The last time the Patriots played the Cowboys, some bad two-minute closeout drill play calling by Josh McDaniels led to two separate scores in 15 seconds and a brutal overtime defeat. Just shy of two full years later, McDaniels is long gone, as is now former, long-scrutinized, Cowboys OC Kellen Moore, with head coach Mike McCarthy taking over play-calling duties for Jerry Jones' club. Last week, Dallas clearly didn't respect the Arizona Cardinals going into their matchup, because if they did, they wouldn't have laid the kind of egg that they did, losing 28-16 in a game they led for 0.0 seconds.
This is another good team in the Patriots' path early, another team that can beat and frankly should. Dallas has some significant injuries on both sides of the ball, went from one of the best offenses in the red zone to the worst, and their defensive scheme took a massive hit with the loss of Trevon Diggs. Dating back to 1996, the Patriots are 6-1 against Dallas. Can they make it 7-1 tomorrow afternoon?
Date: Sunday, October 1
Start Time: 4:05 EST
Location: Arlington, Texas
Stadium: AT&T Stadium
TV Info: FOX (Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen on the call)
Patriots Uniform Info: All Navy (Horrendus Uniform Matchup on Deck. Cowboys main Home White Set has resided in Hell Tier for three decades now)
Players Already Ruled Out Before Sunday
Dallas Cowboys: Tyron Smith (OT)
New England Patriots: Jonathan Jones (CB), Cole Strange (IOL)
While I believe the early season discourse around this Dallas defense being one of the best in NFL history to be mind-numbingly incorrect, they are certainly good enough. That rings true even with their No. 2 corner Trevon Diggs done for the year with a torn ACL last weekend. With that said, this team, who plays a ton of man, specifically the most amount of Cover-1 in the entire league, Dallas had a hard time getting their reserves to make up for the loss of Diggs. Josh Dobbs threw for 178 yards, the most of the three quarterbacks they've faced this year, and allowed more rushing yards (222) than they did against both New York teams combined. But circling back to Cover-1 defense, Dan Quinn called a ton of it against Arizona, and it didn't work out, especially in the fourth quarter, on this play, which led to the Cardinals sealing things up.
While I believe that Trevon Diggs is a good corner, there are only about a dozen guys who could get hurt for the season and have it lead to defensive performances like this. Respectfully, he's not one of them, and there are at least two guys on his own defense who have more of an impact than he does (Gilmore and Parsons). The issue is this, however: Your entire scheme is predicated on having tight coverage on the outside, and your second-best cover guy, who's most likely a top guy on a handful of other teams, is gone. Now, if they start to implement more zone looks, you're hindering Gilmore at the expense of everyone else, is that a trade-off you want to make if you are Quinn? It may not factor in this week, but that's the question you need to ask inside the Cowboys facility.
What will factor in meanwhile, is the running game, because the Cardinals, specifically James Conner, got everything he wanted last Sunday. The former Steeler averaged seven yards per carry, topped off by a pair of runs over 20 yards, and then 38 yards on back-to-back carries, as seen below, straight bully ball.
Unbelievable day for the Cardinals' offensive front, but this Dallas defensive front underperformed and underperformed badly at that. They got run all over and had their worst day in the office at generating pressure, picking up just five with two sacks. Seeing as the Patriots' offensive line had a good enough week against the Jets, it might be some tough sledding again for Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Dante Fowler.
Equal parts surprising and unsurprising is just how bad the Cowboys red zone offense has been to start this season. There wasn't a team better inside the 20-yard line than Dallas, putting up six on 71.4 percent of their red zone trips in 2022. That's fallen to 40 percent through three games this year, tied for fourth worst in the NFL. By no means was Kellen Moore a great play-caller, but Mike McCarthy has been around the block for a minute. With the talent McCarthy has, that's unacceptable, especially after Moore was a scapegoat throughout the last several seasons. Now, the percentages and numbers are one thing, but watching the plays is another. They went 1-5 last weekend, and here were just a few of those plays that jumped out.
This is the last play the Cowboys ran on their first red zone drive of the second half. Of the six total plays here, this was the best, and you can draw your own conclusions on how the rest of this will go. In fairness, the design of this play is good. It's cover zero for Arizona, and the whole purpose of this play is to get Brandin Cooks all the space in the world over the middle. Although the coverage on Cooks was good, you can see Dak hesitate just enough before getting this ball out, and he sails it a bit behind and high. Good idea by McCarthy, just poor execution.
This is the ensuing Cowboys offensive drive where they fail again to put one past the plane for six. And oh boy, is there a lot to go over here.
Play 1: Key in on CeeDee Lamb (red circle) and Jalen Thompson (white circle) as this play develops, and watch how Thompson is zoned in on the middle of the field the entire way. Then watch Dak Prescott look at Lamb, come off of him, and take a check down. Calling that a brutal decision is nothing short of an understatement. Especially given two of these next three plays.
Play 2: Another negative play for Prescott because he's static getting ready to take this snap. You have to be able to make that adjustment, especially given that it wasn't all that low. That all leads to a holding penalty on Tyron Smith, and it's 3rd&13 just like that.
Play 3: Good safe read by Prescott to get a nice chunk of yards back to set up a fourth down try with the Cowboys down eight.
Play 4: Simply a horrendous play design by Mike McCarthy and an even worse time to dial it up. I don't know what feels like a sails concept out of a bunch set from the *checks notes* four-yard line was ever going to work, but it's hard to put this on Prescott or any of his options. Mike McCarthy needs to put his guys in a better spot than this. Wasn't that the whole point of firing Moore?
Lastly, this is the final play Dallas ran offensively, and what a finding ending this was. Again, the Cardinals drop seven into coverage, and everything is clogged up. If you're McCarthy and you don't have that tidbit in the back of your mind now, that's a problem. As is the fact that Prescott stares down this skinny post to Cooks the entire way, with Kyzer White standing directly in front of him the whole time. Horrible play call and horrible execution, but a deserved result, seeing as the Cardinals ran down the final three minutes of the clock after this to secure a 12-point win. Dallas has been doing some extra red zone work this week, and to that, I'd say I hope so because this was some horrendous stuff out in Arizona last Sunday.
While Dak Prescott hasn't been much better in 2023 than last year, he hasn't been worse either. The biggest thing is that his turnovers have been kept to a minimum...for now. Between 2021 and 2022, Prescott fumbled 18 times and threw 25 interceptions, good enough for 1.53 turnovers per in 28 games played. So far, he has just one pick, and it's the one you see above against the Cardinals. Will that ultimately stick? I have my doubts, but so far so good.
Next up on the list of elite running back-receiver tandems in New England's path this year are CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard, the former of whom gave the Patriots fits in that 2021 matchup with 149 yards on nine catches, plus two touchdowns. A couple of weeks ago against the Jets, Lamb had the luxury of going into the slot and avoiding Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed. He'll be afforded no such advantage this weekend with Christian Gonzalez, who's been in the slot numerous times this year. Regardless, he's the guy to stop on this Cowboys offense. You can't let him do what he did to the Jets a few weeks back and continuously allow him to get chunks of yards at a time. Pollard, I'm less concerned about, but he's also the No. 5 rusher in football three weeks in. Might not even matter though, with Dallas potentially being without three starters up front, but one for sure in Tyron Smith.
New England Patriots
Not having Jonathan Jones once again will sting, but you saw enough out of Myles Bryant on the outside to feel good going into this week, words I never thought I would say before September of this year. I'd like to think the plan with these Dallas wideouts is Gonzalez traveling with Lamb no matter what, and then Brandin Cooks/Michael Gallup gets the bracket coverage treatment all game. Cooks hasn't done much with Dallas so far, but don't be the reason he gets it going. Jake Furgousen has also been a go-to option for Prescott so far this year, with his 18 targets trailing only Lamb. The good news is that the Patriots are one of the three best defenses against tight ends this year, allowing just 58 total yards and a league-low seven catches.
Especially with the red zone issues Dallas is having, you should feel good about this defense going into Sunday. This offense is certainly better than the Jets, but not close to either Philadelphia or Miami. Also, while Prescott hasn't faced much pressure this year (14 total, t-29th in the NFL), not having Tyron Smith will be massive. PFF has him graded as the No. 1 pass-blocking tackle in football, and the Patriots are the No. 5 team in the NFL in terms of pressure percentage (29.1%). Could very well be a day where Dak is forced into making mistakes. On a final note, I refuse to believe that Will Grier hasn't been at least somewhat interrogated on some of the inner workings of Dallas' offense, but the reaction out of Dallas was objectively hysterical.
Assuming Dallas is going down with the ship running majority Cover-1 looks, this is as good a Week as any to try and go deep if you're Mac Jones. Not that he should be challenging Gilmore a ton, but Dallas was running a lot of off-man against Arizona, for whatever it's worth, so there should be some free releases. Gilmore is most likely drawing DeVante Parker, but I'm interested to see if the Patriots go after DaRon Bland from the jump. He hasn't been tested much this year, and if it's Kendrick Bourne or Pop Douglas on him, I'd take my chances even if he got five picks last season.
I don't think it takes an expert to say that Cole Strange has been subpar this year, but he's also been dealing with injuries as far back as training camp. Safe to say that hasn't been helping him. So it's no surprise that he's out again, which likely puts Atonio Mafi back in line for another start, if not Sidy Sow. If Trent Brown were out, I'd certainly be worried, but this unit held up well against New York against the pass and run, so that's enough to feel good, but I wonder how they'll handle left guard and right tackle duties.
I'm also interested to see how the tight ends get involved this weekend, Pharaoh Brown included. Dallas hasn't allowed any tight end they've faced to go off, but the Patriots flirted with a ton of three tight end looks last week and gave Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki 13 looks combined against Miami. There might be a certain, unstoppable play out of empty that New England could get Gesicki some good looks on if they run it. I think it rhymes with Boss I Duke.
Points Spread: DAL -6.5 (-105) | NE +6.5 (-115)
Moneyline: NYJ (-290) | NE (+235)
Over/Under: O 43.5 (-108) | U 43.5 (-112)
Lines via FanDuel as of Saturday, September 30
I saw this line at Dallas -6.5 on Wednesday and could not believe it, and it's somehow still static. I can't say for certain if both these teams are trustworthy, in general, or in the betting market, but after last week, I trust New England FAR more than I do Dallas. With that said, Dallas is also 11-6 as a home favorite against the spread since Mike McCarthy took over in 2021, and the Patriots are 4-6 as a road dog. Even with that in mind, Patriots across the board and under.
Especially now that it appears the Patriots' run game has taken a turn for the better, I feel this offense will continue to improve each week. With that comes the chances of play-action passing becoming far more effective, and against a Cover-1 heavy unit, there's a chance for some good eating. Defensively, I would anticipate a performance closer to what we saw against Philadelphia than New York. Undoubtedly, this is a better offense than the Jets with a better quarterback, but the red zone issues are apparent, and it's something I need to see fixed in practice to believe it. Probably going to be another rock fight, but this is a very winnable game for the Patriots.
Final Score: New England Patriots 20, Dallas Cowboys 13
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