Weeden has been surprisingly competent so far as the Cowboys starter. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. After sitting out Sunday's action with an early bye week, the Pats return to action this Sunday against a banged up Cowboys team. Dallas is 2-2 and in the thick of the playoff race despite the early season losses of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, and the still dangerous Boys will be getting reinforcements this week from the return of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain from suspensions. Lets get to this week's matchups.
Lets just say it's a far cry from the 2014 juggernaut, which saw quarterback Tony Romo, receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray all go off for career seasons. Murray is currently struggling as a member of the Eagles, while Romo and Bryant will remain sidelined this week with injuries. Brandon Weeden has started the last two weeks in Romo's stead and looked solid if unspectacular, spreading the ball around a largely no-name cast of receivers.
Conventional wisdom might lead one to assume the offense would lean heavily on it's rushing attack to make things easier on it's backup quarterback, but that hasn't been the case. Through the first four games, they rank right in the middle of the pack in most team rushing statistics: attempts per game (26.2, T-17), yards per carry (4.1, T-16) and yards per game (107.8, 16). Since Week One, when they spent much of the game playing from behind, they've run 82 times and thrown 86, a near perfect balance. That's run heavy play calling by modern NFL standards, but they haven't been scared to let Weeden drop back and chuck it.
When I say chuck it, I mean it. Many also might have assumed that the team would harness the previously turnover prone Weeden by design, limiting the passing game to more checkdowns and safe intermediate throws. While he has had his fair share of safe throws and checkdowns, Weeden has been unafraid to cut loose, and has actually averaged a full 2 yards more per completion than Romo did in his two games (12.2 vs 10.2). In fact, Weeden has been statistically comparable to Romo over his admittedly small sample size, owning a slight edge in completion percentage (76.3 vs 75%) and comparable TD-INT rates.
This willingness to throw downfield may be surprising, but it makes a lot of football sense. Simply put, taking shots downfield puts stress on any defense, but especially those who are stacking the box to try to takeaway the run. This is a game where the presence of Devin McCourty on the back end of the Pats defense should be big, as he'll be tasked with erasing any missteps from the cornerbacks outside.
The book on Weeden has always been to pressure him. He has enough arm talent to run an offense efficiently when able to stay comfortable in the pocket. However, he's never been adept at improvising, and has made a lot of ugly mistakes when pressured and forced out of the pocket. After spending the first three weeks playing quarterbacks who can hurt you with their mobility, this could be a week for the Pats to get aggressive on defense and really turn loose their impressive stable of pass rushers. Of course, they'll be facing a much better line than those of Buffalo or Jacksonville, but the Patriots pass rushers are talented enough to make plays against anyone. With the defense likely looking to emphasize downhill play against the run, it could be another week where Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower get heavily involved in the pressure packages, attacking right up the gut of the Cowboys offense
Williams brings a big play dynamic to the Boys offense
Of Weeden's outside receivers, Terrance Williams remains the most dangerous with Bryant sidelined. A 2013 third round pick, Williams was productive as a complementary big play threat during his first two seasons, scoring 13 touchdowns and averaging 16.7 yards per catch during that time. Since being thrust into the number one role, he's been inefficient, catching just 44% of his targets, but the big plays have remained, as his yards per catch remains over 16 and he already has 2 touchdowns on the season.
Last week's game against New Orleans was a perfect microcosm of Williams' season. Weeden peppered him with a team high 10 targets, often looking for big plays down the field, but completed only three of them, as he struggled much of the night with the physicality of press corner Delvin Breaux. However, one of those catches was a spectacular diving touchdown that gave the Boys the lead late.
While Williams is the big play threat, the majority of Weeden's safer throws will go to Jason Witten and Cole Beasley underneath. The diminutive (5'8") Cole Beasley is a classic slot receiver, while the ageless Witten remains a tough, reliable target over the middle. The Patriots defensive backs should be well-prepared for Beasley given the amount of practice time they spend against Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Witten could prove to be more difficult, as similarly skilled Heath Miller hurt them in Week One. Patrick Chung and Jamie Collins should both see a decent amount of Witten in coverage, matchups that Weeden will likely look to attack. Witten is also a top target in the red zone, where he is even more dangerous due to the legitimate threat the Dallas running game poses on play action.
With Dallas' receiving depth thinned out by injuries, lesser known targets could get a few extra looks their way. Second tight end Gavin Escobar presents an intriguing combination of size and athleticism, but the 2013 second round pick has yet to carve out a consistent role in the offense. He has the skillset to hurt a defense that sleeps on him. Receiver Devin Street could get a few more looks as well, as the 2014 fifth round pick figures to be the third receiver after Brice Butler's injury last week. Street is a big target (6'3") who was a deep threat in college. He has just three receptions to his name in his brief pro career.
Despite their attempts to keep defenses honest, Dallas' offense is still highly reliant on their running game. When the running game gets going, it makes everything easier for the offense, particularly by opening up play action for Weeden. Given the investments Dallas has made in their offensive line, it's something they are counting on to be a constant threat that must be accounted for.
As good as the Patriots were in September, they still haven't proven their ability to stop the run. Jacksonville's TJ Yeldon was the first lead back they've faced that didn't gash them on the ground, but he never got the chance to get into any rhthym as the Pats took the lead early and forced the Jags to abandon the run. Hot offensive starts also played to the defenses advantage in their first two games, as situational football prevented Pittsburgh and Buffalo from hammering the ball on the ground more.
Ideally, another early lead will force the Cowboys to play from behind, but I'd expect more base defense from the Pats while the game is in doubt. Adding some beef to the interior defensive line was clearly a concern for them, as they added the 324 pound Akiem Hicks to their rotation via a bye week trade. Hicks is a big, powerful player with surprising quickness, and he'll likely slot right into the rotation with Sealver Siliga, Malcom Brown and Alan Branch. Siliga has been the best of that bunch so far, as Branch and Brown have both been too inconsistent early on. If Hicks begins living up to his potential, it could relegate one of those two to the sidelines. Either way, the Patriots defensive tackles simply have to be more stout than they've been so far this season, as Dallas' big physical offensive line is no joke.
Randle's explosive quickness makes him a tough open field tackle
Good fundamental tackling will also be key this week, as Dallas features three different styles of runner in their backfield. Joseph Randle has been the closest thing to a bell-cow back, handling 59 of the team's 105 rushing attempts. He's also the team's most explosive option, with elite lateral quickness that often helps elude would-be tacklers and escape from jams that other backs can't. His skill-set isn't unlike that of LeSean McCoy, who gashed the Pats in Week 2 on a bad hamstring. Swarming, gang-tackling is necessary against him, given how tough of a solo tackle he is. It could also produce opportunities to create turnovers, as ball security has been the biggest knock on Randle this season. Cowboys coaches have denied that Randle was benched last week after foolishly exposing the ball and risking a fumble on the goal line, but he could be on a very short leash if an opportunistic Pats defense can rip a loose ball out from his grasp.
Randle has given up some work to Darren McFadden, who still has enough home run speed and power to be a real problem if he's allowed to get to the edge. McFadden hasn't been particularly effective this year, as he lacks the wiggle or pad level to create yards between the tackles. However, he's always been a capable pass catcher, and is the logical candidate to fill Lance Dunbar's vacated passing down role. Dunbar had emerged as a key part of the offense, ranking second on the team in both receptions and receiving yards, but was lost for the season last week to a torn ACL. A passing down role could actually better suit McFadden's skill set, as it would mean more touches for him in space, where his speed helps him gobble up yards quickly.
If McFadden shifts to more of a passing down role, new Cowboy Christine Michael could become the new back to eat into Randle's workload. A 2013 second round pick, Michael never got much of an opportunity in Seattle behind Marshawn Lynch. However, he brings impressive power and balance between the tackles, and could bring more of a power element to the Cowboys running game.
Defensively, the Cowboys have been decidedly middle-of-the-pack, ranking 19th in the league in scoring defense (allowing 25.2 points per game) and 14th in total yards surrendered (347.75 yards per game). They'll be hoping to get a big boost this week from the return of two talented playmakers from suspension: defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain.
The Cowboys pass rush needs Hardy to dominate
Hardy's return should be key, as they'll be counting on him to add some juice to an anemic pass rush. Only four teams have managed fewer than the Cowboys six sacks, as an injury to stud rookie Randy Gregory has limited their pass rushing options. Prior to his lengthy suspension, Hardy was amongst the league's best rushers. He racked up 15 sacks in 2013, his last full season in the league, and has 27 sacks in his last 32 games played.
Nate Solder will likely be tasked with stopping Hardy, who did get a sack in his lone game against New England back in 2013. That's one of the toughest one-on-one matchups he'll see all year, as Hardy has a unique combination of length, speed and raw power. If Solder struggles early on, the Pats might be forced to compromise the timing of their offense by using a back or tight end to chip Hardy before releasing into their pass routes.
The other edge rushing position will largely be occupied by DeMarcus Lawrence, a talented 2014 second round pick who is just now starting to get his feet under him after an injury shortened rookie season. Lawrence is coming off of the most productive game of his career, registering a sack, 3 solo tackles and another two assisted tackles against New Orleans. He'll look to build on that momentum this week against Sebastian Vollmer, who quietly is having yet another excellent season on the right side of the line. He's joined in the rotation by Jeremy Mincey, a former Patriots draft pick who started all 16 games last season for the Boys. Mincey brings physicality on the edge, but lacks dynamic rushing ability, managing just six sacks last year despite plenty of opportunities.
The interior of the Cowboys line has held up well despite a lack of big names. Only five teams have allowed fewer than the 3.7 yards per carry they've given up through four weeks. They've managed that despite relying on quickness rather than bulk on the interior, as neither starting defensive tackle (Tyrone Crawford and Nick Hayden) weigh over 300 pounds. Those two have played relatively well, but the run defense has been successful largely due to a productive, active linebacking core, with Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens racking up tackles through the first month of the season.
An already good linebacking core should get even better this week with the return of Rolando McClain from suspension. A former top 5 pick, McClain finally put everything together in a very productive season as a starter in the middle of the Boys defense. At his best, McClain is a physical downhill presence both as a run defender and blitzer. He's not as good in coverage, where the Pats could look to take advantage of his aggressiveness with play action.
While McClain is good, the bigger key for this game will be the availability of Lee. The unquestioned leader and signal caller of the Dallas defense, Lee has been praised all week by Bill Belichick for his instinctive play, but remains questionable for Sunday after suffering a concussion last week against the Saints. If he can't go, it will be a huge blow to the Boys. His role in defensive communication is especially important this week against a Patriots offense that consistently stretches defenses to their breaking point. Lee is also more than just a tackling machine. He's also Dallas' best coverage linebacker (1 interception and 2 passes defensed already this year) and arguably their best all-around playmaker.
If Lee can't go, the Cowboys will likely divvy up the snaps situationally amongst a number of relatively unknown and unproven options. Rookie Damien Wilson was thrust into a role when Lee went out last week and showed his athleticism on tape, but also got lost in coverage on CJ Spiller's game winning touchdown in overtime. Veteran Andrew Gachkar is hard-nosed, physical player, but best suited to a special teams role. 2012 fourth rounder Kyle Wilber has stuck around, but done little of note in his career.
Claiborne will need to step up big this week against the Pats arial assault
The biggest weakness on Dallas' defense comes on the back end, where the secondary has continued to struggle despite a number of big investments. Despite the top three cornerbacks being a former top 10 pick (Morris Claiborne), a big money free agent signing (Brandon Carr) and another first round pick (rookie Byron Jones), the Cowboys have been average at best as a pass defense. They've done a decent job at avoiding big plays, allowing just 7.1 yards per completion (T-9th stingiest), but they've also allowed QBs to complete 66.7% of their passes (10th highest).
Claiborne has been a disappointment throughout his injury riddled career, but the former can't miss prospect is finally healthy this year and coming off of an impressive performance against Saints top target Brandin Cooks. Claiborne boasts the best reactive quickness amongst these corners, which could earn him the unenviable task of trying to limit Julian Edelman's production. That's a matchup that clearly favors the Patriots, and one that Brady will look to attack early and often.
Jones, a rookie who many Pats fans were hot for back in the spring, has impressive size and physicality for the position. He has yet to be a starter, but he's played a lot in sub-packages, often matched up with big receivers or tight ends. That could mean some time on Rob Gronkowski (almost certainly with safety help over the top), and he could also be responsible for Aaron Dobson when he comes in to play the "X" role on the offense. He certainly doesn't lack for talent, but Jones' lack of experience could make him a frequent target of Brady, particularly if the Boys look for him to try to limit the Pats twin towers at tight end.
The other starter at corner is Carr, who was expected to blossom into a #1 corner when signed to a 5 year, $50 million contract in 2012. Quite simply, that hasn't happened, as he's been beat far too much. No matter where he lines up or who he gets matched up on, Brady will be unafraid to test him. The same can be said of nickel corner Tyler Patmon, whose lack of size could mean some matchups with Danny Amendola when the Pats spread the Cowboys out.
Dallas's corners aren't great, but their safety play is actually worse. Veteran Barry Church is a willing participant in run support, but his lack of athleticism can get exposed in coverage. He's joined in the backfield by JJ Wilcox, a 2013 third round pick who emerged as a starter last year. Neither is a good matchup against either Rob Gronkowski or Scott Chandler. The Dallas linebackers also struggled mightily in coverage against New Orleans, with both Mark Ingram and CJ Spiller hurting them repeatedly in the passing game. Keep that in mind, Dion Lewis fantasy owners.
A bit of a mixed bag from the Dallas special teams. Their kicking game is set, as Dan Bailey remains one of the best kickers in the league not named Gostkowski. The ever reliable Bailey has yet to miss a kick this year. Punter Chris Jones is less well known, but he's quietly had a solid season as well.
Things are less steady in the return game, where the loss of Lance Dunbar reverberates on kickoffs. Like on offense, McFadden is the logical candidate to replace Dunbar in that role, but he's unlikely to get many opportunities to return kicks with Stephen Gostkowski's cannon of a right leg kicking off in a dome. The shifty Cole Beasley is the punt returner, but he's been unable to get going through four weeks, averaging a dismal 3.6 yards per return. Beasley can make guys miss in the open field, but lacks the pure speed to translate that into big game changing plays.
Dallas' shaky coverage teams could give Danny Amendola a chance to make a big play or two. Now the primary return man on both kickoffs and punts, Amendola has brought a spark in that department, averaging 9.7 yards per punt return. Dallas has yielded below average marks in both punt (8.1) and kick (26) return average.
It wasn't long ago when this game looked like a battle of the titans. The Cowboys were coming off of a fantastic season and boasted the star power to compete with anyone in the league. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant figured to be one of the toughest tests of the year for a young, unproven secondary.
Now, thanks to Dallas' seemingly endless injuries, the biggest challenge for the Pats could be avoiding a letdown. They are heavily favored and have a number of talent advantages on paper over this depleted Dallas squad. Coming off a bye week, the Patriots will have to re-engage their engines to reach the level of play they were at through three weeks.
Despite this, I don't think this team lets off the gas. Led by an out-for-revenge Tom Brady, this is a hyper-focused group looking not just to win but to dominate every week. They also have Bill Belichick, the best football coach on the planet, who has had two weeks to prepare for this one. The Cowboys may be playing at home, but that hardly negates the multitude of advantages the Pats have in this one. Expect some fight from the home team early, but the Patriots should eventually pull away and win this one handily.