Game of the Week: Do Cowboys stand a chance against Patriots?
Best way to not get soaked? Don’t stand in the rain.
A reasonable first question when a team sits down to game plan against the Patriots? How the *bleep* are we going to stop Tom Brady and that Patriots offense?! First step is acknowledging that ‘stopping’ them isn’t a great goal.
Historically speaking, "ya can’t stop ’em, ya can only hope to contain ’em."
The Jaguars flew out of the gate in the Patriots’ last game with a "go" route to WR Allen Robinson on the first play from scrimmage. It was incomplete, making it second-and-long. Then it was third-and-long. And then punt.
Five plays later the Patriots scored and the wheels were sufficiently greased for an early "game o-vah." The uphill climb of beating the Patriots became a mountain within a matter of minutes.
Suffice it to say, the Cowboys want to do the opposite of that on Sunday.
I’ve seen both sides of the table on this one as a Patriots and Jets player. Maybe lightning strikes for your defense. But more realistically, you have to figure out a way schematically to slow their daily output. The only surefire way to guarantee the Patriots offense doesn’t score a ton of points against the ‘Boys is to reduce the amount of time Tom Brady has the ball. The more he has it, the wetter you’re likely to get.
MAKE THEM COUNT
After reviewing that game tape, the Cowboys should presumably have learned the importance of making every offensive snap a positive one. Forcing the ball down the field early comes with it the gamble of incompletions and quick series. Positive plays in the running game do not. Simply put, the Cowboys will need to run the ball with some early success, or the game could get out of hand before the first daily fantasy commercial.
The Cowboys know this. The Patriots know this. So one of the most telling elements to the game will come early as the Patriots unveil their defensive approach to stopping the Cowboys run game.
Against the Steelers, the Patriots conceded to playing with a lighter box by playing nickel defense (linebacker out, defensive back in) against Pittsburgh’s early two-tight end, run-heavy offensive sets. In other words, New England was willing to give up a little in the running game to prevent Big Ben from killing them with his arm (below).
Against the Buffalo Bills a week later (above), the Patriots showed brief flashes of a regular defensive front (four defensive linemen, three linebackers) to load the box more against a running threat at quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) and running back (LeSean McCoy). They bailed from this look early as the game turned quickly in the Patriots’ favor, playing the vast majority of the game’s snaps in defenses majoring in additional defensive backs as the Bills tried to pass their way back into the game.
Overall, the Patriots have played a vastly disproportionate amount of sub (nickel or dime) defense versus regular defense so far this season. Because they’re usually ahead. Realistically, they won’t be able to get away with that kind of approach early against the super-talented, road-grading offensive line of the Cowboys.
A major unresolved issue for the Cowboys is who will carry the ball if they adopt a ball-control approach. Their change-of-pace weapon in running back Lance Dunbar is gone for the season with a torn ACL, and with reports of coaching angst with lead man Joseph Randle after his perceived carelessness with the ball a week ago, the load would seem most likely to go to Darren McFadden.
A major key for the Patriots is identifying which running back is in the game, and understanding the unique qualities and subsequent plays for each guy.
Randle is the kind of back we used to refer to as a "bounce-out, cutback runner." He tends to get more simplistic zone-stretch plays where he gets to choose his own lane. If there’s a cut-back opportunity, he’s very likely to take it. And he’s got the ability to wind the cut-back all the way from one side of the formation to the other. The backside players of the Patriots defense can almost consider themselves the point of attack on any running play involving Randle.
As Bill Belichick would always tell us, "Don’t worry. He’ll be there." See below for an example of Randle’s ability for extreme cut-back runs.
USE THE POWER-RUN GAME
The best option for the Cowboys to establish a power run game early is to take the reins off the most explosive power back on their roster: McFadden. He’s been a rep-controlled guy throughout the early season, which is understandable given his injury history throughout his career. But for one game, he’s the kind of player with the best chance to realistically help execute a power-running, clock-control game plan.
The best attribute McFadden has is his explosiveness once a hole in the offensive line declares. He receives much more of the Cowboys "power" scheme run calls (featuring pulling offensive linemen) because they are much more suited to a straight-line, explosive runner who must wait for a hole to develop and then race through it without getting knocked off or dragged down by arm tackles (see below).
McFadden is not particularly shifty in the open field, but the power that he runs with and the types of plays that usually accompany him are the most likely way to lure the Patriots out of nickel defensive fronts.
If the Cowboys can accomplish that much early, there’s a good chance they can make this a competitive game by reducing the amount of time Tom Brady and the offense get to play football.
My guess is both sides are probably thinking the same thing. The Cowboys must run the ball. And the Patriots must stop them from doing so. Whoever fails probably loses. While stopping a Tom Brady offense probably isn’t a great goal, using your own offense to keep his off the field is a step in the right direction.
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