Sunday’s game against the Cowboys is a case of “right place, right time” for the Patriots.
When healthy, the Cowboys have the offensive firepower and relentless pass rush to be a Super Bowl contender. But they are the opposite of healthy as they enter Sunday’s showdown with the Patriots riding a two-game losing streak.
They won’t have star quarterback Tony Romo for at least six more games as he heals a broken clavicle on the short-term injured reserve list. All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant also won’t be back for a while because of a broken foot.
Defensive captain Sean Lee, the communicator on the field, suffered a concussion this past Sunday against the Saints and is questionable. Running back Lance Dunbar, a big part of the passing game with 21 catches and a core contributor on special teams, suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
Receiver Brice Butler tweaked his hamstring last week, rookie pass rusher Randy Gregory is questionable with an ankle injury, and of course their No. 1 cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, is out for the year after a training camp knee injury.
So this won’t be the sexy quarterback matchup and potential Super Bowl preview that CBS had hoped for. And the Patriots should be able to take care of business, having had an extra week to prepare following the bye.
But the Cowboys, despite their injuries, have personnel that can cause problems — an excellent offensive line, dangerous receivers, and a fast, athletic defense.
The Cowboys are an unfamiliar foe — they haven’t faced the Patriots since 2011 or hosted them since 2007 — so we flipped on the coaches’ tape of the 26-20 overtime loss to the Saints to get a read on the Patriots’ next opponent.
The Cowboys are obviously a shell of their former selves with Brandon Weeden at quarterback instead of Romo. They have lost both of Weeden’s starts (to the Falcons and Saints) and have scored 10 points in the second halves of the games combined.
Weeden, 31, hasn’t inspired much faith, and the Cowboys traded for veteran Matt Cassel as insurance. Weeden has limited pocket awareness and had trouble sticking to the script against the Saints. If his first read isn’t there, he has trouble scanning the field, and he doesn’t sense the pass rush well.
The Cowboys smartly give him a lot of designed-read plays — screens and quick slants — and like to roll him out of the pocket to cut the field in half and make it easier for him to find a receiver.
But Weeden does have talent around him, even with Bryant not playing. The Cowboys have arguably the best offensive line in the league, with three former first-round picks, including left tackle Tyron Smith, a dominant blind-side protector who is in his fifth season yet amazingly doesn’t turn 25 years old until December.
What makes the linemen so good is that they are fast and athletic enough to make blocks in the second level, but they don’t sacrifice size for speed; Smith is 6 feet 5 inches and 320 pounds, right tackle Doug Free is 6-5, 325, guard Ronald Leary is 6-3, 320, and so on.
The Cowboys utilize a zone blocking scheme and like to run the outside stretch play, which they ripped off for several big runs early against the Saints.
Joseph Randle handles most of the ball-carrying duties, and has four touchdowns the last two weeks. It will be imperative for the Patriots’ run defenders to stay in their lanes and not overrun the play, and for the defense to have back-side protection at all times.
Weeden has some solid targets beyond Bryant. Even at 33, Jason Witten is still one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL, hauling in 25 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns this year, and providing solid blocking in the run game.
Terrance Williams is a 6-2 deep threat, and Weeden likes to throw him fades and jump balls in the end zone.
Losing Dunbar out of the backfield hurts, but expect them to feed the ball more to slot receiver Cole Beasley, who has 18 catches for 174 yards and is an obvious comparison to Julian Edelman with his 5-8 height.
Expect the Patriots to focus on stopping the run game, with Patrick Chung brought into the box as an extra defender. And as long as the Patriots can keep Weeden contained in the pocket and not give up any cheap deep passes to Williams, Weeden won’t be able to do enough on offense to keep up with Tom Brady.
The Cowboys’ defense is fairly simple, which in theory allows the players to play fast and swarm to the football. Under second-year coordinator Rod Marinelli, formerly of the Buccaneers, they play a basic four-man front, don’t blitz all too often, and play the Tampa 2, or the two-deep zone, as their base defense.
They’re trying to replicate the Bucs from a decade ago, with fourth-year pro Tyrone Crawford as Warren Sapp, weak-side linebacker Lee as Derrick Brooks, and strong safety Barry Church as John Lynch.
But the Cowboys do like to disguise their coverages and mix it up a little bit. They played a lot of Cover 1 man against the Saints (man coverage with one really deep safety) and will show Cover 3 and Cover 4 zones from time to time.
They also will occasionally zone blitz, with defensive end Jeremy Mincey dropping off into coverage on Anthony Hitchens’s sack last Sunday.
But Brady shouldn’t have too difficult of a time before the snap determining if the Cowboys are in zone or man defense. And with a full stable of healthy receivers, Brady shouldn’t have much trouble dissecting the Cowboys’ secondary. Without Scandrick, the Cowboys are very pedestrian in the secondary, with little-known J.J. Wilcox playing deep center field and cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Tyler Patmon providing mediocre coverage. The Cowboys also have been using rookie cornerback Byron Jones to cover tight ends, but they might want to consider more of a committee approach against Rob Gronkowski.
The Cowboys’ linebackers are fast, athletic, and active in pass coverage, and they will get linebacker Rolando McClain back for this game following his four-game suspension. And while they will bring a fifth pass rusher occasionally, they can generate a lot of quarterback pressure without blitzing.
Crawford, a second-year starter, gave the Saints fits up the middle and should be a good challenge for Patriots rookie center David Andrews. The Cowboys also have some tough edge rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence, Mincey, and Greg Hardy, who will make his Cowboys debut following his four-game suspension.
But this defense can be overpowered. Crawford is undersized as a 288-pound defensive tackle, and the linebackers are undersized, in the 225-245 pound range. The Patriots could have success pounding the ball with LeGarrette Blount in their two- and three-tight end packages, then using the play-action passing game off that.
And the Cowboys’ defensive hopes may ride on Lee passing the concussion protocol. They had significant communication issues after he left the game, and were completely out of sorts on C.J. Spiller’s game-winning 80-yard touchdown catch.