While their offense is making plenty of headlines, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves at 4-1 not only because of their ability to score points. The team also fields one of the better defenses in football, a group that is ranked 14th in the league with 23.4 points surrendered per game.
While that number per se does not stand out, coordinator Dan Quinn’s unit has proven itself a capable one with its big-play ability in particular standing out: Dallas’ 12 turnovers are the second most in the league behind Buffalo’s 15. The group has collectively caught an NFL-high 10 interceptions and also added a pair of fumble recoveries.
Led by cornerback Trevon Diggs, who has picked off six passes so far and has staked his claim as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the Cowboys have played some opportunistic football. Some of their defensive statistics may be skewed a bit as a result, but make no mistake: this is a good defense — one that is ranked sixth in overall defensive EPA (-0.035).
“The front’s impressive. A lot of speed at linebacker. They can cover. They can rush. They can play the run. ... They pretty much do everything well.,” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the unit during a press conference on Wednesday.
His team will have its work cut out for it on Sunday, but that does not mean it won’t find opportunities to move the ball against the Cowboys.
Capitalize on Dallas’ aggressiveness
The Cowboys defense has produced multiple big plays and thus contributed greatly to the team’s overall success. However, it also has been prone to give up big plays on a fairly regular basis. Just look at it from this perspective: only two other defenses — the Kansas City Chiefs’ (7.1) and the Detroit Lions (6.5) — have allowed more yards per play than Dallas.
How come? The Cowboys do not only live by their aggressive play, they occasionally die by it too. Two numbers illustrate this, and show where the Patriots can find success.
The first is missed tackles, with Dallas having been unsuccessful on 39 takedown attempts. That statistic has the team ranked fifth in the league. It goes hand in hand with the second number to look at: yards after the catch. Through five games, the Cowboys have given up 900 yards after allowing receptions, ranking dead last from that perspective.
The question now becomes what this means for New England heading into Sunday’s matchup.
The first is obvious: if Mac Jones can successfully hit his receivers in stride, they could have a chance to gain additional yards. Whether it is through breaking tackles or taking advantage of bad and at times overaggressive angles, New England’s pass catchers will be in a good position if their young quarterback delivers accurate throws.
Jones is an accurate passer per se, but he did show some ups and downs last week against the Houston Texans when it came to placing balls ahead of his intended targets. Now is a good week to change this.
The other area New England can look at is scheme plays and how they challenge the communication and reactionary skills of the Dallas defense. Take a look at the following 28-yard pass play from the Cowboys’ Week 3 game against the Philadelphia Eagles:
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (#55) reacts too aggressively to the hand-off and moves out of position to help against tight end Dallas Goedert (#88) on a shallow crosser. This would not have been a problem by itself, but as can be seen there was a miscommunication between Vander Esch and defensive back Jayron Kearse (#27), who was originally in coverage of Goedert.
Dallas’ second-level defenders will shoot downhill too aggressively at times, which in turn will give New England some opportunities to make plays. More on that later, though.
For now, let’s focus on the overall aggressiveness of the defense, and the fact that the Patriots will get opportunities to use it to their advantage. That extends beyond yards after the catch, by the way: Dallas also is ranked first in the league in defensive penalties with 46 — another sign of a defense sometimes being too aggressive for its own good.
Get off to a fast start
File this one under “complementary football.” Starting fast is obviously important every week, but it will be imperative against a team as well-balanced as the Cowboys — one that has been able to seemingly do whatever it wanted offensively for the first few weeks of the season. One reason for that has been the team’s fast starts relative to their opponents.
Dallas is not immune to some slow starts either, but all in all this is a team built to play from ahead. New England, of course, has yet to show that it can be an antidote to this type of offense: the Patriots have started pretty slowly multiple times this season, digging themselves into holes on numerous occasions.
Last week’s game against the Texans was just the latest of them, but the script remained the same as far as the offense was concerned: the unit was again unable to come out firing and sustain any momentum it might have built through a touchdown scored on its first possession.
According to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, the Patriots know that slow starts are unacceptable against a team like Dallas.
“Everybody’s locking in, and not just dipping our toes in the water,” he said on Wednesday. “Making sure we jump in, ready to go from the time the ball’s kicked off. The season’s a long season, so we feel like we’re getting better every game, and that was a good step in the right direction last week.”
Communicate well up front
The Patriots’ offensive line did an admirable job against the Texans considering the circumstances. With four starters — all but center David Andrews — out, the unit had some good moments both in the passing and the running game: Mac Jones was sacked just once all day, while the running back group averaged 4.2 yards per carry for a total output of 126.
Of course, some context is important: Houston’s defensive front seven is clearly not among the top units in the league. Neither is the Cowboys’, but the unit is still a far more talented one. As such, it is also better equipped to take advantage of any personnel shortcomings up front.
Just ask Dallas’ opponent last week, the New York Giants.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn knew he would go up against a makeshift line, with the Giants being forced to move right tackle Nate Solder (#76) to the left side. Playing alongside him was left guard Matt Skura (#67) making just his second start at the position. The pairing not yet having played alongside each other was an area of concern for New York, and Dallas was able to capitalize.
Take a look at the following play as an example:
The Cowboys aligned Micah Parsons (#11) and Randy Gregory (#94) over the left side of the line, and the pair ran a stunt after the snap: Gregory moved inside instead of going up against Solder, which in turn meant that Parsons would attack the ex-Patriot. In turn, Skura was forced to move inside quickly to clog the A-gap and prevent Gregory from impacting the play. He couldn’t.
Dallas was able to get considerable pressure on Giants quarterback Daniel Jones by successfully attack the new-look line in front of him. With the Patriots possibly again forced to start more than one backup — Isaiah Wynn, Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason are still not practicing, with Trent Brown remaining on injured reserve — communication up front will be key.
Luckily for New England, the group it might field on Sunday now has one game of experience under its belt. That said, a starting line consisting of Justin Herron, James Ferentz, David Andrews, Ted Karras and Yodny Cajuste is a clear downgrade from one featuring the four players named above.
Challenge the off-ball linebackers in coverage
Even after the surprising release of former Pro Bowler Jaylon Smith two weeks ago, Dallas has some impressive talent in its off-the-ball linebacker group. Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal are all former first-round draft picks, with rookie Jabril Cox an impressive athlete that was added in the fourth round.
Linebacker talent is clearly not an issue for the Cowboys defense, but the unit has had some issues — especially in coverage. Just look at it from a statistical perspective:
Cowboys linebackers: Coverage stats
|Leighton Vander Esch||166||14||12||126||0||0||104.2|
While the group has yet to give up any passing touchdowns, it was targeted successfully by opposing quarterbacks all year long even after Smith was let go following multiple coverage mishaps. Needless to say that the Patriots might also be able to find success when going against the unit in the passing game, especially using their two new tight ends.
Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith have been comparatively quiet so far this season, and only been on the field together for roughly 25 percent of New England’s offensive snaps. On Sunday, however, they might have a golden opportunity to take on bigger roles.
After all, other teams have found success against the Dallas defense and its linebackers in particular using the tight end position: the position has caught 27 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns. Obviously, not all of this production came against the linebacker group listed above, but the gist remains.
The Patriots have multiple ways to get their linebackers involved. The play-action game is one method, because it feeds off of their aggressiveness — and has worked well for New England in the past. Take the following play run by the Eagles, which is similar to the one already outlined above:
As was the case on the first play featuring Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert, this one also sees a tight end find success on a crossing pattern. Zach Ertz (#86) maneuvers around the formation off a read-option concept, with Leighton Vander Esch (#55) unable to follow him in pursuit.
Philadelphia’s success using their tight ends off of play action — especially horizontally — will not be lost on the Patriots either. In combination with classic deep-shot play fakes it would not be a surprise if Josh McDaniels incorporated some of these concepts into his game plan.
Furthermore, the Patriots can use their tight ends to incorporate man coverage beaters. While defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is primarily known for establishing the old Seattle Seahawks’ Cover 3 — a zone based defensive scheme — he has incorporated more man-to-man looks into his defense in Dallas (primarily Cover 1).
New England has always used its tight ends to gain favorable matchups versus man coverage, and having Henry and Smith in the fold should help against the Cowboys as well.
This one goes without saying, but it needs to be mentioned here as well: the Patriots need to be able to finish drives, something they have struggled with so far this season. Whether it is red zone turnovers — looking your way, Damien Harris — or settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, squandering opportunities in the deep parts of the field is no way to beat a Cowboys team that potent on offense.
Luckily, New England faces a red zone defense that has also not stood out: opposing offenses have scored touchdown on 12 of 18 red zone trips against Dallas for a rate of 66.7 percent. Only 10 defenses in the league are worse.