We spoke with David Halprin of Blogging The Boys to help break down the upcoming game between the Patriots and Cowboys.
1. The drop from Tony Romo to Brandon Weeden has definitely affected the Cowboys offense. What has been the big issue with Weeden and Terrance Williams?
There are a combination of factors contributing to the issue. In Weeden's first game, the Cowboys rarely went deep, it was all short passes and Weeden checked down to his tight ends and his running backs predominately, leaving almost all the wide receivers out in the cold.
In the second game he opened it up a bit more and targeted Williams quite a bit. Some of the balls were just bad throws, but others were missed connections, and while I'll never blame the refs, the Saints corner was getting very "handsy" with Williams and got away with it. So the timing on the routes was thrown off. Another factor is that Williams has acquired a slight case of the dropsies, over the past couple of games he's dropped a few passes. So, basically the connection is just not working right now.
2. Joseph Randle spent some time in the dog house, but assuming he has a large role against the Patriots, what is the best way to slow him down?
The best way to slow down Randle and the Cowboys rushing attack is to get penetration. The Cowboys run a lot of zone-blocking plays and if you can get one guy on the play side to knife through, it throws everything off. Teams have been more successful of penetrating the Cowboys backfield this year and this has caused the running game to be hit and miss.
Also, Randle is pretty good about cutting to the backside and hitting a big play, so your backside defenders need to stay home and play good angles. If they get over-aggressive they could get burned. And with Romo and Dez out, teams are more willing to walk a safety into the box, further jamming up the running game.
3. The Cowboys defense is getting a boost with Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, as well as the health of Sean Lee. Who is the unsung hero of the Dallas defensive front?
It's hard to say because Sean Lee has been the unquestioned best player on that unit but he is hardly unsung. Tyrone Crawford can be a disruptive presence, but has only started to come on in the last game. He keeps getting nicked up during games. DeMarcus Lawrence has had his moments but has never really taken over in a game. Jeremy Mincey has been a solid presence, he was sorely missed when he was out against Atlanta.
I guess Mincey and Anthony Hitchens are the unsung guys who have been solid contributors, and nose tackle Nick Hayden could also fall into that category.
4. Morris Claiborne has really struggled since entering the league, but he seems to have found his footing this year. What's different with him and why has he seemingly turned a corner?
Two things, health and confidence. Claiborne has been injured since the day the Cowboys drafted him. He hardly ever participates in preseason games and has missed a ton of training camp and actual games. His first few years here were just one injury after another. He's finally gotten his health back and that has led to the second ingredient, something every corner needs and that is confidence.
When he was injured and getting beat, he seemed to lose his swagger, he started not to believe in his skills. This year, that belief is back and he's playing tighter coverage and not afraid of giving up the deep ball. He feels he can recover deep if needed so he's pressing up on receivers much tighter than he used to.
5. The Cowboys really rely on their linebackers in coverage of both tight ends and running backs. Who are the Cowboys top coverage linebackers and what else should we know about them?
Well, on tight ends the Cowboys actually use corner/safety Byron Jones a lot. He will be given primary responsibility on Rob Gronkowski in many defensive formations. The rookie first-round pick is a big, rangy guy with unbelievable athletic ability.
He's still learning the game and will certainly get taught a few lessons by Gronk, but he's done a fairly good job this year helping on tight ends. Sean Lee is a great cover linebacker and he can get interceptions. Those two are the best options at covering tight ends and backs, but Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain are not bad, either.