The New England Patriots will travel to Dallas this weekend to take on a Cowboys team that is among the best in the NFL, even after getting upset by the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday. The team of head coach Mike McCarthy, after all, is as well-balanced as any in football: it is strong in all three phases, and has looked good in both the passing and running games.
For the Patriots to come away victoriously and improve to 2-2 on the season, a lot has to go right — from eliminating self-inflicted mistakes, to finishing drives with touchdowns rather than field goals, to continuing to play sound defense. The pressure to do all those things falls on every player on the roster.
Of course, some might be under more pressure than others this week considering who New England will be up against. Let’s therefore take a look at some X-factors, starting at the offensive tackle position.
X-factor: Trent Brown and Vederian Lowe
Led by two-time first-team All-Pro Micah Parsons, the Cowboys defense is one of the most disruptive you will find. It is tied for third in the NFL with 12 sacks, and ranks fifth with a pressure rate of 29.1 percent — all while blitzing at the 10th-highest rate in the league at 31.1 percent. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn knows how to use the tools at his disposal to throw an opposing offense off, and it all starts with his edge rush.
On the one side, you have the aforementioned Micah Parsons, who Pro Football Focus has listed with a team-high 17 quarterback pressures. Parsons is one of the best defenders in football right now, and the Patriots know they have to treat him as such.
He is not the only problem, though. DeMarcus Lawrence, who has 11 disruptions to his name, is no slouch either. He is the Ying to Parsons’ Yang, and allowing Dallas to attack both edges without much of a drop-off on either side.
The numbers reflect this: Lawrence ranks sixth in the NFL among qualifying pass rushers with a pressure rate of 20.0 percent; Parsons’ ranks seventh at 19.8.
They are not the only Cowboys defenders who rank among the most effective pass rushers so far in 2023. Sam Williams, a rotational edge, ranks ninth at 19.6. Dorance Armstrong, who does not qualify because he falls under the 45-rush threshold, has disrupted the QB on 20.5 percent of his 39 rushes.
Needless to say, the Patriots’ offensive tackle duo of Trent Brown and Vederian Lowe needs to be at its A-game on Sunday. If they cannot win their one-on-ones consistently, the offense and quarterback Mac Jones might be in for a long day.
Other X-factors this week
Pharaoh Brown: Depending on how the game unfolds, the Patriots might want to give either Brown or, more likely, Lowe some help in blocking Parsons, Lawrence, and company. That role would likely fall on the tight end position, and one player in particular: Pharaoh Brown, who might be used to double-team the potent pass rushers or chip them at the line. In addition, he also could be a factor as a fullback in the running game.
Play-action game: The Patriots are coming off their best day running the football this season, and they will face a defense that is more vulnerable on the ground (-0.081 EPA/play; 17th) than it is through the air (-0.269 EPA/play; 3rd). New England probably wants to establish its run game to take advantage of this, and set up play-action shots downfield. Just look at it this way: Dallas’ defense ranks 27th in yards allowed per play-action attempt through three games.
Christian Gonzalez: The newly-minted NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month will go up against another high-quality wide receiver corps this season. CeeDee Lamb, who leads the Cowboys in targets (24), catches (19) and receiving yards (273) will likely be his primary matchup and the youngster putting the clamps on him would be good news for a defense that also has to worry about Michael Gallup and Brandin Cooks.
WR2 and WR3: Speaking of Gallup and Cooks, the Patriots have been uneven defending second and third weapons this year. According to FTN Fantasy’s DVOA metric, they rank 23rd against WR2s (16.4%) and just 28th against WR3s (42.2%). Likewise, Dallas is uneven in this area as well: the Cowboys, like New England, are strong against WR1s (-25.0%; 3rd) but not necessarily world-beaters against WR2s (9.4%; 20th).
Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai: The Cowboys under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have relied heavily on the running game through three games this year: Tony Pollard ranks second in the league with 62 rushing attempts; the team as a whole ranks third with 107. Accordingly, the Patriots’ run defense around off-ball linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai will be tested early and often.