At the start of the season, this looked like a juicy fixture. It would have been a Brady-less Patriots going to face the deadly Tony Romo-Dez Bryant combination. Instead, what we have is a Patriots juggernaut lead by #12 going against, well, Brandon Weeden and not much else.
On paper, it looks like a complete mismatch. For those that read our betting column, they’ll see that I’ve picked the Patriots at -8.5 (meaning they need to win by 9 points or more for me to be correct) and I believe that to be a strong possibility. But no one wants to read about how the big favorite will crush all beneath its feet right? So let’s play some Devil’s Advocate and see just how Dallas might be able to pull off an upset.
How Can Dallas Slow Down Tom Brady?
This is a question that has stumped many, and few have found a consistent answer. The previous answer was to get inside pressure on Brady and make him move laterally, but Brady has come to counter this approach by getting the ball out of his hands in a preposterous average of 2.09 seconds – far and away the fastest in the league and too fast for a pass rush to have much effect. Even the return of Greg Hardy from suspension, while a positive on the field (if not off it), will struggle to get to Brady in that time.
So what’s left? One option is to start jamming the receivers at the line, disrupt the timing of their patterns and force Brady to hold the ball. New England doesn’t have the biggest, most physical wide receivers around and so you can move them off their routes fairly consistently. Buffalo has some mild success with this, picking up a few coverage sacks but it also left them open to one of the receivers they can’t jam: Dion Lewis. Lewis, with a new contract in hand, is just another of the undervalued running backs that Belichick loves and the rest of the league is only just figuring out how to use. From Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen there has almost always been a receiving back that Brady could rely on for a quick dump pass, or that he could isolate against a linebacker. Lewis looks like next evolution of that player: a dynamic receiver but also capable of taking goal-line carries and running between the tackle runs despite his small stature. The task of covering Lewis will fall to the Dallas linebackers most likely, leaving them less able to do the other thing that teams have always been struggling to do….
Tom Brady is the brains of the Patriots offensive monster, but Rob Gronkowski is undoubtedly the brawn.
The tight end has only been slowed down by injuries since he entered the league. He has an obscene 59 touchdowns in 68 games and 14.5 yards per catch. To understand how amazing those numbers are you only have to look at the Hall of Fame TE playing for Dallas: Jason Witten also has 59 touchdowns, though just 11.1 yards a catch; the difference is that Witten has played 195 games to get his 59.
So how do Dallas go about trying to stop Gronk? Sean Lee will play a big part I’m sure. The oft-injured linebacker was cleared from the leagues’ concussion protocol and will be able to play in this game. At various times in his career, Sean Lee has been considered one of the best linebackers in the NFL, but a string of injuries have affected his physical ability, and even more schematic and position changes have slowed his mental reactions a touch. Lee is still great, but he’ll need help to handle Gronk, and unfortunately the position that could help is very poor for Dallas – their safeties. Barry Church and JJ Wilcox are not the ideal pair to try and control the middle of the field, and that might be being kind. It’s a real trouble position for the Dallas defense and has been for years. They‘re going to have to do something creative to try and minimize the damage Gronkowski does to them, and if they use too many bodies to do so it will leave holes for Brady to exploit. It’s a delicate dance every team has to do against the Patriots, and only the best defenses can manage it and unfortunately, Dallas is not one of them.
So if they can only hope to slow New England on offense then their only chance would seem to be…
The one true advantage Dallas will have is their offensive line against the Patriots defensive line and linebackers. Last season they were a destructive force that led DeMarco Murray to a rushing title. Without that force Murray has been worse than awful in Philadelphia and Dallas have been just fine.
New England’s run defense, however, has not. With Vince Wilfork moving on, the middle of the defense is suddenly a lot roomier for opposing teams and they’ve taken advantage of it. Opponents have averaged 4.9 yards a carry and 117 yards a game against them.
Some of that is a schematic choice from Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia who have their nickel defense on the field more often than not, seemingly accepting a few more rushing yards to protect against giving up even more passing yards. Whether they stick with this tactic or not against the best offensive line in the NFL and one of the worst QBs is another thing though. If Dallas is able to consistently eat up clock and move up the field on the ground then they’ll happily do so. Romo and Bryant could have dominated the weak Patriots cornerbacks on the outside, but Weeden & Terrance Williams are light years behind them and will need all the help they can get from the running game to pick their passes. Without their own receiving back Lance Dunbar it should be a steady diet of Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden for the Cowboys in order to control the tempo of the game and keep Brady & Gronkowski on the sideline. After all, they can’t carve up your defense if they stay on the bench.
The Likely Outcome
The Patriots are heavy favorites for a reason. Beyond the Bradys and Gronkowskis, there are the likes of Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower on defense as well as a strong offensive line. They should match up well with the Dallas defense across the board and have the benefit of a much better Special Teams game as well. I think the defending champions take this one by 10 points and set up a massive grudge match next week against the Colts.
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