The New England Patriots are headed to AT&T Stadium to face off against the Dallas Cowboys who are slated as huge underdogs. Tom Brady has been on fire and those who drafted him in Fantasy Football received Christmas early.
The Patriots are undefeated thus far and well rested following their bye week. Their receiving attack is led by the 6′-6″, 265lb Rob Gronkowski, who is at the top of the league across the board in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He is complimented by Julian Edelman, who is averaging 26.3 points per week in PPR leagues and has 30 catches for almost 300 yards and two touchdowns after three games.
The Patriots running back, Dion Lewis, has emerged as an effective weapon for the offense. His rushing stats don’t look real impressive (4.9 ypc) because of the amount of carries he’s had, but he has been very effective catching passes out of the backfield and is averaging 18.3 points per week in PPR leagues. If you were one of the suckers like me who drafted C.J Anderson, Lewis was a steal in free agency before people started snagging him up. He is still available in 12% of ESPN leagues. LeGarret Blount has been the work horse in the red zone and a TD machine in recent games.
The Cowboys continue to get bitten by the injury bug. It only seems to like biting key role players on the Team. Seriously, who ever would have thought at this time last year, the Cowboys would be missing Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, Lance Dunbar and their second round draft pick due to injuries; (in Murray’s case free agency) entering week five against the World Champion Patriots? I think the last thing any of us expected was to not have the NFL’s leading rusher return in 2015.
Where does this leave the Cowboys? Gasping for air.
With the return of Greg Hardy, the coaches are hoping to bolster a pass rush that has been stagnant since the departure of the All-Pro OLB/DE, DeMarcus Ware; who is currently ranked #1 for sacks in the NFL with 4.5. It would be 5.5, but one was negated by a holding penalty in the secondary against Aquib Talib. Hardy hasn’t suited up since week one of the 2014 season and hasn’t been allowed to participate in team meetings or practice, so whether or not he will be in football shape, or proficient in Rod Marinelli’s defense is yet to be seen. Either way, he will need to knock some rust off.
Morris Claiborne appears to have taken the next step in the absense of Orlando Scandrick. I feel it would be in the Cowboys best interest to put him on Julian Edelman. Byron Jones has been the most effective covering the big TE’s and I am sure that can be attributed to going against the future hall of famer, Jason Witten, in practice. He would more than likely be the best chance at success covering Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots are 21/35 on 3rd down (60%) 1st in the NFL and the Cowboys are a staggering 14/41 (34.15%), 25th in the league overall and in the two games with Brandon Weeden at the helm it’s worse than that: In the two games Weeden started, they are 25% and 26.67% respectively. What does that mean? 74.2% of the time, Weeden sends the defense right back on to the field on 3rd down. People can make all of the excuses for him they want to, but at the end of the day, if you actually study the tape, it is mainly a result of errant passes or not seeing the open receiver that has continued to halt drives.
Jason Garrett said in his press conference that the defense needs to earn a rest and get off of the field by making stops on all 3 downs. This was an attempt to counter what members of the media (YDCFF included) stated about the defense getting tired because Brandon weeden can’t sustain a drive. He added that the offense can also help to by sustaining drives and keeping the opponent on the sidelines.
What if I told you the defense, despite having a lot injuries and two critical suspensions to contend with, has gotten a stop on 3rd down 59.1% of the time and they allowed 100% of the attempts of 1-2 yards (8 attempts) which really hindered the overall percentage? However, they made a stop on 3rd down with 3-5 yards to go 85.71% of the time and from 11-15 yards, 57.14% of the time. If you delve deeply in to this, you will see that many of the failed stops came late in the game when they were tired. Either way, the defense is getting it done on 3rd down 59.1% of the time as compared to 25.83% of the time by the offense with Brandon Weeden as the starter. I don’t want to hear another person blame the defense. Jimmy Johnson always said:
“It’s not the good plays that determines the outcome of a game, it’s the amount of bad plays.”
Yes the defense needs to improve, just like every position on the team always has room for improvement. But, if you actually study the tape, there are a lot of bad plays by the QB that most don’t notice. The defense get’s more exposure because the bad plays result in a TD or field goal. Holding Drew Brees to only 13 points entering the 4th quarter is no easy task. Especially when the offense only converted on 3rd down 26% of the time in that game.
The Cowboys are currently ranked 14th in total defense and 23rd in sacks with only 6. I have said many times that the Cowboys need a big nasty run stuffing 1 tech and it continues to show up on third and short. The fact the Cowboys defense has allowed 100% of the attempts that are 2 yards or less affirms this. The biggest problem with them allowing first downs on third and 11-15 yards is the lack of a pass rush. If you give any decent NFL QB enough time, someone is going to get open and he will convert. Despite what people keep saying about the Cowboys defense, even missing key players on the defensive line, they are still ranked 9th against the run. Either way, the defense has improved from being the 32nd ranked defense in 2013, to 19th in 2014 and currently 14th despite the injuries and suspensions. The offense has dropped significantly.
The Patriots are ranked 5th with 13 sacks and 20th in total defense. However, as you can see in the image above, the Cowboys are better against the run and total yards allowed, but the Patriots lead all major categories, especially sacks.The fact is, most of the points against the Cowboys have been scored in the second half when the defense starts to wear down. The reason the Patriots are winning is mainly because of their ability to convert on 3rd down; 60% of the time, sustain drives, keep the opposing QB on the sidelines, wear down the opposing defense, and rest their own. . Most importantly, the defense is getting some help by the offense. Especially in the 2nd half when they need to answer points. The fact the Patriots are 23rd against the run is obvious, It’s hard to just go out and replace a Vince Wilfork in the middle of your defense and Belichick runs a bend but don’t break system.
Now that we have explored all of this information, The Cowboys can beat the Patriots if,
- Greg Hardy delivers as advertised, adds that missing link to the pass rush and they can get some pressure on Tom Brady. It is no secret that Tom Brady is not a mobile QB and when teams get in his face with any consistency, he tends to make those rare mistakes. Namely turning the ball over. If you give him time, he will pick you apart.
- The Cowboys defense remains top ten in the league against the run and that needs to continue. The Patriots have two dynamic RBs in Blount and Lewis, but are a pass first team. They don’t boast high league rankings running the rock because they only run when they have to and that is usually in the red zone or on short yardage situations.
- Brandon Weeden needs to step up his game: Primarily in his ability to get through his post snap reads and find the open man. Bill Belichick is more than likely going to go after him. It is no secret that he has poor pocket awareness, takes unnecessary sacks, and isn’t very mobile. The Patriots are averaging over 3 sacks per game and will try to improve that average this week.
- The Cowboys are going to have to do a better job of converting on third down. Brandon Weeden needs to be more accurate on those intermediate to deep routes. Only converting 25% of the time against Tom Brady will lead to a very long night and a lot of points by the Patriots.
- The Cowboys need to be able to run the ball effectively. In the absence of Tony Romo, teams have loaded the box and dared Weeden to beat them with his arm. He is going to have to step up, make good reads of the protections, and check to a play that will burn them down the field. If they get a burnt a couple of times, they will think twice about loading the box and that will open up the running game.
- The coaches have got to get more creative in the way they use Cole Beasley. He is not only the most consistent WR on the team, he is an excellent route runner, extremely quick, and an ankle breaker with soft hands. There is a lot of wide open space coming out of the slot and they need to take advantage of that. In the absence of Dez Bryant, they need to utilize his ability to get open. By limiting him to all short crossing routes and quick outs, defenses know what he is going to do before he leaves the line. By sending him out on the option and allowing him to take advantage of his ability to find soft spots and get open, he will take some attention away from Terrance Williams and Jason Witten. Trying to utilize guys like Gavin Escobar and Devin Street over the teams best route runner is beyond foolish. Beasley would be chewing up defenses like Julian Edelman does if he was in NE. This mindset the Cowboys have that a Rec has to be big will lead to their demise.
A source close to the Lions told me Kellen Moore has been drawing up plays for Matthew Stafford for the last couple of years; based on what I have seen from the Lions offense this year, I am beginning to believe it. Tom Brady is one of the smartest QBs in the NFL and I maintain my belief that Moore is among that group. If Weeden can’t do a better job of reading defenses, calling the right play at the line, and making his post snap reads this week, they will not only fall below .500, they need to make a change after the Bye. Falling below .500 will be detrimental to any hopes of making the playoffs.