After a week off from football, the Patriots will be back at it against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. The Cowboys are coming off a heart-breaking loss to the Saints and are banged up on offense and defense. In what was going to be one of the NFL's marquee games for the 2015 season, the Cowboys superstars are on the shelf while the Patriots are in very good health. The Patriots definitely catch a break for this game, but you still have to play and win the game.
1. Load Up the Box Against the Run and Maintain Gap Discipline
If there is one strength the Cowboy offense does have sans Romo and Dez is their offensive line. The Cowboys have Pro Bowl caliber players at all five starting spots with Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Doug Free. The Cowboys would certainly like to shorten the game with the running game and the Patriots defense has done a inconsistent job of defending the run. After being porous in Week 1-2, the Patriots were able to stop the run against the Jaguars. With run defense likely being a point of emphasis and the recent acquisition of big man Akiem Hicks (6'5" 330), the Patriots have the bodies to control the gaps. The Patriots will likely alternate between a 5-2/3-4 2-gap base and a Big Nickel to match-up against base personnel. Force the Cowboys to consistently have long 2nd and 3rd down situations, where backup QB Brandon Weeden has to make plays with his arm.
2. Spread Out the Dallas Defense Early, Pound them Late
This is a similar game plan to the Jacksonville game. The Cowboys defense is struggling with injuries, especially with Sean Lee battling a concussion. That could lead to a big day for Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount. Early on, the Patriots should try to spread out the Dallas defense to create coverage mismatches. With Orlando Scandrick out for the year, the Cowboys lack a CB who can matchup with Julian Edelman's quickness. Spreading them out creates space in the running game against a lighter box and allows for Brady to pick and choose who he wants to shred the Dallas defense. I can't imagine Dallas will play a lot of man coverage given the high number of mismatches on the board, so there will be opportunities for Rob Gronkowski to attack up the seams of the defense.
Once the Patriots do take the lead in the 2nd half, it's up to Blount to grid down the clock. The Patriots are very good at changing identities on the fly and can transition from an up-tempo spread offense to a Ground and Pound style offense with just the change of 1-2 players on the field. In the 2nd half, especially the 4th quarter, that means subbing in TE/OT hybrid Michael Williams and running behind the tight ends. With a tired Dallas defense from having to chase down the Patriots receivers, that means poor angles and arm tackles against a 250-pound back who breaks arm tackles and has enough speed to elude tacklers who take poor angles. That will likely lead to 3rd down situations, which the Patriots must convert to extend drives in the 2nd half against a desperate defense. I can envision both Blount and Lewis touching the ball a combined 30 times for the game.
3. Limit Jason Witten's Impact in the Passing Game
If there is one player on the Dallas offense who can be a thorn as a receiver, it's Jason Witten. Even though he's not the athlete Gronk is, Witten is able to present a big target to convert 3rd down situations and off play action. Since Dallas can run the football, that means short yardage situations on 3rd down where the playbook is wide open for the offense. The play action is intent on sucking up the linebackers, where Witten will drop behind and do his damage there. In addition to playing the tight-end spot, Witten also lines up in the slot and on the perimeter as a split-end. That will create some match-up problem since he's too quick for linebackers and too big for defensive backs. The good news is he's battling two ankle sprains, so he's not at 100%. If Witten has a big day against the Patriots, that will shorten the game and keep the Cowboys in it.