While they returned to the win column in Week 5, the New England Patriots will need to show significant improvements to stay there through Week 6 as well. The 4-1 Dallas Cowboys are coming to town, after all, and with them one of the most talented teams in the league right now.
In order to come away victoriously, the Patriots will need to play a more consistent game than they did last week versus the Houston Texans top to bottom. As far as the matchup with Dallas is concerned, though, the following five players in particular are worth keeping a close eye on.
S Devin McCourty
Coming off “probably one of the top five worst games that I’ve played since being on the Patriots,” according to the man himself, New England will need Devin McCourty to return to his usual high form quickly. Dallas, after all, fields one of the best offenses in the game — a unit featuring a boatload of talent in both the passing and the running games that is capable of producing junk plays regardless of the situation.
The Patriots struggled defending the big play in Week 5, in part due to McCourty taking himself out of position through uncharacteristically bad pursuit angles. The same thing cannot happen against Dallas, or else it will be a long day at the office for the entire defense.
CB J.C. Jackson
Devin McCourty was not the only Patriots defensive back to show some inconsistency against the Texans last Sunday; J.C. Jackson also was not on his A-game for parts of that contest. He better be against the Cowboys, though, given that his projected assignment is one of the most challenging in the NFL: Dallas wideout Amari Cooper.
Jackson said on Thursday that he sees Cooper as a top five wide receiver in the league, which is a fair assessment. So, how will he win the matchup against him? By disrupting his timing and being physical throughout the route. That is, of course, easier said than done.
LB Matthew Judon
When it comes to firepower, Dallas offense is similar to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ — a unit that was successfully slowed down by the Patriots defense. There is another element to the Cowboys’ attack, though: Dak Prescott’s scrambling abilities.
Prescott is superb at extending plays with his feet and taking advantage of potential openings up front. Needless to say that New England’s defensive linemen cannot allow him to get past them, especially those aligning at the edge.
Among them is Matthew Judon, who will play an important role on Sunday. Not only is he the Patriots’ best pass rusher, he also has proven himself a disciplined disruptor and a player capable of setting a stout edge versus the run if need be. Doing all of that will be imperative against the Cowboys, not only versus Prescott but also the talented one-two punch at running back (Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard).
TE Jonnu Smith
As was already mentioned in our offensive preview, the Cowboys have had their fair share of issues when covering tight ends; they are ranked 31st by Football Outsiders in that category. The Patriots, meanwhile, have two of the most talented in the game under contract: Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, two players whose performance will be crucial against Dallas.
While Henry has looked good so far this season and seems to be developing some good chemistry with quarterback Mac Jones, Smith has been a bit more quiet: five games into his Patriots career, he has caught 15 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. Despite his comparatively modest production, one of his teammates and fellow offseason additions is feeling confident that Smith will soon hit his stride.
“He’s going to come on,” Henry said during a press conference on Thursday. “I’m excited to see him break out.”
Dallas should present a golden opportunity for Smith to do just that.
S Adrian Phillips
Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb are as dangerous a wide receiver duo as there is in the NFL, but the Cowboys’ leading receiver as far as receptions is actually somebody else. Tight end Dalton Schultz has caught 26 passes so far this season for 280 yards and 3 touchdowns — all while serving as a safety blanket of sorts for Dak Prescott.
Taking Schultz out of the game will not be easy, but New England does have a capable group of box safeties led by Adrian Phillips. The veteran is expected to see considerable action against the Cowboys’ TE1, and him winning that battle will go a long way towards disrupting Dallas’ potent attack.