The Patriots are en route to Dallas for Sunday's tilt with the Cowboys, and the team has ruled out two starters on their way to the Lone Star State.
After being limited all week in practice and being listed as questionable on Friday's injury report, starting cornerback Jonathan Jones (ankle) and G Cole Strange (knee) were downgraded to out on Saturday. They will not play on Sunday in Dallas. For Jones, the veteran corner will miss his third-straight game after sustaining a mid-week injury heading into Week 2, while Strange will miss his second game this season with a knee injury that occurred early in training camp.
Starting with the offensive line, Strange didn't finish last week's win over the Jets, with rookie fifth-rounder Atonio Mafi stepping into his spot at left guard. Strange was inconsistent in his 44 snaps in a tough matchup, mostly going toe-to-toe with Jets stud DT Quinnen Williams. Although he made progress in sniffing out defensive line movement in pass protection, Strange allowed three quarterback pressures and gave up ground in the running game before exiting the game.
With the fifth-rounder likely to start at left guard, Mafi doesn't have the movement skills that Strange possesses, making him a slight downgrade in pass protection. But the Pats rookie is a stout run blocker with a body type that lends itself to better-leveraging blocks. Based on our small practice window this week, it's not surprising that Strange is now out, meaning Mafi likely got plenty of practice reps at left guard.
The tricky part of this swap is the superstar lining up on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Cowboys pass-rusher Micah Parsons is a handful to block, with excellent first-step explosiveness and fluidity to change directions. Parson is also a problem on line stunts, which could give Mafi problems. The Patriots and center David Andrews will need to help Mafi as often as possible in pass protection, especially since Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will likely use Parsons to target Mafi in the passing game.
After downgrading Strange to out, the Patriots starting offensive line could look like this: LT Trent Brown, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Michael Onwenu, and RT Vederian Lowe. If the rookie struggles, fellow first-year OL Sidy Sow could get an opportunity after clearing concussion protocol. Despite often working at tackle this summer, Sow started most of his collegiate games at left guard and is a more athletic pass blocker than Mafi, who is known more for his run-blocking prowess.
Moving over to the defense, the Patriots secondary will be missing CB Jonathan Jones for the third consecutive game with an ankle injury. With in-season injured reserve being a four-week absence, Jones is likely on the cusp of returning, but the team is taking the long view. Without the veteran corner last week, the Pats used a cornerback trio of rookie Christian Gonzalez, DB Myles Bryant, and third-year corner Shaun Wade. Wade made the trip with the team to Dallas, but the Ohio State product is also questionable with a shoulder injury for Sunday's game.
The Patriots secondary will need to stick with a Cowboys receiving corps that includes CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and Michael Gallup. Lamb is the go-to guy, accounting for more of his team's receiving yards than any receiver in the NFL. Gonzalez will likely match up with Lamb, coming off Defensive Rookie of the Month honors, Bryant will run with an old friend in Cooks, and Wade will play outside to cover the jump-ball artist in Gallup.
After opting not to elevate any practice squad players last week, the Patriots are elevating DL Jeremiah Pharms to the active roster for Sunday's game. This is Pharms's first standard elevation this season, as he could make his NFL debut this week if he's active. The initial takeaway from elevating Pharms is that DL Davon Godchaux (ankle) and DL Christian Barmore (knee) are both questionable on the injury report. The Pats D-Lineman did travel with the team to Dallas on Saturday, so they haven't been ruled out, but they could be viewed as game-time decisions. Godchaux, who left last Sunday's win over the Jets in the second quarter, might be in jeopardy of missing this game.
New England's run defense has a huge challenge with a Cowboys offense that ranks eighth in EPA per rush with the fourth-highest rushing rate through three weeks. Pharms's sturdy run defense flashed throughout the preseason with seven stops on 61 run defense snaps this past summer. Pharms plays with solid leverage and a low center of gravity to stand his ground in the Pats two-gapping roles.
Although they're not known commodities like Barmore and Godchaux, Pharms and second-year DL Sam Roberts could step into early-down run-stopping roles if necessary. After placing interior pass-rusher Daniel Ekuale on injured reserve earlier this week, second-rounder Keion White could also see increased playing time. White has played 60 defensive snaps in the first three weeks, logging six hurries in 34 pass snaps. Following a solid rookie camp, White's role should continue to increase.
The Patriots will battle the Cowboys in Jerry World on Sunday with kickoff at 4:25 p.m. ET.