The New England Patriots are certainly not taking the upcoming game against the Dallas Cowboys lightly. While the Brandon Weeden-led passing attack is obviously less potent than the Tony Romo version, the Dallas run game is good enough to win against any opponent, even if the defense knows that the Cowboys will be running the ball.
And teams will know.
With back-up quarterback Brandon Weeden at the helm, the Cowboys have really simplified their offense and it telegraphs the play.
When Weeden is playing in the shotgun (meaning he's a few steps away from the center snapping the ball), the Cowboys pass the ball a whopping 94% of the time. I counted just three run plays out of over 50 shotgun snaps, not including a broken play where Weeden ended up scrambling.
When Weeden is directly under center, Dallas runs the ball 85% of the time. I counted just eight passes out of over 50 passes under center.
But even if the Patriots know what type of play is coming, they still have to step up and make the stop. Here's our week 5 film review.
When the Cowboys run the ball
Bill Belichick called the Dallas offensive "the best in the league," and that's not an understatement. This is an extremely talented group of players that can win one-on-one match-ups and can create gaping holes if they get two lineman against one defender. Tight end Jason Witten is a dangerous blocker and fullback Tyler Clutts helps get the job done, too.
The Falcons and the Saints both used 5-man fronts on first down because the Weeden Cowboys run the ball 66.7% of the time on first down, an increase from a 50/50 split with Tony Romo at quarterback.
The Chicago Bears lead the league in running on first down (63.3%), followed by the San Francisco 49ers (62.3%) and the Carolina Panthers (61.2%), which means that Weeden's offense runs the ball more than any other team.
Also, when you look at the passing attacks of those run-heavy teams, you can get a sense of how the Cowboys coaching staff views their own aerial offense.
The Cowboys have three reigning All Pros on the line (left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin), a 1st round-talent rookie (La'el Collins) or a 3rd year starter at left guard (Ronald Leary), and a right tackle that has been the Cowboys starter over the past seven seasons (Doug Free). This is a high quality unit without a truly glaring flaw. Collins' inexperience and Leary's health can be considered weak links in the line, so don't be surprised if the Patriots lined up Dominique Easley to try and disrupt Collins or Leary at every possible chance.
Atlanta and New Orleans went heavy on early downs with three big defensive tackles and two heavier edge defenders to put a man on every Cowboys offensive lineman- and Dallas was still winning these match-ups. Of course, the two NFC South teams aren't well regarded for their defenses and their linebackers aren't the same caliber as the Patriots, so hopefully New England can be more competitive against the run.
Dallas operates with a one-cut rushing attack with running backs Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden just planting their feet and attacking the running lane. They also feature a fair amount of stretch zone, which Patriots fan can remember the Ravens using against New England in the 2014 playoffs to great success. You can be certain that the Cowboys watched that game and will try and attack the Patriots in similar fashion.
Randle, however, is prone to Laurence Maroney-esque freewheeling and will cut back across the formation if he doesn't see a big enough lane. Whichever Patriots defender has backside contain will have to ensure there is nowhere for Randle to run. Randle also runs with the ball away from his body and has been fortunate the past couple weeks with potential fumbles. Look for the Patriots to try and knock the ball out of his hands every time he tries to turn the corner.
On first down, the Patriots should look to play a defensive front of Chandler Jones, Dominique Easley, Sealver Siliga, and Alan Branch, along with Rob Ninkovich standing up on the edge across from Jason Witten and hitting the Cowboys tight end at every possible chance. Linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins need to be aggressive and attack the line of scrimmage before the Cowboys offensive line gets to the second level. Safety Patrick Chung should also lineup in the box behind Ninkovich.
The idea is for Jones to tangle with left tackle Tyron Smith, while Easley tries to penetrate the line through the left guard and close off plays to the left side of the formation. Siliga will have to try and limit center Travis Frederick, while Branch (or Malcom Brown, or Akiem Hicks) will use his length to either control right tackle Doug Free, or engage right guard Zack Martin.
The Patriots won't win every single one of these match-ups, but hopefully the defensive line can disrupt the rushing lanes enough for Collins or Hightower or Chung to clean up the play.
Ninkovich is a crucial piece because he offers New England flexibility on first down. If Weeden is under center, Ninkovich can hit the tight end Witten and then try to contain his edge of the field (with Hightower watching the other edge). If Weeden is in the shotgun, Ninkovich can hit Witten and then drop into a form of zone coverage to take away a quick pass in the flat.
When the Cowboys pass the ball
While the loss of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant has limited the Dallas offense, the target distribution hasn't really changed with Weeden. Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, Lance Dunbar, and Cole Beasley are still #1 through #4 in targets. Dunbar is now done for the season with an ACL injury, so it's likely either Randle or McFadden will take over for those targets.
The main difference is quarterback effectiveness to the outside. Weeden has no problem slinging the ball, but he's just terribly inaccurate when throwing down the sidelines. Romo is capable of wizardry. While Romo was 8/14 to outside receiver Williams, Weeden is 4/13. Without Dez and without Williams as an effective outside threat, the Dallas passing attack is very centralized.
There's Jason Witten, who is one of the best tight ends in football at attacking soft zones by linebackers at the sticks. Beasley is a very capable slot receiver. Whichever player assumes the receiving back role for Dallas will immediately become Weeden's best friend.
The reality of the Cowboys offense is that it flows through the short passes. The Falcons opted to play zone with their linebackers and Dallas just walked down the field with Witten. The Patriots have to use Chung in man coverage of Witten to force Weeden to try and go through his reads, because when Weeden holds the ball, beautiful things happen.
I call it "Weeden's game and pressure awareness" https://t.co/WPtL83i2AW— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 7, 2015
The above was on a 3rd and 1, after the two-minute warning, with the Cowboys down two scores. Weeden slides for the sack instead of throwing the ball away to stop the clock. Weeden has no idea what to do when his first target is covered and there is no outlet running back. It's really, really, really bad.
Normally I'd advocate for sending pressure on non-mobile quarterbacks like Weeden, but Weeden is prone to making his own mistakes. Sure, blitz linebackers up the middle if Witten is definitely covered tightly by Chung. But on second and third downs, when the Patriots play with Chandler Jones, Dominique Easley, Jabaal Sheard, and Rob Ninkovich on the defensive line, New England should be able to make Weeden uneasy enough to move out of the pocket and make a terrible decision.
With Chung and Ninkovich bracket covering Witten, and either Collins or Hightower covering the running back, the Patriots can put Malcolm Butler on an island against Terrance Williams. Look for Logan Ryan or Justin Coleman to draw coverage of Cole Beasley, which could be the key match-up of the game.
Safety Devin McCourty can have free range of the deep half of the field, where Weeden is 3/8 on passes 15+ yards down the field. One of those completions came when the Saints inexplicably lined old friend Brandon Browner on an island against a receiver with 4.37 speed (a receiver that now has a hamstring injury).
If the coaching staff decided to put Butler on either Beasley or Witten for a couple snaps, I would understand that, too. The Patriots could team Ryan and McCourty over Williams and have a similar effect. The Patriots have plenty of options on how they want to cover the Cowboys passing attack, but so long as Witten, Beasley, and the running back are covered well on every snap, the Dallas attack will be greatly limited.
When the Patriots run the ball
While returning defensive end Greg Hardy will receive most of the headlines, defensive tackle Nick Hayden is also very deserving of attention. Hayden is a complete menace and a 6'4, 305 lbs wrecking ball on the defensive line and the Patriots will have their hands full.
Dallas plays with a very aggressive style of run defense, with linebackers crashing into the backfield and it seems like every single takedown is a gang tackle. The defensive line does a great job of making initial moves to draw the attention of the offensive linemen, while subsequently creating a numbers mismatch or an open lane for a linebacker. For the Cowboys rushing defense, they want to disrupt the opposing team's offensive line as much as possible to break-up the play before it even starts.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has led a top 10 run defense in has past four seasons as a coordinator. Key injuries to the defensive line helped the Falcons run wild in week 3, as the Cowboys were playing back-up defensive ends. Atlanta continued to attack the inexperienced players on the edge, but the Patriots likely won't have the same option in week 5. At linebacker, even if star linebacker Sean Lee misses time with a concussion, Dallas has a quality stable of run defending depth to fill the line-up.
How can the Patriots counter this clear strength of a defensive front? The Cowboys definitely intentionally borrow some tendencies from the Seattle Seahawks defense and running backs can be successful in space. Both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis thrive when they're asked to attack the edges of opposing defenses. While the Patriots won't have the Falcons' benefit of a depleted defensive front, New England can certainly take the same idea and execute it to a lower degree of success.
When the Patriots pass the ball
Dallas thrives on turnovers. Under head coach Jason Garrett (per Pro Football Reference), the Cowboys are 1-14 when they don't force a turnover. They are 13-13 when they force one turnover. They are 30-7 when they force two or more. New England can't afford to turn the ball over and the Dallas defense loves being around the football. The Cowboys secondary and linebackers dropped plenty of interception chances against the Falcons and Saints, and the Patriots can't give them any extra chances to swing the game.
The Cowboys pass coverage is eerily similar to the Seahawks approach with not only how they divide up the field, but how they're so vertical. The Falcons were able to walk up and down the field by throwing slants and crossers that Dallas couldn't defend. New England got a taste of this type of coverage when they faced the Jacksonville Jaguars, although the Cowboys have far greater talent.
Running back Dion Lewis is going to be a key player in the Patriots attack as New England will continue to try and throw the ball at a blistering pace. Lewis will have to help chip against the defensive line, he'll have to leak into the flat or across the middle as a receiver, and he'll have to be available for draw plays.
Additionally, look for Julian Edelman to feast against this coverage as the defensive backs don't have the lateral quickness to remain in tight coverage. While I personally think that Aaron Dobson could have success against this secondary in a similar way that the Falcons utilized wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, with quick slants attacking any cushion the secondary provides, don't be surprised if Danny Amendola receives more targets on the day.
Dallas likes to stick in their base 4-3, even if the opposing teams puts three wide receivers on the field. Generally, only the defensive linemen are asked to go after the quarterback. The Falcons were successful using the Cowboys aggression against them by running play action passes with the offensive line showing a stretch zone run play. The Dallas defensive line instinctively responds to the offensive line and starts defending the run instead of pressuring the quarterback.
Of the three linebackers on the field, one linebacker covers the tight end, the other spies the outlet running back, and the third is asked to plant in the middle of the field.
The Cowboys have allowed the 2nd most receiving yards per game to running backs, so Lewis is crucial to extending drives. If linebacker Sean Lee is unavailable because of his concussion, then tight end Rob Gronkowski will be facing a back-up linebacker and will have plenty of space to roam- the Cowboys allowed the 2nd most yards to tight ends in 2014 when Sean Lee was on the injured reserve.
The Cowboys have a good roster. Their offense is in an unfortunate position without Dez Bryant or Tony Romo. Jason Witten is a timeless wonder. Joseph Randle is a legitimate running back when he's not dancing. Cole Beasley exceeds every unfair descriptor bestowed upon a small, white, slot receiver.
But Brandon Weeden, man. The offense is seriously limited with him at the helm. Defenses know when he's throwing just based on how he lines up behind center. He has no sense of when pressure is closing around him. He doesn't know how to maneuver the pocket. He has no touch on sideline throws. He struggles to go through his progressions.
And on defense, the Cowboys have a great roster, but they're built exactly for the Patriots to take advantage. A defense that is weak on passes to running backs and (if Sean Lee is out) tight ends, and a secondary that shows plenty of the same looks as Seattle? New England will be ready for this match-up.
This game would be entirely different if Dez and Romo were healthy. Entirely, completely different. With the current rosters, though, it's difficult to see the Cowboys offense managing to keep Dallas in the game.