The Patriots have a golden opportunity as they conclude a four-game gauntlet to start the season with a trip to Jerry World on Sunday in Dallas.
When the schedule was released in May, the opening month to the season looked daunting: an opener against the defending NFC champs, a matchup with a high-powered Dolphins team, the new-look Jets with a fantastic defense and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, and a road trip to many pundits NFC favorites in the Cowboys. To most, the first four games were about survival.
New England caught a break taking care of business with a win over Zach Wilson's Jets following Rodgers's likely season-ending injury in Week 1, putting themselves in a position to split a challenging opening slate.
Realistically, if someone told you back in May that the Patriots would be 2-2 heading into a softer spot in the schedule against the Saints (home) and a trip to Vegas before back-to-back divisional bouts with the Bills and Dolphins, you'd probably take that. That might speak to the current state of things that an even split is a win nowadays, but that's the world we live in now with this team.
Although that's a nice positive spin, the Patriots need to finish the first quarter an even .500 with a win when they visit the Cowboys on Sunday. Despite losing CB Trevon Diggs for the season, Dallas has a significant roster talent advantage here. They have a star quarterback, a number one receiver, an explosive running back, and, for my money, the second-best player in football in unblockable pass-rusher Micah Parsons (behind Mahomes). Plus, Dallas has at least two and possibly three offensive linemen that, when healthy, would start in New England.
Despite the talent gap making Dallas a rightful home favorite (DAL -7), there are elements to this matchup and progress by the Patriots offense that give us hope for a competitive game and potentially even a Pats road upset.
The Patriots have offensive deficiencies that stem from issues along the O-Line that impact a quarterback with his own warts and a lack of receiving talent to create plays. New England is again seeing man coverage at a high rate (fourth-most), and Mac Jones ranks 27th out of 34 quarterbacks in completion rate (47.2%) and dead-last in total EPA into man coverage.
Those problems in the passing game will persist until the Patriots upgrade their offensive talent, which won't happen by Sunday. But there were signs that offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is finding a rhythm with utilizing the personnel they currently have, while New England's rushing attack showed the first real improvement this season in Week 3.
On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys are fifth in points and seventh in expected points added, but Dallas's old-school approach doesn't necessarily look dangerous on film. With head coach Mike McCarthy calling for a shift, Dallas leads the league in under-center rate and has the fourth-highest rushing percentage.
The Cowboys want to run the ball and are good at it. They also have a spread package with Dak Prescott in the gun that's mostly quick-game, RPO, and go balls to CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Prescott is on pace to have his lowest average air yards per attempt of his career (6.2), and nearly half of his throws are slants, flats, or hitches.
Along with the Patriots improving defensively, schematically, this isn't the high-flying Cowboys offense that put up 567 total yards in a 35-29 overtime win over the Patriots in the 2021 season.
As we'll outline next in our keys to victory, Bill Belichick's defense matches up well against this Cowboys offense, while the Pats rushing attack could exploit Dallas's run defense like the Cardinals did in Week 3. With two old-school coaching mentalities, this is a win-the-line-of-scrimmage kind of week. The letdown game in Arizona might rally the troops for the Cowboys, or it was a blueprint for the Patriots to pull off another upset.
Here are our keys to victory and marquee matchups for the Patriots in Sunday's showdown in Dallas:
Defensive Key - Let the Cowboys Offense Keep the Score Down by Going Toe-to-Toe in the Run Game
Let's be frank for a second, the Cowboys philosophical "shift" offensively is not very schematically inspiring.
Dallas went from a new-age offensive mind in Kellen Moore to head coach Mike McCarthy calling plays. After parting ways with Moore last offseason, McCarthy cited philosophical differences, saying the 35-year-old Moore wants to "light up the scoreboard," while the 60-year-old McCarthy wants to "run the damn ball so I can rest my defense."
Does that sound familiar to anyone around here?
The difference between the Patriots and Cowboys is that Dallas willingly adopted a more conservative offensive approach despite having a proven quarterback with weapons around him. McCarthy has neutered poor Dak with two-man routes off play-action and endless amounts of slant-flat. It's been effective enough to win, but it doesn't lend itself to high-scoring game scripts, especially for a well-equipped Patriots defense.
As we mentioned, Dallas leads the league in under-center usage and plays multiple tight ends at a high rate, while McCarthy has stayed true to his word by committing to the run. After a dominant defensive effort fueled a 40-point blowout win in the opener, the Cowboys have kicked eight field goals in the last two games with a red zone offense that ranks 27th in the NFL, bottoming out last week with only 16 points (1-5 in the red zone).
Although the Cowboys are more explosive than the Patriots, the big picture is similar. Dallas grinds out drives (7.7 plays per drive, most in NFL), stalling out more than they'd like, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns (NFL-high ten field goals in the first three weeks).
Getting into the Patriots gameplan, the Cardinals gave the Pats a blueprint in their big win last week. Arizona's formula was limiting the Cowboys to only eight offensive drives with a dominant run game and forcing Dallas into long drives on offense to score. Defensively, the Cardinals had a game plan similar to New England's against the Jets last Sunday in the Meadowlands.
Arizona played 32 snaps in a base 3-4 defense against Dallas's under-center formations. By playing heavy personnel, the Cardinals kept the Cowboys from completely gashing them on the ground as they built a lead. Arizona then played zone coverage, mostly split-safety zone, to have a five-man underneath zone distribution to take short passes, while the deep safeties and middle-hole defender took away play-action shots. The Cowboys successfully ran the ball even down multiple offensive linemen, but Arizona held them to 5.5 yards per pass, made several key red zone stops in the second half, and Dallas's scoring drives were 10, 13, 13, and 12 plays.
The Pats used a similar strategy, albeit against a much lesser quarterback, in their win over the Jets. New England played 21 snaps in base defense and 16 pass plays in the split-safety zone, limiting New York's rushing attack to 1.7 yards per rush in a 15-10 win.
Although it's against tougher competition, the plan shouldn't change much this week. The opponent's head coach and offensive play-caller has publicly proclaimed that Dallas wants to be a run-heavy operation, and they aren't running the ball from spread formations with Dak involved on designed quarterback runs as often. Unless the Cowboys completely change their approach, this is smash-mouth football with a Pats team that's more than willing to play that brand of defense, and Dallas has several injuries along its offensive line that are worth monitoring.
If I'm Belichick, I'd put my big defensive packages on the field, go toe-to-toe with Dallas's rushing attack, and let McCarthy keep this a low-scoring game that the Patriots can win.
Offensive Key - Exploit the Cowboys Run Defense, Absence of CB Trevon Diggs
One of the biggest positives from the win over the Jets last week was the progress the Patriots rushing attack made from a blocking standpoint.
After ranking dead-last in PFF run-blocking grade in the first two games (39.1), offensive line coach Adrian Klemm's group was much better with their fundamentals and execution on double-team blocks to generate movement to create holes for the Pats RBs. New England's run-blocking grade improved to 72.4, fifth-best in Week 3, against a stingy Jets defensive front. Part of that was a return to more gap run schemes (20) compared to zone blocking (8), as offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien called for more designs with pullers and lead blockers. Although it still only netted 13 points, the Patriots ran for a season-high 157 rushing yards, re-establishing the line of scrimmage and play-action effectiveness to balance out the offense.
Looking at the box score from last week's loss to the Cardinals, exposing a Cowboys run defense that allowed 222 rushing yards at 7.4 yards per attempt sounds juicy. However, there's something to be said for the fact that Arizona snuck up on the Dallas defense, which should be more locked in this week, and prepared to stop the run against the Patriots. The Pats also have a run-heavy identity, and Dallas will want to put quarterback Mac Jones in unfavorable down and distances to let Parsons and company tee off.
At the same time, it was evident last week that the Dallas secondary was disjointed without All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Similarly to the run defense, Dallas was stunned by an in-practice injury to their top cornerback heading into the Cardinals game, so defensive coordinator Dan Quinn should have them more tied together with a full week of practice reps for Diggs's understudies opposite Stephon Gilmore. Still, the Cardinals exposed the aggressiveness of the Cowboys defensive front in ways that the Patriots could try to replicate, and the cover talent took a huge hit without Diggs.
Starting in the running game, Arizona used Dallas's aggressiveness against them by scripting misdirection runs and inviting Parsons upfield when he's an in-line defensive end. Parsons wants to shoot gaps to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, so the Cardinals let him get vertical and then washed him down to create rushing lanes for RB James Conner and others. Dallas also likes to slant its line to knife into gaps, so if you get them slanting in the wrong direction, you're in business.
For example, the Cardinals set up the blocking angles to hit a zone windback scheme by having the O-Line block outside zone to the right, causing the front to flow in that direction. Then, quarterback Josh Dobbs uses a ball fake to further sell the weakside zone run, which gets the linebackers to false step. Arizona left tackle D.J. Humphries lets Parson get upfield before washing him down, the Cardinals release the in-line tight end upfield with the backside receiver "sifting" across the formation to block the play-side corner, and Conner is gone.
Another effective scheme for the Cardinals was a pin-pull sweep to run at Parsons. This time, the play-side tackle and guard pull while the two tight ends pin the line down, and Parsons is again caught too far upfield as Conner runs untouched into the end zone.
With an explosive player like Parsons, running at the Cowboys star could lead to boom-or-bust or results. Either you'll gash them as Arizona did, or Parsons will blow the play up in the backfield if the down blocks are too slow. But based on the film, it's better than running away from Parsons because his pursuit and freedom to shoot gaps make him a menace coming off the backside. The Pats major in gap runs rather than zone schemes, so they might dress it up differently with more draws or traps/whams, but the concept remains the same.
In the passing game, the Patriots don't necessarily have a stud receiver to take advantage of Diggs's absence in a one-on-one matchup, but we'd bet that O'Brien will stress their communication plenty, and Diggs's replacement, DaRon Bland, looked shaky against Arizona.
In terms of on-field chemistry, the Cowboys had several coverage busts in their zone schemes, with downfield crossing routes stressing their deep-zone defenders. Above, the Cardinals ran a "Yankee" style concept with intersecting deep crossers flooding the deep part of the field. Stephon Gilmore locks into his receivers' vertical release as the backside corner, leaving nobody in the deep third to take the crossing route from the other side of the formation.
Those passing concepts put deep-zone defenders who haven't played much football together in binds to pass off routes on the fly. O'Brien will also probably stress communication by using his three-receiver bunch alignments, where the Cowboys will need to be on top of their coverage rules for how they catch receivers out of the bunch. Are they locked into their receivers or using "box" rules? What's the call? O'Brien will make their heads spin.
Until the Patriots offense starts scoring more points, it's fair to be skeptical about their ability to score enough against the Cowboys on Sunday. But the Dallas defense has some vulnerabilities in how they play and is trying to piece its secondary back together without Diggs. The Pats offense should have opportunities to move the ball in this game.
Key Matchups in Cowboys-Patriots
Pats OC Bill O'Brien vs. Cowboys EDGE Micah Parsons - When you play someone of Parsons's caliber, it's as much about the plan as the individual blocking. You can't have a normal game plan against Parsons, and you definitely can't leave RT Vederian Lowe blocking him one-on-one. Chips, double-teams, slides, shadowing Parsons with a tight end, leaving the back in the backfield as a personnel protector, hitting him with misdirection/screens – O'Brien needs to bring out all the stops to help his offensive line in this matchup.
Pats CB Christian Gonzalez vs. Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb - Another week, another challenging matchup for the Patriots rookie. It's been remarkable to watch Gonzalez track some of the NFL's best receivers in the first three weeks, but there's no rest for the weary. Lamb also ranks ninth among all receivers with 126 yards after the catch, so tackling will be key for Gonzalez this week.
Pats LB Ja'Whaun Bentley vs. Cowboys Interior O-Line - Bentley was all over the Jets running game last week. The Pats will need him to have another great week of anticipation and defeating blocks to keep the Tony Pollard train from rolling downhill into the secondary. Pollard has breakaway speed, so you better get him at the first two levels.