The Patriots return home for a big game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at 4:25 p.m.in what will be a big test for the Patriots defense.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS’ top team with Jim Nantz calling the play-by-play and Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from the sidelines. The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Capello.
The Patriots and Cowboys have met 13 times overall with the Cowboys winning the first seven contests and the Patriots winning the past six in a row, including a rainy, cold, windy 13-9 win in 2019 in Gillette Stadium. In that game the Patriots had a blocked punt, a TD pass from Tom Brady to N’Keal Harry, and stellar defense.
When the NFL announced that it was changing the schedule from a 16 game to a 17th game schedule, AFC teams were designated to be the home teams in the extra game. The NFC teams will host the 17th game in 2022. The game against the Cowboys was the additional game added to the Patriots’ schedule.
The Patriots (2-3) beat the Houston Texans 25-22 on a field goal by Nick Folk with 15 seconds left. Erasing a 22-9 deficit, Mac Jones led the team to four straight scoring drives in the second half.
The Cowboys (4-1) blew out the Giants 44-20 as the offense rolled up 515 yards. Dak Prescott passed for over 300 yards and three touchdowns while the running game churned out 201 yards on the ground.
We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2021 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.
So, here is our look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.
First up is the Patriots offense:
The Patriots’ running game could be missing their top back Damien Harris this week as he left Sunday’s game early in Houston with a rib injury. If he’s unavailable it will fall to rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, veteran Brandon Bolden, and J.J. Taylor to pick up the slack. The Patriots’ continuing struggle to run the ball isn’t so much the backs but the offensive line not giving them the holes to run through.
The Cowboys are allowing just 79 yards per game, which is good for 5th best in the league. However, although they are good up front, a good part of their success has to be attributed to the prolific nature of their offense, which takes teams out of the running game trying to play catch up. They allow an average of 4.2 yards per rush which is the middle of the road.
That being said, with Harris dinged up, the offensive line struggling to open holes, and the Dallas offense placing pressure on Mac Jones to match scoring drives, it doesn’t appear the Patriots will find much success running the ball this week.
The Patriots’ passing game is still a work in progress with Jones making gradual progress, (which is expected of a rookie), he’s improved by leaps and bounds against the blitz and that will stop teams from sending the house on every down. But the red zone still remains a nightmare where the team is converting just 38 percent, the worst in the NFL.
Dallas’ pass defense is a ball-hawking bunch with 10 interceptions, six by rookie Trevon Diggs, and that covers up a lot of deficiencies in coverage. Yes, the Cowboys are allowing 311 yards per game, but again part of that also has to do with the Dallas offense. Teams are abandoning the run early to play catch up and passing more (an average of 41.6 passes per game). So, can you pass against this defense? Yes, but not as easily as some would think and Jones will have to be careful with the ball.
It will be interesting to see if Dallas uses Diggs on Jakobi Meyers who is Jones’ most targeted player, but look for the Patriots to continue the quick passing game with slants and crossers. The new tight ends, especially Hunter Henry are emerging both down the seam and in the red zone. But they need to get the ball in Jonnu Smith’s hands more.
Next up is the Dallas offense:
The Patriots’ run defense has struggled early this season, but last week held the Texans to just 2.8 yards per rushing attempt. It was easily their best game of the season. The key is for the defensive line to get penetration and for the linebackers to clean up. It was encouraging to see Dont’a Hightower getting back into the flow with stuffing four different runs last week. Ja’Whaun Bentley is key here as well.
Dallas’ running game is very difficult to stop, they have a two-headed rushing attack with Ezekial Elliot and Tony Pollard who average 5.3 and 6.4 yards each respectively in yards per carry. Since their opening night loss to Tampa, Dallas is averaging 201 yards per game on the ground.
The last time the teams met, the Patriots varied up their looks and did a good job on Elliot and Pollard, and they’ll need an even bigger effort this time around as the Cowboys’ running game is hitting on all cylinders. I think this will be a big game for Pollard, but if the Patriots are going to slow them down, it will be a time for Jamie Collins to have a big role in things, but it starts with the big men up front, Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore, and Davon Godchaux, who have to step up.
Dallas’ passing game with Dak Prescott has a lot of weapons with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Cedrick Wilson with tight ends Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin who give Prescott plenty of places to go with the ball along with Pollard and Elliot.
Prescott is the front-runner for MVP right now, he’s the guy that makes it all go, and it appears that he’s suffered no ill effects from that horrible injury he suffered a year ago. The defense has to bring pressure on Prescott and not allow him time to make all of his progressions. Matthew Judon (6.5 sacks) and Collins seem like the two who will have to make the plays. Watch for Barmore rushing from the interior as well.
So, which Patriots’ secondary shows up this week? The one who looked so good against Tampa Bay or the one Davis Mills picked apart last week? They really missed Jalen Mills a week ago, if he’s back it will help. But look for Bill Belichick to drop a lot of defensive backs into coverage again this week. Schultz will play a big role this week.
The Patriots Special Teams have gotten excellent production and consistency from kicker Nick Folk (AFC STs Player of the Week), who has just missed one FG attempt since Week 2 of last year. With an offense struggling in the red zone, Folk has bailed them out and has been excellent. Jake Bailey has a big leg and this week will be a big one for him trying to pin the Cowboys’ offense back. The coverage units are rounding into form and they’ll need a big effort from Matthew Slater (blocked a punt in the 2019 game), once again.
Dallas has kicker Greg Zuerlein who is 9-11 on FG tries this season and punter Brian Anger who has a stellar 49.5-yard average this year. They have Pollard returning kickoffs and Lamb returning punts. The Dallas coverage unit (kickoffs) have had issues, so they’ve been kicking it into the end zone.
This week’s game is a big, big test for the Patriots, if they can beat a Dallas team that is rolling offensively and even their record at 3-3, it will inject the team and their rookie QB with a great deal of confidence moving forward. But defensively, they’ll need a much better effort than we saw a week ago. Offensively, they’ll need to play mistake-free.
Keys to the game from a Patriots perspective:
Switch Up Looks in the Secondary – The Patriots flooded the secondary with defensive backs against Tampa Bay trying to take away passing lanes for Tom Brady, while they will probably do something similar, they have to mix things up otherwise the Cowboys running game will gash them badly.
Jones Has to Wear Big Boy Pants – If the Patriots are going to upset the Cowboys, they’re going to need a big game from Mac Jones. While their game plan will no doubt feature a lot of the quick slants and crossers, they’re going to need him to get Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor more involved in the intermediate/deep passing game. And that includes attacking the seams with the tight ends.
No Turnovers and Finish in the Red Zone – The Patriots have turned the ball over nine times in five games, they can’t do that this week. Mistake-free is the name of the game. And going along with Key #2, they have to convert in the red zone. If Nick Folk is attempting four field goals…this is a loss.
This week’s game will be a good measuring stick for the Patriots rebuild. They’ve been very inconsistent, with poor ball security to this point of the season. They’re going to need a tremendous effort by the defense this week, who also have to play error-free.
This is a game the Patriots can win, we’ve seen Bill Belichick countless times come up with a game plan to slow down a prolific offense (the last time Dallas came to New England). Would it be a shock if the Patriots win on Sunday? No. And for a long time, on the road this is the type of game that Dallas would find a way to lose… but not this time. Cowboys 28-17
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