Patriots coaches emerged from breaking down the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday to connect with the media via conference call. The 6-4 Cowboys have won three of their last four and three of their losses have been by just four points or less. They're a talented team who should give the Patriots plenty of matchup problems.
Running back Ezekial Elliot and Dak Prescott are the offensive leaders, forming a devastating combination that will give head coach Bill Belichick plenty to think about.
"I mean, they’re both really good," said Belichick. "You can put [Tony] Pollard in there, too. He’s a really good back, too. So, whichever back’s in the game is a problem. Prescott’s a problem. They’re all good, and they’re just hard to deal with. Prescott can obviously run, but he throws a lot more than he runs, and threw for almost 450 yards last week. So, he does a good job reading coverages, accurate at all three levels of the defense, finds the right matchups in the passing game."
Dallas' top trio of receivers -- Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb -- should test the Patriots depth in their secondary. Their offense has the most yards in the league, is fourth in points and number one in Football Outsiders DVOA. New England's defense is among the best in the league and the Cowboys have the balance to attack them at all three levels. After months of facing sub-par quarterbacks, then losing to Lamar Jackson's unique offensive onslaught, the Patriots will finally face a straight-up good traditional offense and likely learn a lot about themselves on both sides of the ball.
"They’re well-coached," continued Belichick. "They have a good scheme, so if you take one thing away, they’ll kill you with something else. They lead the league in third-down conversions, that all comes down to good players, good execution and a good plan. They have all of them."
Defensively, the Cowboys are seventh in yards and points, but 20th in DVOA. They're led by an athletic trio of linebackers who make the majority of the plays and can run sideline to sideline.
"The front’s very disruptive," said Josh McDaniels. "Vander Esch, Smith, Lee – these guys have all made negative plays and run backs down and make tackles at the line of scrimmage or tackles for loss and they play extremely well together. They know exactly where the front is going to go and what they’re going to do and they fit perfectly off of them."
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's pass rushers, led by Demarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn, join the linebackers to form a talented front seven that can get after the quarterback. They'll pose a stiff challenge for the Patriots offensive line, who is hoping to be welcoming back Isaiah Wynn at the left tackle spot.
"They’re a very fast and explosive and athletic group that has good pass rush techniques, which Rod is obviously one of the best pass rush coaches in the league and has been," said Belichick. "So, the get-off, their pad level, their hand-use, their pass rush techniques, games, are all done at a very high level with very good players, and multiple players. So, there are some scheme issues, but they’re hard to block and it’s hard to help because you just don’t have enough guys. There are too many good rushers, too many good players."
Stat Check - Through Week 11
- Points: 28.7 - 3rd* Third Down: 38.8 percent - 17th
- Overall DVOA - 12th
- Rushing DVOA - 14th
- Pssing DVOA - 18th
- Red Zone: 48.8 percent - 25th
- Points: 10.8 - 1st* Third Down: 19.3 percent - 1st
- Overall DVOA - 1st
- Passing DVOA - 1st
- Rshing DVOA 13th
- Red Zone: 46.2 percent - 3rd
Special Teams: DVOA - 10th
Mike Reiss of ESPN reports that the Patriots will place Gunner Olszewski on IR, ending the undrafted rookie's season. Olszewski was a feel-good story of the summer, going from an undrafted Division 2 cornerback to making the Super Bowl champs as a receiver and punt returner. It's a disappointing end but Gunner got some good experience and will provide some developmental depth next summer. This move would open a roster spot for left tackle Isaiah Wynn to be activated.
Olszewski was fifth in the league with a 9.0 punt return average and he also caught two passes for the injury-plagued Patriots receiving corps against the Giants on Thursday Night Football back in early October.
The Patriots had Mohammed Sanu returning punts the last two games and could look to him at least until the playoffs when preserving Julian Edelman becomes less of a priority.
Prior to this season, Sanu had never returned a punt in his seven seasons. Similarly, Brandon Bolden never returned a kick prior to this season and now, as New England's primary kickoff returner, he's returned 12 of them. It's interesting to see the team hasn't invested much in the returner spots this season.
Conference Call Sound Bites
Josh McDaniels on what he thought of N'Keal Harry's debut:
"It was good to get him out there and into the game. I thought he was ready to play. He had a good week of practice last week. In any rookie’s first opportunity to play in the National Football League, there’s probably going to be some good and then some things to work on and that you learn from those experiences in the game. There’s no way you can simulate that in practice or walk-throughs or what have you. So, to go in there in a game and compete against other players in that type of situation under pressure, I think it’s a great experience and great exposure for him. He made a few catches for us and helped us move the ball. He tried to block in the running game effectively and did a decent job there, and at the same time there’s definitely things that we’ve been able to see through the film that we’ll improve on and he’ll work towards being better at as we go forward. Every rookie starts at the same spot when you’re going out there for your first time – you’re excited to play, you’re eager to go out there and help your team make an impact. I thought he did some good things, and there’s definitely some things that we’ll be able to work on going forward to make N’Keal a better player and help our offense even more."