Coming off a hard-fought game in which it scored only 17 points, the New England Patriots’ offense will have to face another difficult challenge this Sunday: the Dallas Cowboys are coming to town and they will bring the 13th best scoring defense in football with them, a unit that has surrendered only an average of 19.7 points over its first 10 games of the season. The number might not be overly impressive, but the Cowboys sure are a tough team to score against.
In order to get a clearer picture about the unit coordinated by veteran coach Rod Marinelli, Pats Pulpit spoke with David Halprin, who works as the co-managing editor at Blogging The Boys and covers the Cowboys since 2005. And one thing David pointed out was that the Patriots should try to do something they have not been very good at lately in order to challenge Dallas’ defense: establish a presence on the ground and run the ball.
“One thing is establishing the run and going through the interior of the line which can be very productive against this defense,” he said. “The Cowboys defensive front is aggressive and stunts a lot, because of this they can lose gap discipline and be caught out of position. Using trap plays or counters can be very effective. Zone-reads with mobile QBs also have been effective with Dallas but I’m guessing Brady won’t be running many of those.”
“In the passing game, screens or tight ends over the middle have been effective and I would attack cornerback Chidobe Awuzie as he has been the weak link in the Cowboys secondary,” Dave added. The Patriots have not had a lot of success with their running backs and tight ends so far this season, so the game against Dallas could present an opportunity to get the two positions going — and also to potentially create favorable matchups for a wide receiver group that has recently been hit hard by injury.
Chidobe Awuzie is the Cowboys’ number one cornerback in terms of playing time, and sees the vast majority of his snaps on the perimeter. Given the versatility of the Patriots’ wide receiver group and the fact that Dallas’ cornerbacks essentially never change sides — Byron Jones plays on the defensive right side, Awuzie on the defensive left — New England could try to get some favorable matchups with either Julian Edelman or maybe first-round rookie N’Keal Harry matched up against him (who did see most of his action on the other side of the formation in his Week 11 debut, however).
Of course, as Dave points out, going after Awuzie or running screens and tight end passes is only one way to attack Dallas: the Patriots also need to take advantage of the team’s aggressiveness up front, which could lead to opportunities in the running game. So far, New England has been unable to consistently move the football on the ground this season but with left tackle Isaiah Wynn back in the fold and going against a team that has had its lapses when it comes to gap discipline, the team could try to get into a rhythm this way.
This approach might actually turn out to be more productive than relying predominately on the pass (something the Patriots have done a lot this season, as colleague Matthew Rewinski pointed out). After all, the Cowboys feature a disruptive trio of pass rushers — one that includes a familiar face: Michael Bennett, who was moved from New England to Dallas ahead of this year’s trade deadline after appearing in just six games for the Patriots.
“The trio of DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett have been a pass-rushing force [...] These three have been very good in disrupting opposing passing games,” said Dave about the outstanding defensive linemen. “Out of this group, Robert Quinn has been a monster with 8.5 sacks in eight games (he was suspended for the first two). He is very quick around the edge and can leave left tackles in the dust. Lawrence has also had a productive year and is as strong against the run as he is against the pass.”
“Frankly, [Bennett] has been excellent in Dallas,” added Dave when asked specifically about the ex-Patriot, whose role in New England was practically lost when the team moved away from its 4-3 front during the offseason. “In three games he has three sacks and seven quarterback hits. He has also done a good job of disrupting the run game of the opposition and has held several tackles for loss on runs. He looks extremely quick and teams seem to have difficulty getting solid blocks on him.”
“The Cowboys use him as a defensive end and when they go to their pass-rush package in obvious passing situations they kick him inside so he, Lawrence and Quinn can all be on the field at the same time,” continued Dave. “As for a ‘revenge’ game, he’s saying all the right things about how this is just business and has had nothing but praise for Bill Belichick and his defense, but I imagine there is a little something extra for him in this game.”
Blocking Bennett will be a tough albeit familiar experience for the Patriots’ offensive line, but still a difficult task for a unit that has had its fair share of ups and downs so far this season. Adding Lawrence and Quinn to the equation will make pass protection even more tricky this week, which again could lead to more running plays against the Cowboys’ aggressive and comparatively light front. If there ever comes a game to get Sony Michel and company going, this might be it.