game to watch the matchups.
Patriots Running Game: Late in the game, with the score hanging in the balance, the Patriots went on a six minute drive, running the ball hard with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis pounded the ball, wearing down the Jets defense leading to a FG that iced the game with a minute to go.
They will attempt to keep their balance going this week but against the top rushing defense in the NFL. The Cowboys rush defense is superb allowing only 61.8 yards per game, and 3.1 yards per carry and it all starts in the middle with NT Jay Ratliff. Ratliff, with DEs Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher, have been eating up blocks, clogging the lanes, setting the edge superbly and allowing the linebackers to make plays unimpeded.
One of the key matchups will be Ratliff and C Dan Conolly who is filling in for Dan Koppen. They may have to double team Ratliff to get to the second level. But if Bradie James is running free, there won’t be much room to run.
Patriots Passing Game: Last week, the Jets “held” Brady to 321 yards on just 33 passes but did bring a lot of pressure, sacking him four times and pressuring him many more. Last season Rob Ryan confused the Pats offense by mixing up his defense by milling around at the line of scrimmage and keeping players moving the entire time, making it nearly impossible for Brady to know what the defense was or where the blitzes were coming from.
Ryan did the same thing on opening weekend against the Jets, where Mark Sanchez couldn’t set his protection and it resulted in the Cowboys to frustrate the Jets play calls. Expect them to do some of that this week.
Dallas has good corners in Terrence Newman and Mike Jenkins, but both have been hurt but may be back for this one. That will mean that Ryan will probably move Orlando Scandrick into the slot to cover Wes Welker, or move Jenkins inside and shift Scandrick to the outside to cover Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco.
The Patriots once again will need those two to step it up to keep the corners occupied, because if Dallas’ defense has a weakness it’s at the safety position. And Brady will be looking to attack just that with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski with Welker in the slot. Ryan will attempt to rotate some coverages to counter this but that is where the Patriots will target their attack. If Hernandez and Gronk are splitting the defense down the middle, it will open up a lot of other avenues.
One person the Patriots offensive line will have to be aware of on every snap is OLB DeMarcus Ware, whom Bill Belichick called this week the finest player in the NFL and worthy of a comparison to Lawrence Taylor. If Ware gets free, he can wreak havoc in the backfield. He and Anthony Spencer do a great job of creating pressure.
Cowboys Running Game: Dallas has been inconsistent at running the football this season averaging only 86.8 yards per game, but it has little to do with RB Felix Jones who has been very good. Jones backed up by DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice, have been beset by inconsistent offensive line play.
The Patriots with Vince Wilfork and the return of Albert Haynesworth should be able to clog the middle very effectively here. Andre Carter had his best game as a Patriot last week, doing an outstanding job of setting the edge. Brandon Spikes is making progress from an early season injury and is improving weekly. Cowboys should have little running room this weekend.
Cowboys Passing Game: Tony Romo has plenty of weapons to throw to with big play WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten. The Cowboys average over 331 yards per game through the air and will present a stiff challenge for a Patriots defense struggling to find itself.
I believe the Patriots will attempt to do what they’ve done in their past two wins, take away the big TE Witten, by doubling him over the top and attempt to force Romo into mistakes on the outside. Witten has averaged nearly 100 yards per game every week and has been Romo’s most consistent target.
The Patriots are still looking for some QB pressure and DEs Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis with sub-package DE Mark Anderson will be needed to step up against a Cowboys OL that isn’t playing great right now.
Dallas could easily by 4-0 right now if Romo doesn’t self-destruct against the Jets and Lions. Both games he was playing fine and made very poor decisions late in the game. Look for the Pats to disguise a few coverages to attempt to do the same thing. But the Cowboys are a much too dangerous team to just shut down in the passing game.
Special Teams: Both teams are solid in the kicking department, both Zoltan Mesko and Stephen Gostowski are having very good seasons so far for the Patriots. The Cowboys Matt McBriar is averaging 49.5 yards per punt and Dan Bailey has been sharp hitting on 12 of 13 FG attempts. Dallas’ coverage units have the edge being solid against both kicks and punts, while the Patriots were gashed against the Jets last week.
One thing to watch is the Dallas punt team, they had one blocked and nearly two others against the Jets. The Pats may attempt to do the same and change field position.
“X” Factors: The Cowboys come in rested and healthy after a bye week and ready to play after a game that they blew a 24 point lead against the Lions. Rob Ryan has had plenty of time to formulate a game plan to slow down the Patriots offense.
The Patriots meanwhile are coming off of an emotional win of the hated rival Jets where they stated they had their best week of practice. This is the kind of game where mistakes and sloppiness tend to happen.
Conclusions: This one should be a great game to watch, both teams have explosive offenses that can beat you in a variety of ways.
I think the Cowboys’ Rob Ryan will use that ‘organized chaos’ defense with multiple defenders moving around and not setting trying to throw off the Patriots offense and disguising his blitzes. One way to possibly beat this would be for the Patriots to go to a no-huddle, hurry up look or to possibly just direct snap the ball quickly to Green-Ellis or Ridley and having the offensive line to start run blocking the defenders while still moving around and upright.
I think both offenses will move the ball, the key will be the red-zone. The Patriots will have to always watch DeMarcus Ware as he can influence plays on any down. Matt Light will have his hands full. Both teams will have to score touchdowns and not settle for FGs in the red area.
On defense, the Pats beleaguered defense will have to step it up this week. I think they will attempt to take away Witten in the middle which will put a lot of pressure on the corners to contain the dangerous Austin and Bryant.
The Cowboys will likely try to take away the middle of the field as well taking away the underneath crossing routes to Welker and limiting Gronkowski and testing the waters on Branch and Ochocinco.
The two keys for the Patriots offense in this game will be the running game and Aaron Hernandez. If they can get the running game going to keep the Dallas defense honest and not just pinning their ears back and rushing the QB, then it should open up a few things. Hernandez is the wildcard here, as he can line up inside or outside and provide the matchup nightmares for defenses.
A close game but in the end the homefield will help the Patriots. Tom Brady will have to work for his yardage, but the running game will open a few more opportunities and the Patriots hold on for 31-28 win.