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Patriots vs Cowboys preview: How New England’s defense might find success in Week 6

Related: Patriots vs Cowboys preview: How New England’s offense might find success in Week 6

NFL: SEP 12 Dolphins at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What a difference a year can make. After struggling to a 6-10 record in 2020, the Dallas Cowboys are entering this week’s matchup against the New England Patriots as one of the best teams in football: after losing its opening day game against the reigning champions, Dallas went on a four-game winning streak.

While the team’s opportunistic has played an important role so far this season, the team would not be 4-1 without its high-powered offense. A look at the numbers shows just how good the unit coordinated by former NFL quarterback Kellen Moore has been.

Dallas’ offense is ranked second in both scoring (31.2 points/game) as well as in yards (439.6 yards/game). It is putting up points on 50.9 percent of its drive (4th) and is scoring an average of 2.91 points per series (2nd). It also features a top-notch passing attack that is gaining 7.6 net yards per attempts (5th), and a ground game ranked top-six in attempts (163/3rd), yards (864/2nd), yards per carry (5.3/3rd) and touchdowns (6/6th).

The unit also is among the best in the league in EPA per play on both dropbacks (0.259/5th) and rushing attempts (0.026/4th); has a top-two DVOA number (33.9%), and has turned the ball over only five times (9th).

Long story short, the Patriots, as cornerback Jonathan Jones put it, will have their work cut out for them. Head coach Bill Belichick also sang Dallas’ praises during one of his press conferences this week.

“They’re good at everything,” he said. “I think Moore is one of the better offensive coordinators that we’ve faced. He does a good job. It’s not just the players. They have a good scheme. They’re well balanced. They do a lot of things that complement other things that they do. They put a lot of stress on the defense.”

With that said, let’s find out how New England might be able to find some success against this impressive Cowboys offense.

Stay disciplined

Its game against the Houston Texans was an exercise in inconsistency for the Patriots defense. The unit struggled in the first half, with two of the biggest problems being bad pursuit angles and allowing quarterback Davis Mills to leave the pocket to extend plays.

While New England ultimately settled down in the second half, those two areas need to see some major improvements going against the Cowboys. If the Patriots defense does not play a more disciplined game, it could run into some major problems.

Just ask the New York Giants, who were beaten 44-22 by the Cowboys last week. One of the biggest passing plays of the day, for example, was the result of the Giants defense losing contain and allowing Dak Prescott (#4) to buy some extra time:

NFL GamePass

The Giants initially played the down well, forcing Prescott to drift around the pocket and go through his progressions. The defense was able to do that by using some tight coverage in the backend and and effective four-man pass rush. At one point, however, inside linebacker Carter Coughlin (#52) decided to join the party when he saw a chance to get to Prescott.

Coughlin had initially dropped out of his pass rush to serve as a quarterback spy. He mirrored Prescott’s movements in the pocket, but at one point decided to get aggressive: Coughlin moved forward to attack around left tackle Tyron Smith (#77). To his credit, he did get around Smith, who was now facing two pass rushers; he also got close to Prescott but his overaggressiveness ultimately allowed the play to break down from New York’s perspective.

Prescott, after all, saw an opening and exploited it. With Coughlin no longer guarding the second level, the QB was free to take off to his right and buy more time. This, in turn, allowed tight end Dalton Schultz (#86) to create just enough space against safety Logan Ryan (#23). The result of the play: a gain of 30 yards.

Prescott could have advanced the ball with his feet on this particular play, but the Cowboys quarterback has enough awareness to recognize the situation and see a passing lane if one presents itself. This is what makes him such a dangerous quarterback: he knows how to keep plays alive but does not entirely rely on his running ability to make yards (even though his 4.6-yard average per running attempt is very good).

As a result, New England will need to play a sound game up front and show some proper gap discipline. The edge rush cannot run past Prescott to give him any space, while the interior D-line has to hold its position and not allow him to climb the pocket.

Prescott may be the most prominent problem, but he is far from the only one. The skill position players also cannot get opportunities to break tackles as easily as the Texans’ did last week.

Dallas is more than equipped to take advantage of any breakdowns the Patriots might have. And if the team does just that and builds a lead on New England, the home team could be in trouble: the Cowboys playing the game on their terms would free up Kellen Moore to use the entirety of his playbook and create a healthy mix of running and passing — the same mix that has allowed his unit to become one of the best in football right now.

Control the gaps versus the run

Slowing down Dallas’ passing game is a major challenge for any defense, but the offense as a whole also knows how to successfully move the football on the ground. Having the likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard in the backfield will help you do that, as will one of the best offensive lines in the entire league.

New England has been solid stopping opposing rushing attempts when measured by conventional statistics — giving up 3.8 yards per attempt (6th) — but the unit is ranked just 21st in defensive EPA per run play (-0.053). It is no secret that there is room for improvement.

That improvement better comes quickly, especially, as we will see in a second, if the Patriots opt to go lighter up front in order to create a more favorable matchup in the passing game. The pressure will therefore be on the front seven, especially the big-bodied defensive linemen asked to control the gaps and free up the linebackers: Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore and Carl Davis.

The four defenders face a big challenge given that Dallas is among the best teams in the league when it comes to running between the tackles. This is a credit to Elliott and Prescott, but also to interior linemen Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz and Zack Martin; running behind the three the Cowboys are gaining an average of 5.4 yards per attempt.

While starting center Biadasz has shown some weaknesses as a pass protector, he has played some good football when asked to run-block alongside the impressive guard duo of Williams and Martin — with the latter being possibly the best right guard in the league right now. Standing their ground against the trio will not be easy, and Godchaux, Guy and company will have to bring their A-game in order to control the gaps up front and help slow Dallas’ potent ground game down.

On paper, unfortunately, Dallas appears to have an advantage.

Mix up the coverages

After ending the 2020 season on injured reserve due to a severe ankle injury, Dak Prescott is not just the current frontrunner to earn the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award; he also is fairly in the mix as the league’s Most Valuable Player at the moment. His play has been very good, after all, and the numbers illustrate it.

Completing 73.9 percent of his pass attempts through five games (122 of 165), Prescott has gained 1,368 yards while throwing 13 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. His EPA per play (0.210) has him ranked 12th among all QBs in the league. For comparison, the Patriots’ Mac Jones is ranked 23rd in the same statistic (0.091).

There is no way around it: Prescott has been very good this season, and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has designed an offense well-suited to take advantage of his skillset.

Slowing him — and in turn the Dallas passing offense as a whole — down will be a major challenge for the Patriots. However, teams have had some success against them when using two-high coverage shells as pointed out by CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar:

Dak Prescott: One-high vs Two-high coverage

Coverage Completion % Touchdowns Interceptions Pass Yards/Attempt Air Yards/Attempt EPA/Play
Coverage Completion % Touchdowns Interceptions Pass Yards/Attempt Air Yards/Attempt EPA/Play
One-high shells 73.3 8 1 10.7 10.2 0.63
Two-high shells 70.6 5 2 6.4 6.9 -0.22

The problem with this chart from the Patriots’ perspective is that they are primarily a one-deep team running their defense out of a variation of Cover 1. Bill Belichick traditionally trusts his cornerbacks not to get deep beat, which in turn allows him to use only one deep safety (Devin McCourty) plus another (Adrian Phillips/Kyle Dugger) in run support closer to the line of scrimmage.

Playing one-deep is asking for trouble against the Dallas offense, however. The team’s pass catchers are simply too good to be left on an island, regardless of who the cornerbacks guarding them are.

Take this play from the Cowboys’ opening day loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

NFL GamePass

Tampa Bay is running a single-high man-to-man coverage and the Cowboys call the perfect counter play with two deep routes on each side of the formation. Up top CeeDee Lamb (#88) is running a deep post, with Amari Cooper (#19) running a corner route from a three-man bunch on the right side of the formation.

This concept is meant to put pressure on deep safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (#31), who has to decide whether to help out against Lamb or Cooper. His split-second hesitation is all that Dallas needed; Cooper was able to get free over the top against Ross Cockrell (#43) and that was all she wrote.

J.C. Jackson, who will likely see plenty of Cooper on Sunday, is a better cornerback than Ross Cockrell. However, even he is not immune to being burned deep by a wide receiver he called “top five” just earlier this week. The same goes for the other matchups across the board; the Cowboys have tremendous speed and big play ability in their ranks — and the numbers above illustrate just how effective they have therefore been against single-high looks.

So, could New England incorporate more two-deep shells (e.g. Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6) against Dallas? That certainly could happen, given that Belichick has not been afraid of changing up his coverages if need be. Past games against the Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs are an example for that.

The problem with that is that the Cowboys, as noted above, are very good at moving the ball on the ground. If the Patriots therefore take another body away from the box to serve as a second deep safety alongside McCourty, the front-line defenders will need to hold down the fort on a consistent basis. On the other hand, if New England decides to keep running one-deep the cornerbacks have to be able to win their matchups.

The primary goal, however, has to be to take away the home run and force Dallas to string plays together. It would not be a surprise to see the Patriots try to achieve this by changing up their coverages and incorporating more two-high looks than they normally would use.

Get physical

The Cowboys’ passing offense functions in large part because of Moore’s play designs and Prescott’s impressive and steady performance, but its receiving talent also cannot be underestimated. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb are as good a one-two punch at the wide receiver position as you will find in the NFL; Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin offer playmaking ability at tight end; Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Prescott are both able receivers out of the backfield.

For the Patriots, throwing them off their rhythm will be key.

Take Amari Cooper, who is one of the best wide receivers in the game and the Cowboys’ top option. Cooper is not among the most physically imposing wide receivers at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, but he is as good a route-runner as there is in the league. His likely assignment — Patriots CB1 J.C. Jackson — will need to disrupt him as much as possible.

That means jamming him at the line of scrimmage, sticking close to him through the stem and over the top of the route, and getting in his way at the catch-point. That is obviously easier said than done, but New England’s defensive success will largely depend on consistent performance in this area not just against Cooper but Prescott’s entire arsenal of weapons.

If the Patriots can disrupt the timing and rhythm of the Dallas aerial attack, they will significantly increase their chances of making just enough stops to come away victoriously.