Follow Jeff on Twitter @BostonFatGuy
Like any heavyweight fight there will always be a favorite and an underdog. Sometimes the favorite months in advance can take a step back and become less likely to win. That is what we have this Sunday in Dallas, as the New England Patriots will visit the Dallas Cowboys. When the NFL schedule was released this spring, most fans and media of the Patriots went through the process of picking what game the team would win and lose. When looking at the Pats vs Boys in week five in May, this looked like a possible loss. At the time New England was uncertain if they would have Tom Brady at QB, and the Cowboys had Tony Romo and Dez Bryant going up against a Patriots secondary in complete turnover from 2014. How things can change.
Tom Brady was exonerated of his four game suspension thanks to a decision by Judge Berman, and he is now playing at his normal high level. For the Cowboys they are now dealing with a string of injuries that have truly hurt their team. Romo, Bryant and running back Lance Dunbar are out on the Cowboys offense. Dallas will start NFL journeyman Brandon Weeden at QB and that is a break for the Pats. While the Cowboys can still do some damage on the defense, the question will be can the team keep up with the high scoring Patriots offense. The answer looks to be a resounding no, but they do say any given Sunday.
Here are the keys to the Patriots and a victory in Dallas.
Stop the Run.
- The Pats were better their last game against the Jaguars in stopping the running game, however it is still a work in progress. The Pats made two trades during the bye week that should help shore up the defense. The acquisition of defensive lineman Aikem Hicks should aid in this. Hicks is a massive young defensive lineman who fell out of favor in New Orleans. Hicks had a breakout season in 2013 with 56 combined tackles and 6.5 sacks. He will be asked to work the middle of the field for the Patriots at defensive tackle when the team is in an even set. He is at his best when he can use his large frame and power to push offensive linemen up on their heels at the point of attack. Hicks along with bigger interior lineman Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga and Malcom Brown will have their hands full with a very good Dallas offensive line. Linebackers Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and the newly acquired Jon Bostic will be ask to provide second level protection against the run. Without Lance Dunbar the Cowboys will rely upon Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle to carry the load. Taking the running game away is key number one as this will put the ball in the hands of Brandon Weeden.
Bring the Heat.
- Weeden is having a decent run in place of Romo, completing 76% of his passes, including a clutch throw to tie the game in New Orleans last week on fourth down. Weeden has always had issues against solid pass rush and getting in his face makes him and every quarterback a less accurate passer. Weeden has been sacked five times in his two starts. The Patriots have 13 sacks on the season, good for fifth in the league despite playing only three games.One way to attack the offensive line of Dallas is bringing an extra rusher or two up the “A” gap or around the edge. It would not be surprising if we see the Patriots bringing heat from the corner back spot. The Pats have played a good mixture of man and zone in the secondary, a cover 3 look with pressure coming from the defensive line and potential outside pass rusher can confuse Weeden. With the release of Bradley Fletcher on Saturday the Patriots will look on Tarrell Brown, Justin Coleman and Logan Ryan opposite Malcolm Butler. Extra pressure means less time the defensive backs will have to cover a sneaky Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Witten.
.Protect the Franchise
- Through three games the young offensive line of the Patriots has played extremely well. Now they get some reinforcements back with Ryan Wendell most likely making his season debut. Wendell has played all the interior spots on the offensive line and has started two Super Bowls, one at center and one at right guard. Wendell will be eased in after missing much of training camp and the first three weeks of the season. Dallas is getting back pass rush specialist Greg Hardy back from suspension, and when he was with the Panthers in 2013 gave the Patriots fits with six tackles, a sack and countless quarterback hurries. It will be up to Nate Solder and Sebastian Volmer to neutralize the talented yet troubled Hardy. Look for Brady once again to get the ball out quick to Julian Edleman and Rob Gronkowski.
Dion Lewis in the Passing and Running Game.
- Fresh off signing a two year contract extension, Lewis is third on the team in receptions and leads the team in total touches. While Dallas’ defense ranks ninth against the run, they had huge issues against Atlanta’s Devonte Freeman, a running back with a similar build and style to Lewis. Lewis will be used on all downs, and will be a great option on check downs should the pass rush get after Brady. Lewis was used a lot against the Jags and he came threw in all phases of the game. Lewis has the skill set to gain over 100 total yards on the game. Expect to see him featured at the start of the game, and then Blount getting the clock killing carries.
And the Winner is.
The Patriots should have an easier time than previously expected in this game. Tom Brady and the passing offense will continue their hot start. Dallas has bigger corners that will have issues dealing with Edelman and Amendola. Gronkowski’s tour de force will continue at AT&T stadium. No team has what it takes to stop the Gronk. This should be a good test for the Patriots defense against a very good offensive line. I expect big games out of Jabaal Sheard and Chandler Jones. Jamie Collins will have his hands full with Witten, The Patriots just have too much fire power for the Cowboys and should win 38-17.
Listen to my Podcast Patriots Beat for more audio breakdown of the game.