There is a huge mental difference between starting the season 2-2 and starting it 3-1.
The Cowboys are in about as good of a spot as possible for getting off to such a slow start, and things actually look up. Advanced statistics show the Cowboys are actually heavy favorites to win the NFC East, and they are actually the No. 1 ranked team in terms of efficiency.
At a certain point, however, that potential must be realized, and it starts this week in New England. Believe it or not, the Cowboys are only the slightest of underdogs. To increase the likelihood of winning, here is what they need to do.
DO Play a Lot of Underneath Coverage and Rely on the Safeties To Limit Big Plays
The Patriots thrive on throwing the ball underneath, using the entire field to spread defenses and take advantage of mismatches.
More often than not, those mismatches involve Wes Welker. If the Cowboys focus on covering the middle of the field, the Pats will run smashes, outs and smoke screens to take advantage of this.
DO Place Orlando Scandrick on Wes Welker, but with Outside Leverage
If the Cowboys play a lot of Cover 2 and other coverages with linebackers underneath, they can potentially use numbers to limit Welker’s effectiveness in the middle of the field.
Thus, Scandrick can play with outside leverage, doing everything in his power to stop Welker from crossing his face and beating him outside. Containing Welker is critical to Dallas’ chances of winning, so they need to force Tom Brady to go elsewhere with the football.
DON’T Respect the Run
There are a few reasons for this. One is that the best way to take the ball out of Brady’s hands is to “allow” New England to run the football. Don’t put eight men in the box and have all of the defensive linemen and linebackers rush up field immediately.
By doing this, you are not only daring the Patriots to run the football, but you are also increasing the odds of getting to Brady without sending extra rushers. If the Cowboys continually blitz in order to reach Brady, he will eventually beat them. If they can get a solid rush with four or five defenders, though, they may have the ability to contain the Brady-to-Welker connection.
With defenders getting into their pass rush immediately after the snap, won’t the defense be susceptible to draws?
Probably, but you have to give them something. I’ll take Benjarvus Green-Ellis on draws over Brady to Welker all day. Even if New England is successful in running the football, the game will be shortened, and thus remain close.
DO Play with the Nickel Defense on First Down
A final way to force New England to keep the ball on the ground is playing with passing personnel.
Scandrick should be on the field at all times, and I would rarely have Bradie James or Keith Brooking in the game. First down running is far less efficient for offenses than passing, so do everything possible to make Brady hand off the football.
DON’T Be Predictable
While this is always a motto on offense (not for Jason Garrett, obviously, since he ran the same predictable strong-side drive from the same predictable “Double Tight Strong” formation on 4th-and-goal at the half-yard line against the Lions), the defense can’t continually give Brady the same look and expect it to work.
The Patriots are among the best teams in the league at making adjustments and exploiting weaknesses in defenses.
Thus, the Cowboys should come into this game with two game plans—one for each half.
Perhaps they will play a lot of Cover 2 in the first half, placing Scandrick on Welker with outside leverage, as explained above.
In the second half, they could switch to a Cover 3 look, using the safety on the side of Welker to cover the “curl to flat,” which is basically the underneath area from the slot receiver to the sideline. In that case, Scandrick would play with inside leverage, forcing Welker to the sideline, where the safety is positioned.
From this Cover 3 look, the Cowboys could do a lot of different things. Since the cornerbacks would have “deep third” responsibility, they could easily disguise that as man coverage.
Cover 3 is also a tremendous coverage from which to zone-blitz. There are a lot of options here, but regardless of what Rob Ryan implements, he should change that strategy at halftime—even if it is working.
DO Single Cover the X and Z Receivers
All of the above tactics are designed to stop Welker—and only Welker.
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez can be deadly as well, and they pose a much greater threat to Dallas than Deion Branch or Chad Ochocinco. With Welker lining up primarily in the slot, the Cowboys can leave Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman alone on Branch and Ochocinco when they are in man coverage.
Cover 2/man-under and even Cover 1 don’t give the Cowboys much of an advantage this week (both coverages use man coverage underneath and at least one safety deep—the Pats will exploit that all day).
DON’T Run Up the Middle
Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are going to pose a big problem to Phil Costa, Kyle Kosier and Bill Nagy.
When Garrett wants to run up the middle this week, he should do it with a draw. That way, the linebackers won’t be able to use their full momentum and will hopefully lose some leverage.
DO Throw Early and Often, Particularly Outside
Devin McCourty is supposedly a great cornerback, but he is getting absolutely abused this season.
He’s been targeted a ridiculous 45 times, yielding a 66.7-percent completion rate and 9.47 yards per attempt. Fellow starting cornerback Leigh Bodden hasn’t been much better, so Miles Austin and Dez Bryant really have an opportunity to go off on Sunday.
It isn’t like safeties Patrick Chung and Josh Barrett are going to help out much.
DON’T Expect Many Blitzes
The Patriots have played far more zone coverage this season, which may be a reason their cornerbacks have struggled a bit (it’s also probably the reason they drafted Ras-I Dowling).
They have generated only 47 pressures in five games. In comparison, Dallas has 55 pressures in one less contest.
With the cornerbacks needing plenty of aid this week, you can expect the Pats to sit back and limit big plays.
DON’T Play Undisciplined Football
This is obviously a key in any game, but there is no way the Cowboys can win this week if they commit a lot of penalties, turn the ball over or miss their assignments.
In the first play, tight end Rob Gronkowski fakes a wham block, causing both safety Eric Smith and cornerback Darelle Revis to bite. With both defenders thinking run, Welker slips in behind them for a huge play.
It is the goal of every team to deceive the opposition into believing something is happening which is not really the case. Some teams execute it better than others, though, and the Patriots are probably the best at it in the league.
If Dallas plays with discipline and completely focuses on limiting big plays, they have a better chance to win on Sunday than many people believe.