Bring the wood. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Everyone knows the stat that the only teams to beat the Patriots last season had defenses run by a Ryan. Rob Ryan, former linebackers coach of the Super Bowl winning Patriots, was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns and now runs the defense out in Dallas. This will be a big game for the Patriots offense to add to their resume.
1. Robbing Ryan - As mentioned, it's important for the Patriots to solve the Cowboys defense. Ryan likes to remove the opposition's favorite targets while forcing them to rely on a single player. He mixes up his pressures and his looks in the secondary. Look for Ryan to focus on eliminating the tight ends from the Patriots' offense and try to force Brady to throw to Welker and Branch all game. Luckily, Ryan's defense shut down a Patriots offense during Logan Mankins' first game after his holdout as well as the first game where rookie Rob Gronkowski saw considerable time in the passing game. The Patriots' offense has grown as Gronkowski is now a large piece of the offensive puzzle. On the other hand, Ryan has more pass rushing talent with the Cowboys. This will be a battle that determines the outcome of the game.
2. Robbing...Romo? - Compare the Cowboys passing offense to a healthy Chargers passing offense. Miles Austin is Vincent Jackson. Dez Bryant is Malcom Floyd. Jason Witten is a healthy Antonio Gates. The Cowboys possess an extremely vertical offense where they focus on hitting the target in motion on slants or go routes in order to pick up yards after the catch. This differs from the Patriots' offense where players capitalize on hitch routes and out routes. Romo is a streaky player and if he can hit his receiving targets, he can move the chains very consistently. However, once he makes a mistake, he's prone to make the same mistake over and over. The Patriots need to get into Romo's head early in the game to prevent him for creating any sort of rhythm with his receivers. Once Romo crumbles, their offense is impotent.
3. Remove Witten - Witten is Romo's favorite target. The Patriots will be seeing a healthy tandem of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant for the first time in the Cowboys' season, but Witten is the player to watch. Witten is the Rob Gronkowski of the Cowboys and that alone should tell you how important he is to their offense. He is their leading receiver and is one of the best tight ends in the league. The Patriots must treat him the same way they treated Antonio Gates and Dustin Keller- hit him at the line and give him no room to catch the pass.
4. Pass Attack - DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are two of the best pass rushing linebackers in the league, so expect the Patriots to operate with an additional blocker on the line for the majority of the game. The Cowboys operated out of the 4-2-5 for the majority of the game against the Lions, with Ware and Spencer playing at defensive ends and Sean Lee as the only linebacker playing the whole game. The defense held early in the game, but once the Lions offensive line was able to stave off the Cowboys pass rushers, the Lions were able to pick apart the Cowboys secondary.
The Cowboys showed the following tendencies:
1. Covered the tight end (Brandon Pettigrew) with a linebacker.
2. Did not have a player designated to cover the outlet running back, but the defensive line is athletic enough to compensate by reading the play, not biting, and making the tackle.
3. They allowed a lot of yards in the middle of the field as 10 of Matthew Stafford's 21 completions came across the middle.
The Patriots must take advantage of what the defense gives them instead of forcing plays. If the Cowboys only give passes to the middle of the field, let Wes Welker have as many looks as possible. If the Cowboys want to cover the tight end with a linebacker, let Rob Gronkowski have plenty of looks as that mismatch presents plenty of opportunities for the Patriots.
5. Secondary Performance - The Patriots have been lucky to face two relatively poor passing offenses in the past two consecutive weeks. The secondary needed a breather after being torched by the Dolphins, Chargers, and Buffalo. However, the break is over and the secondary needs to show that the past two weeks haven't been flukes. Tony Romo makes mistakes and puts bad touches on plenty of his deep throws- and the secondary has to capitalize. The Cowboys will be running slants and go routes on quick releases, so the defensive backs have two options:
1) They need to be playing 7 yards off their receivers in order to prevent the quick completion, while forcing Romo to hold the ball in the pocket and make a more difficult deep pass.
2) They must play at the line of scrimmage and jam their receiver to disrupt their timing with Romo, while riding in their hip pocket in coverage.
Of course, only the physical cover players (Ras-I Dowling and sometimes Kyle Arrington) should play bump and run, while the more technical corners (Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty) should play off their receiver.
The Cowboys run their tight ends and running backs across the middle of the field as outlets so the safeties must recognize when these players could be targeted.
Whether they play zone or man, the secondary needs to play well this game. They must force a turnover or two in order to put the game out of the Cowboys reach.
The Cowboys have 12 first downs from the run game in 4 games this season. That's 3 per game. The Patriots have 34 in 5 games. That's nearly 7 per game.
Romo gets exceedingly more inaccurate on his downfield throws. Let's compare the quarterbacks:
ESPN Behind LoS 0-10 yards 11-20 yards 21-30 yards Tom Brady 73.7% 74.0% 67.3% 50.0% Tony Romo 73.0% 68.0% 54.2% 46.2%
It's clear that Romo struggles when throwing the ball deep. The Patriots have to capitalize on his inaccuracy.
Romo makes his mistakes on 1st and 3rd down. The Cowboys like to attack on first down, so Romo has 3 interceptions on first down, with a 62.1% completion rate. On second down, Romo plays it safe and tries to pick up yards to set up the third down play and has 0 interceptions with a 73.1% completion rate. On third down, Romo goes reckless and has 3 interceptions with a 57.5% completion rate. Therefore, the Patriots need to be wary of the pass on the first down, they must attack Romo with pressure on second down, and they must be opportunistic on third down.
All of Romo's interceptions have come in the second half.
The Cowboys are averaging 1.9 yards/carry in the 1st quarter.
Tom Brady has 917 yards and 7 touchdowns in the first half. Brady has 916 yards and 7 touchdowns in the second half.