Each week, Chad Pennington breaks down a dynamic NFL playmaker or scheme, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Pennington looks into how Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will attack a stingy, attack-minded Cowboys defense.
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To understand how good New England quarterback Tom Brady is, you really just need to look at what he’s accomplished.
He’s won three Super Bowls, two Super Bowl MVPs and two NFL MVPs, holds the record for most touchdown passes in a season and has one of the best winning percentages in NFL history.
Just think of all the quarterbacks that have played in this league. Then, think of the great ones, and still very few have a résumé like Brady’s. Two characteristics have impressed me the most. First, Tom has been extremely consistent throughout his career. Second, he has improved his accuracy and touch each year. Earlier in his career, New England was a defensive team, and the Patriots offense complemented its tough, aggressive defense. Now, the roles have been reversed. The offense drives the ship, while the defense plays in a complementary fashion. As Brady has evolved, so has his team and its philosophy.
At 4:15 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX, this philosophy will be tested once again as the Pats offense takes on a Cowboys team ranked 4th in total defense.
My assignment this week: Game plan for Brady and the Patriots offense against the Dallas defense.
While most of the talk surrounding the Cowboys has been focused on Tony Romo, Dallas quietly has had the best run defense in the NFL through the first five weeks of the season. The Cowboys defense has yielded just 61.8 yards per game, despite the fact that three of their first four opponents (Jets, 49ers and Redskins) are known for their running games.
Everyone knows that Brady and the Patriots can pass the ball, but for the past two weeks, New England has been more balanced, with nearly as many rushes as drop backs. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for a career-high 136 yards and two TDs in a win over the Jets last week. Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears had this to say to The Dallas Morning News about the Patriots offense: “Everyone prepares for them to go five wides and throw the ball for 500 yards. But . . . those guys will try to spread you out and hit you with a couple of runs. That’s what makes them good.”
Exactly. An effective run game becomes the neutralizer. When you face an attacking style of defense, such as Rex Ryan’s Jets or Rob Ryan’s Cowboys, an offense must have success with the run game to control the exotic pressure packages. If the run game is ineffective, watch out! The key for the run game is to merely create positive yards and eliminate long-yardage situations throughout a series. It doesn’t have to post fantasy football-type numbers. (That would be nice, though.) When an offense becomes one-dimensional against Rob Ryan, he can feast upon pass protection and hitting the quarterback.
Having played against the Patriots for 11 years, I know that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will have a precise plan to exploit the weaknesses of the Cowboys defense with the strengths of their offensive personnel. They take pride in not having a specific offensive identity. They don’t want to be stubborn with their game plan by not respecting the strengths of a defense. The Pats offense always seeks to have the ability to attack a defense with any means necessary.
The Cowboys are coming off a bye week, and you can guarantee they’ve corrected some of the flaws they’ve had in previous weeks. Teams use the bye week to self-scout themselves; so I expect the Cowboys to clean up what wasn’t working. I also think it’s a safe bet the Cowboys will study last year’s Cleveland-New England game in Week 9, when the Browns put a 34-14 beatdown on the Patriots.
Looking at the Cowboys defense, an offense must be concerned with the pass rush and multiple defensive fronts. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer present problems for any offensive line. Add the exotic fronts that Rob Ryan may employ, and pass protection becomes a premium. To be successful, Brady must be able to identify these fronts and orchestrate the pass protection effectively. He also must be aware of the alignment of Ware. This guy is an animal! You must account for him every play.
If Brady is given enough time, the Patriots can present major matchup issues because of their explosive tight ends. One of their primary personnel groups consists of one back, two tight ends and two receivers. With this group, the Pats have the ability to use multiple formations such as empty, one-back formations or even variations of two-back formations. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are unique. Typically, when a defensive back is defending a tight end, this matchup is considered a favorable one for the defense. Not so fast! These two tight ends have proven numerous times that they can win against defensive backs in nickel and dime situations. When the Patriots have been successful throwing the ball downfield, the ball has been thrown to the tight ends quite often. I expect Brady and his offense to use numerous formations and motions to create favorable matchups for Hernandez and Gronkowski. New England even will put Hernandez outside at a conventional wide receiver position. These multiple formations will force the Cowboys to declare earlier with their coverage schemes.
Another weapon the Pats may employ against Rob Ryan is the no-huddle offense. No-huddle offenses can simplify a defensive scheme and dictate coverage, pressure, etc. They also can test the physical shape of a defense and directly affect the intensity of the pass rush.
I am most interested in seeing how Belichick and Brady implement the running game. When and where will they use it? I know they will have a specific plan that will focus on one-back formations. Look for the Pats to use outside zone schemes, trap schemes and draws.
Before we get too carried away, let’s not forget Wes Welker. He’s only 5-feet-9 and probably not the fastest guy in the world, but through five games this season, he’s got 45 receptions for an NFL-record 740 yards (through five games). He’s also caught a pass in 83 straight games (with Patriots and Dolphins). Besides the chemistry that he has with Brady, there are two characteristics that make him special. Wes is a relentless route runner. He never gives up on a route. Even when he’s covered, he’s spinning, ducking and working tirelessly to get open for Brady. Welker is also a very smart route runner. He sees what his quarterback sees. The one difference I have seen this year is that the Patriots have been using him down the field. He’s normally been used in the slot working against underneath coverage. This year, however, he’s been able to work downfield via play action or against all-out blitz schemes.
Finally, if all that wasn’t enough for the Cowboys to contend with, there’s this: Tom Brady has won 30 straight regular-season games at home. When you’re facing a team as good as the Patriots at home, the crowd becomes a huge advantage for them offensively. When the offense is at work, a home crowd gets quiet and allows the offense to communicate. In fact, as I was watching the Jets game on television, I could hear Brady change the entire play at the line of scrimmage. It sounded like a typical conversation in a hotel lobby!