Patriots vs. Cowboys: Full New England Game Preview

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IIOctober 8, 2015

Patriots vs. Cowboys: Full New England Game Preview

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    Can Brady and the Pats stay hot coming out of the bye?
    Can Brady and the Pats stay hot coming out of the bye?Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    After drawing the earliest possible bye week, the New England Patriots face a grueling 13-week stretch over the final three months of the regular season.  But while fatigue and injuries may eventually become an issue for the Patriots, their opponents on Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys, have already experienced plenty of attrition through just four games.

    There's almost no recent precedent for a team losing their quarterback and top receiver so early in the season, as the Cowboys have with the long-term injuries to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.  Coupled with injuries to multiple defensive starters, Dallas is a team teetering on the edge, with the mediocre NFC East currently keeping them in long-term contention.

    A month ago, most figured the Patriots would be the team starting a backup quarterback in this game.  However, though Brandon Weeden's current 10-game losing streak looms as a massive mismatch in comparison to Tom Brady's MVP-caliber campaign, the Cowboys are still unfamiliar opponents with the pieces to control time of possession and harass Brady in the pocket.

    So how can the Pats earn a road win to sustain their undefeated start?  Read on for a full preview of the most important matchups and factors surrounding New England's Week 5 contest.

Week 3 Results and Recap

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    It's been nearly two weeks since New England last took the field, but the memory of its 51-17 thumping of the Jacksonville Jaguars still lingers.  The 2007 comparisons still seem like a bit of a stretch, largely because it is presumptuous to assume that any team is capable of going undefeated after just three games, but the 34-point victory was as dominant a win as any team has registered this season.

    Brady and the offense continued their prolific start, scoring on all nine of their drives (excluding the kneel-down sequence to end the game).  The massive offensive production put the Patriots at 119 total points through three games, a new franchise record which barely outpaced their 115-point three-game total from 2002.  

    Bill Belichick also liberally rotated his personnel as the game got out of hand in the second half, giving the contest a preseason type of feel.  LeGarrette Blount worked his way back into the rotation, scoring three goal-line touchdowns after halftime, while the likes of Keshawn Martin and Jordan Richards all made cases for longer looks with solid performances in situational roles.

    A rebuilding Jacksonville squad hardly serves as a measuring stick for a Pats squad with its eyes on championship contention.  However, in dismantling the Jags, New England exhibited the unwavering focus they've shown so far in 2015.

News and Notes

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Pats Top DVOA Rankings

    Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings rely on general success rate, but part of DVOA's appeal is the opponent strength adjustment it includes when rating teams. 

    This week was the first week DVOA actually incorporated opponent strength into its 2015 rankings—after all, we usually don't know how strong teams are after two or three games—and when doing so, the Patriots came out as FO's top-ranked team, according to FO's Aaron Schatz:

    Our new No. 1 team is also the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, who slide into the top spot despite not playing this week. The Patriots have only played three games so far, but they have played very well and they've played teams that have played well otherwise. New England's schedule ranks eighth in the league, making the Patriots the only one of the six undefeated teams which hasn't played one of the 10 easiest schedules in the league according to DVOA. Pittsburgh and Buffalo are only 2-2, but they rank sixth and eighth in DVOA, respectively.

    As Schatz noted in his write-up, the Pats have played a relatively difficult schedule thus far, given that FO is high on both the Bills (eighth overall) and Steelers (sixth overall).  However, FO also pegs New England as possessing just the 23rd-toughest schedule the rest of the way, the easiest mark of any undefeated team besides the Atlanta Falcons.

    All that will do is fuel more 16-0 talk, which remains highly presumptuous at this point of the season.  But it's not just the eye test keeping the Patriots atop most mainstream power rankings, as advanced stats firmly back the notion that New England has been the league's best team through the first month.

    Brady Has Top-Five Supporting Cast

    Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson undertook an interesting task this week, pinpointing the five quarterbacks whom he saw as having the best supporting casts in the league.  Unlike other quarterbacks on the list who benefited from strong skill position support, such as Ben Roethlisberger or Andy Dalton, Monson pointed to New England's scheme as Brady's biggest asset, particularly in avoiding pressure:

    Since PFF has been recording time in the pocket, the fastest time in the league over a full season has been an average of 2.29 seconds per pass attempt. Brady currently sits at 2.04, the fastest mark in the league. That doesn't sound like much of a difference, but it's 11 percent quicker than the average fastest time in the league.  He is regularly getting the ball out more quickly than any pass rush can get near him, with 80.6 percent of his passes coming out quicker than 2.5 seconds.

    PFF currently charts Brady as being pressured on just 25.2 percent of his dropbacks, the fourth-lowest mark among 31 qualified quarterbacks through four weeks.  Moreover, even on the rare occasions when defenses have harassed Brady, he's managed to compile a stellar 76.9 percent accuracy percentage, fourth-best among quarterbacks when pressured.

    Some might balk at the notion of Brady's having a top-five supporting cast, though it's hard to argue that any quarterback possesses a greater coaching edge between Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.  However, as his pressure stats belie, Brady tends to make hay out of even the most difficult situations, a testament to his own skill set.

    Hicks-for-Hoomanawanui a Lopsided Deal

    Belichick has never been afraid to make waves at the trade deadline, bringing in the likes of Aqib Talib and Akeem Ayers during previous midseason deals.  However, after the Pats acquired veteran defensive end starter Akiem Hicks from New Orleans in exchange for reserve tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, the MMQB's Andy Benoit was aghast at how heavily the trade appeared to favor New England:

    Getting Akiem Hicks for Michael Hoomanawanui is the most lopsided straight player-for-player I've ever seen. Advantage #Patriots.

    — Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) October 1, 2015

    From a Patriots perspective, it's easy to see how the deal will benefit the roster.  Hicks is an expiring contract who won't inflict long-term cap ramifications, and his background in a two-gapping 3-4 scheme might allow him to thrive as an early-down interior lineman.  The Pats also acquired him shortly before the bye week, which should theoretically help Hicks acclimate himself to the scheme before being pressed into game action.

    Tight end was arguably the deepest position on the roster, and Hoomanawanui had largely turned into a goal-line package player as the team's No. 4 option at the position.  The 25-year-old Hicks possesses considerably more upside, and given New England's struggles against the run, his arrival could provide an underrated boost in shoring up one of the Patriots' greatest weaknesses.

Latest Injury News

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press
    PatriotsJaguars
    PlayerInjuryStatusPlayerInjuryStatus
    Ryan WendellIllnessFullDez BryantFootDNP
    Trey FlowersKneeLimitedBrice ButlerHamstringDNP
    Tarell BrownFootLimitedRandy GregoryAnkleDNP
       James HannaAnkleDNP
       Sean LeeConcussionDNP
       Andrew GachkarFootLimited
       Ryan RussellGroinLimited

    It's not hard to see which team just came out of a bye and which one is limping toward one at the moment. 

    The Pats removed Dominique Easley and Logan Ryan from their injury report following their Week 4 bye, with Tarell Brown representing the only new addition this week.  Brown suited up but did not play in the team's last game back in Week 3 and has been dealing with lower-body issues since the preseason.  However, with Wendell ostensibly set to return to the offensive line, the Pats are essentially at full strength.

    That's obviously not the case in Dallas.  Everyone knows about the injuries to Romo and Bryant, and the latter will remain out this week as he recovers from his broken foot.  The Cowboys could also be missing two of their most important defensive playmakers in Randy Gregory and Sean Lee.  Gregory has been out since Week 1 with a high ankle sprain, while Lee has yet to be cleared from concussion protocol.

    Lee's injury might loom largest, as he is Dallas' most versatile defensive player and its most likely answer to Rob Gronkowski.  The return of Rolando McClain from his four-game suspension could compensate for some of Lee's absence, but besides the lack of game action, McClain is not nearly as fluid dropping into coverage as Lee.

    With injuries to rotational contributors Andrew Gachkar and Ryan Russell, the Cowboys front seven is a MASH unit at this point.  The Romo and Bryant losses obviously loom largest, but don't underestimate the impact a thin front seven might have against the Patriots' high-powered offense on Sunday.

    *Injury information via Patriots.com.

Key Matchups

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Rob Gronkowski vs. Cowboys Back Seven

    With four scores and 19.3 yards per catch through three games, Gronkowski is on a historic tear that could allow him to break the tight end touchdown record he set in 2011, when he caught 17 scores.  The Cowboys will be the latest defense attempting to solve the Gronkowski riddle, and at least on paper, Dallas doesn't appear to possess an obvious antidote for the All-Pro tight end.

    Granted, the Cowboys have performed well in their first four games against tight ends.  Football Outsiders tracks how defenses fare against individual types of receivers, and by DVOA, Dallas ranks seventh against opposing tight ends so far in 2015. 

    The Cowboys haven't exactly faced a Murderers' Row at the position—New York's Larry Donnell has been the most productive opposing tight end Dallas has faced—so game-planning around Gronk will be a new challenge for Dallas.

    We should see plenty of box safety Barry Church lined up across from Gronkowski, and McClain's return gives the Cowboys a linebacker who impressed in 2014 while flashing a three-down skill set.  Dallas is unlikely to contain Gronk, just like any other defense, but how it defends him in high-leverage areas like the red zone will be a critical component of the game.

    Malcolm Butler vs. Terrance Williams

    Jason Witten leads the team in targets and has represented the Cowboys' most stable receiving threat for years now, but the veteran tight end's litany of injuries has seemingly diminished his performance.  Against the Saints last week, Witten set season-lows with four receptions on six targets.  Witten also did not receive a single red-zone target against New Orleans after garnering four through the first three weeks.

    Given the composition of New England's secondary, big-play threat Terrance Williams looms as the greatest concern.  Brandon Weeden's limitations have shacked Williams' potential, as the third-year receiver has caught just three of his 12 targets from Weeden.  However, those three catches went for 49 yards and a touchdown, and Williams became Weeden's go-to target against New Orleans with 10 targets.

    Dallas attempted to open up its passing game more after an ultraconservative debut from Weeden in Week 3, and we might reasonably expect a similar dose of play-action deep shots to serve as a changeup to the ground-bound offensive attack.  As such, Butler and the rest of New England's perimeter corners will be in the spotlight when the Cowboys attempt to hit their biggest plays.

    Nate Solder vs. Greg Hardy

    Hardy's return is highly consequential if he flashes the same form that saw him accumulate 24 sacks from 2012 to 2013.  The Patriots are fortunate to catch Hardy now, as the veteran figures to have plenty of rust after missing 19 consecutive games due to suspension.  However, even at a diminished capacity, Hardy's return should fortify a thin Dallas pass rush.

    Despite a few gaffes in pass protection, Solder has largely been solid in 2015.  Pro Football Focus ranks Solder 19th among offensive tackles in pass-blocking efficiency so far, with five total pressures allowed.  Three of those came in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills, and Solder has not committed a penalty since Week 1.

    Facing Hardy might not fall solely on Solder's shoulders, as this matchup is based on Hardy's Carolina days, when he played exclusively on the weak side.  Regardless of where he lines up, though, Hardy should draw plenty of pre-snap attention from Brady and the offensive line.

Matchup X-Factors

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Patriots X-Factor of the Week: Jabaal Sheard

    Sheard's arrival has allowed the Patriots to rotate much more liberally at edge-rusher.  After playing virtually every snap the past three seasons, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are each down to roughly 80 percent snap totals, according to Football Outsiders

    While still a heavy workload, it reflects how Sheard has kept New England's best rushers fresher while also minimizing the drop-off when he enters the game.

    But Sheard's most underrated contribution has been in run defense, where New England has been largely spotty.  The Pats rank 29th in run defense DVOA and last in yards allowed per attempt (4.9), but Sheard has been the lone bright spot in terms of creating negative plays:

    Jabaal Sheard has one run stuff (tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage) in all 3 games and is the only Patriots with more than 1.

    — Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) September 28, 2015

    The Cowboys should lean heavily on the ground game, and Sheard is New England's best hope to force Dallas out of its comfort zone into clear passing situations.  Stopping the Cowboys ground game is a whole-unit effort, of course, but Sheard's presence should loom especially large on Sunday.

    Cowboys X-Factor of the Week: Darren McFadden

    Might there be a controversy brewing in Dallas' backfield? 

    Joseph Randle was benched after defying coaches' orders and attempting to leap over the goal line against New Orleans last week, the second time in as many weeks he had done so.  Given that Randle didn't play a snap in the fourth quarter, some Cowboys observers have speculated that Dallas might strip him of the lead back role.

    If that's the case, expect McFadden to become the focal point of Dallas' offensive game plan.  The Cowboys have employed a roughly 2-to-1 split so far, with Randle receiving 59 carries to McFadden's 32 through four games.  The 28-year-old vet has averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry, though, and will need to show more or else force Dallas to lean on the enigmatic but talented Randle.

    In three career games against the Pats, McFadden has averaged 4.1 yards per attempt on 44 carries and scored once.  Against the Patriots last season, McFadden rushed for 59 yards on 18 carries as a member of the Oakland Raiders, whose offense was largely stagnant that afternoon. 

Prediction: Patriots 36, Cowboys 26

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    After an impressive opening two weeks, the Cowboys defense has since crashed back down to earth, allowing an average of 32.5 points per game and 6.3 yards per play the past two weeks, both among the five worst marks in the league over that span. 

    Though that's obviously a tiny sample size, who would reasonably expect Dallas to handle New England's league-leading attack after struggling against Atlanta and New Orleans?

    The likeliest upset scenario for the Cowboys involves executing the game plan Buffalo was unable to in Week 2: to control the ball on the ground and generate enough pressure with a four-man pass rush to disrupt the Pats' offensive timing.  The Dallas offense might represent the best unit New England's defense faces all season, and if the Cowboys are in a position where they can control the clock in the fourth quarter, the Patriots could be in trouble.

    Of course, Dallas will also need a superhuman defensive effort and likely multiple turnovers to stem the relentless tide that has been New England's offense through three games.  The Cowboys rank 20th in DVOA against both the pass and run; in other words, this looks like a week when Josh McDaniels should fall into a play-calling rhythm to keep Dallas off balance throughout the contest.

    Dallas' offense has still proven capable even without Romo or Bryant, so the Cowboys could generate enough fireworks to keep this a close contest throughout.  However, the Patriots hold the talent edge at the moment, so expect New England to pull away late and become the sixth team this season to start 4-0.