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What the Patriots defense has to do to beat the Cowboys: New England needs to contain Dallas’ explosive receiver group

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Related: Asking Blogging The Boys: Patriots need to take advantage of Cowboys’ aggressive defense

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ defense bounced back nicely from its Week 9 loss in Baltimore, holding the Philadelphia Eagles to only 10 points last Sunday. However, the unit will face a different challenge today against the Dallas Cowboys: while the Eagles entered the game ranked 13th in scoring, Dallas is fourth — a ranking that actually jumps to second when not counting scores made on defense and in the kicking game.

In order to get a clearer picture about the unit coordinated by ex-Cowboys backup quarterback Kellen Moore in only his second season as a coach, Pats Pulpit spoke with David Halprin, who works as the co-managing editor at Blogging The Boys and covers the Cowboys since 2005. And Dave made sure to point out how the growth of fourth-year quarterback Dak Prescott was a big factor for Dallas’ offensive success this season.

“Dak Prescott’s game has bloomed this year,” he said. “It’s not like he didn’t play well the past three seasons, but this year he has made the jump into the upper-echelons of quarterbacks. Some of Dak’s strengths is his ability to read the defense, get into the right play and quickly move through his progressions. That last part is key as it seems he is seeing defenses much better now and can quickly dissect where he wants to go with the football.”

“This may just be coming from experience as an NFL quarterback but it is something that has led to a much more potent passing attack for the Cowboys,” David added when talking about a passer that has completed 247 of his 365 attempts (67.7%) for 3,221 yards as well as 21 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. “Prescott is also able to use his feet when necessary so he extends plays and can run with the ball when necessary. He is also pretty accurate with his passes and throws a very nice deep ball.”

So far this season, the former fourth-round draft pick has played at an MVP-level and powered one of the most potent aerial games in the entire league. As David pointed out, Prescott’s ability to extend plays and throw accurate passes have both stood out this year with the former partially reflected in his rushing totals (33 carries for 193 yards and three touchdowns), and the latter in some impressive statistics: Prescott is second in the NFL with an adjusted deep-pass accuracy — taking drops into account — of 55.8%.

“Among his weaknesses this year has been his turnovers, although some of those have been on the receivers and a couple of Hail Mary plays. Even so, he has admitted he gets ‘greedy’ on occasion and made passes he shouldn’t have,” added David. “As for his overall importance to the offensive operation, it’s huge. He is the star of the offense as the Cowboys are moving from a run-oriented offense to one that depends more on Prescott’s arm.”

The NFL’s leader in passing yards is certainly a problem for any defense to handle, and he is the number one priority when it comes to slowing down Dallas’ attack. In order to do that, however, David pointed out that he would try to take away the team’s talented duo of outside receivers: Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, who have combined to catch 98 passes so far this season for 1,564 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“In past seasons, this would be an easy answer, stop Ezekiel Elliott and you stop the Cowboys,” said David when asked about what the Patriots should try to take away on Sunday. “That is no longer the case for the Cowboys, this offense goes as Dak Prescott goes. So you start with the passing game. In that passing game, the Cowboys rely on big plays from Cooper and Gallup as mainstays of moving the chains and scoring.”

“This where I would start, do everything I could to take away the effectiveness of the two outside receivers,” he continued. “You could attack that in various ways, safety help or dropping more players into coverage, or you could amp up the pressure on Prescott so he doesn’t have time to pick out his targets. The Cowboys’ pass protection is very good, though, so that’s a risky route to take.”

Luckily for the Patriots, this approach plays into their hands: the team fields arguably the best secondary in all of football and has slowed down every passing attack it has faced so far this season. While number one cornerback Stephon Gilmore will likely take on Cooper in one of the biggest matchups of the game, Gallup is expected to see his fair share of veteran Jason McCourty and second-year man J.C. Jackson.

“The Cowboys’ trio of receivers have been very dangerous this year,” said David about the group of receivers Prescott has at his disposal. “Amari Cooper is the star and when healthy has been lethal. His chemistry with Prescott has been immediate and productive. The problem is that Cooper has been banged up this year and has sometimes been unable to go for a full game. Last week against the Lions he wasn’t his normal self and sat out a percentage of plays.”

“On the other side is emerging star Michael Gallup. He is a serious deep threat and has had a few huge games this year. With Cooper hobbled last week, Gallup took over and kept the passing game humming,” Dave continued when talking about Dallas’ wide receivers. “In the slot, veteran Randall Cobb has been playing his best football the last few weeks as the Cowboys offense seems to have figured out how to best use him.”

Needless to say that the Patriots secondary will have its hands full against this talented group of players, especially in combination with a running back that is one of the most productive in the league in his own right: Ezekiel Elliott is having another strong season carrying the football, even though Prescott has taken over as Dallas’ most important offensive player this season. And because of that, New England needs to find a way to slow down the team’s passing game.