FOXBOROUGH — Where to begin when assessing the challenge that is the Dallas Cowboys and their high-flying, explosive offense?
“They’re No. 1 or 2 in almost every category,” Patriots outside linebacker Matthew Judon said Wednesday. “They’re scoring a lot of points. Are they No. 1 in scoring?”
The Cowboys are actually ranked second in the NFL in scoring, tallying 170 points through five games. Only the Buffalo Bills have more, with 172.
But Judon is right: Dallas ranks at the top of the league in several important statistics, including touchdowns (tied first, 21), total yards (second, 2,198), rushing yards (second, 864), third-down conversion percentage (second, 51.6), and average yards per play (third, 6.5).
“This is probably our biggest challenge to date,” said Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.
During the first team meeting of the offseason, Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore made his intentions clear when, according to running back Ezekiel Elliot, he told the group that their goal is to become the league’s No. 1 offense.
Things are certainly off to a good start.
Quarterback Dak Prescott, who suffered a season-ending compound fracture and dislocation to his right ankle last year, is playing perhaps the best football of his career. He ranks among the league’s best this season in completion percentage (second, 73.9), quarterback rating (second, 116.9), and passing touchdowns (tied third, 13).
“The guy throwing the ball has a lot of resilience, as you can see, coming back from what he went through last year,” said Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “He’s just been great, inside the pocket, outside the pocket, making decisions and stuff.”
Added Judon: “He’s reading defenses very well, and he’s getting the ball out of his hands fast. I don’t know if it’s Dak making his wide receivers look good or wide receivers making Dak look good, but it’s working.”
Prescott’s weapons are aplenty, with wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, tight end Dalton Schultz, and running backs Elliot and Tony Pollard. The offensive line, anchored by two veterans in guard Zack Martin and tackle Tyron Smith, is also elite.
Cooper and Lamb both have more than 300 receiving yards, and Schultz leads the team with 26 receptions. Each has caught at least one pass of 30 yards or more.
“It’s great to be on an offense this talented,” Lamb said Sunday after their win over the Giants. “We have so many offensive weapons and we feel like we can score from any point. Any point on the field it’s like we’re in the strike zone.”
The Patriots’ defense will need to put forth a stronger showing against the Cowboys than it did against the Texans Sunday, when rookie Davis Mills threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns.
Mills burned New England’s secondary on three plays of significant yardage: a 67-yard touchdown, a 37-yard flea-flicker touchdown, and a 40-yard reception on fourth down.
The return of defensive back Jalen Mills, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury, will be important. His replacement, third-year cornerback Joejuan Williams, was eventually benched after giving up multiple big gains.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson and Mills, if available, likely will be tasked with containing Cooper and Lamb. If the Patriots adopt a strategy similar to the one they used to limit the Buccaneers to 19 points, then each defensive back will shadow a receiver, à la how Jackson matched up against Mike Evans, Jonathan Jones against Antonio Brown, and Mills against Chris Godwin.
Mills was once again limited during Wednesday’s practice, as were safety Kyle Dugger (hamstring) and cornerback Jones (ankle).
Jones said the Patriots needed to exhibit better awareness and will work to play better situational football to take away Prescott’s reads. Judon also stressed the importance of stopping the run and playing physical to make the offense as one-dimensional as possible.
The Patriots will have their work cut out for themselves at seemingly all areas of Dallas’s offense.
“[The Cowboys] have a great run game to complement the pass game,” said outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick. “You turn them on and are like, ‘Oh. This is a problem and that’s a problem. This is a problem and that is a problem.’ So, how are we going to combat that stuff and try to make it hard on them and do what we need to do?”
Echoed coach Bill Belichick: “We know we’re going to have to play our best game. That’s what we’re getting ready to do.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.