Here are the 10 key things to watch as the Patriots travel to Dallas to take on the Cowboys. Mike Dussault
The 1-2 Patriots are back on the road this weekend, traveling to Dallas to take on a 2-1 Cowboys team that is coming off a disappointing defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals.
The Pats got their first win of the 2023 season by stifling the Jets, but even with a dominant defensive performance the game still came down to a final Hail Mary, as the Patriots offense went cold in the second half, producing just three points and finishing the contest with six-straight punts and just three first downs in the fourth quarter. However, the win was what mattered most and that's what the Pats left New Jersey with.
This week New England will look to take some new strides on offense while hoping to slow down Dak Prescott and his attack that ranks 5th in points and 11th in yards.
Here are the 10 key things to watch as the Pats try to get back to .500!
1. Slow Down Dak
The last time the Patriots saw Dak Prescott he was walking off the Gillette Stadium field in 2021 having thrown for 445 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-29 walk-off overtime win. That was the most yards ever allowed by a Bill Belichick Patriots defense and while the Cowboys aren't quite the same offense from two years ago, Prescott should have plenty of confidence that he can move the ball. Last week against the Cardinals, Prescott's numbers were far more pedestrian, 25-of-40, 249 passing yards with a touchdown and the first interception of the season for the Dallas QB. The Cowboys moved the ball but went 1-of-5 in the red zone as they stumbled inside the 20. Those struggles have been characteristic of Dallas' start, as they come in 27th overall in red zone offense. New England will have to find a way to make sure that even if they bend, they don't break and allow touchdowns.
2. OL issues
Don't look now but the Patriots might have some offensive line continuity this week for the first time all year. Trent Brown, fresh off a contract tweak, played an outstanding game as PFF's highest-rated tackle in the NFL with over 100 snaps played. That was a nice boost, along with David Andrews' strong performance, giving the Patriots two pieces to build around as the rest of the unit gets healthy and stacks experience together because they're in for another tough challenge this week.
The O-line has already seen plenty of tough challenges through three games, but Micah Parsons will provide an entirely new type of test, as the explosive linebacker is a game wrecker with four sacks and a team-leading nine stops. Osa Odighizuwa isn't far behind with three sacks of this own, while Demarcus Lawrence is second on the team with 11 total pressures. The Pats passing game has been sporadic through three weeks and it sure won't be easy to take a big step forward this week in Big D.
3. Cover CeeDee
Another standout from the 2021 game in Foxborough, Lamb picked up the game-winning overtime touchdown in that one, posting 149 yards and two touchdowns, still the second-highest output of his career. Lamb is unquestionably the number one target now with 19 catches for 273 yards but is still looking for his first touchdown along with the rest of the wide receiver group. Dallas has yet to get one of their wideouts a touchdown this season, but it seems like only a matter of time until Lamb breaks through.
"CeeDee's one of those guys that can line up everywhere, you could put him in the slot, you could put him outside, you could put him on the backside of three by one formations at the number three, two or one spot," said Jerod Mayo this week. "So that flexibility definitely is a challenge. And I would say he does a good job just going to get the ball, attacking the ball in the air. And honestly, I would say one difference with him is they'll run the ball to his side, so he must be a tough guy or that's kind of how they see him."
Lamb should see plenty of rookie Christian Gonzalez, who has faced a gauntlet of top receiving threats already and more than held his own.
4. The Micah Parson Project
You don't need to be a football expert to see what an impact Micah Parsons makes for the Dallas defense. With four sacks and a whopping 20 QB pressures through three games, Parsons is arguably the league's most disruptive defender and one who will test the Patriots offensive line from a variety of spots.
"You know, right away when you start watching the Dallas Cowboys, they have a lot of really good players and Micah Parson is, I would say one of the top five players in this league, regardless of position," said Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. "I mean, he's a great football player. Dan Quinn does a good job of using him in a lot of different areas and it just jumps out to you on film. So you have to do a great job of understanding what they're trying to do with him where he is. But at the end of the day, there's gonna be some battles that you're gonna have to fight one-on-one. You can't always double him. You can't always run away from him because they do a lot of different things with him. So we have to be aware of him on every single play."
Preventing Parsons from ruining the game plan by forcing mistakes is one of the game's biggest points of emphasis. The Patriots were turnover-free last week against the Jets and it helped them squeak out a win. They can't let Parsons force a regression, he's the only player in the league to force 10-plus turnovers from pressure since 2021. As a team, the Cowboys have the highest pressure rate in the NFL according to PFF.
5. More Points Needed
Bill Belichick noted in his post-win press conference last week that 15 points won't be enough most weeks, as for a second week in a row the Patriots saw a dip in their scoring output. They'll look to reverse the trend this week as New England currently ranks 26th in the league in points scored through three games. With Dallas' red zone struggles, a big key to the game will be putting up touchdowns and not field goals. The Pats have been much improved in the red zone themselves, ranking seventh in the league, however, they failed to even reach the red zone against the Jets last week.
Generating more big plays is a part of the equation, as Pharoah Brown's touchdown was a lone play to go longer than 20 yards last week. Receivers coach Ross Douglas was confident this week that the explosives would be coming.
"It's definitely a work in progress, but Mac's capable of throwing 'em, we're capable of running the rocks and we're capable of catching 'em," said Douglas. "So we just gotta continue to work 'em and practice every single day. But I feel pretty good about the direction that it's heading."
"Every game's different. I think, like I said, I kind of finished talking about last week, but it just depends on the circumstance, the defense, all those things," said Mac this week of the points total. "Definitely want to score more points, and the best way to do it is to think about your job and your assignment, try not to look at the scoreboard. Really, when you execute well, you score, and when you don't, you don't. It's kind of a simple equation, we've just got to do better."
6. Unlocking Gilly
The Patriots will face one of their former players in cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who spent four seasons in New England, winning a Super Bowl along with a 2019 AP Defensive Player of the Year award, two First Team All Pro appearances and three Pro Bowls. Now 33 years old, Gilmore still is among the league's best corners and one who uses his smarts and savvy to make the most of his ability. For 2023 he's allowed nine catches on 17 targets for two touchdowns and one interception.
"We're talking about one of the best corners in the past five to 10 years," said Ross Douglas. "When I first got here in 2021, I was a defensive quality control and spent a lot of time with Gilmore. He was injured at the time, so me and him watched some film together and had a lot of conversations just about DB play. So knowing how he studies the game and how in tune he is with things from the wide receiver position, whether it's splits, the type of routes they run. So he's gonna be in tune with everything that we do. So it's gonna be on us. It'll be, he's definitely a challenge for us."
With preexisting familiarity with how the Patriots operate, the offense will have to be aware of Gilmore on every snap, just like they will with Parsons.
7. D-line Injury
Daniel Ekuale landed on Injured Reserve this week, thinning the Patriots depth along the offensive line and raising questions as to how they'll compensate for his loss. Davon Godchaux left last week's game against the Jets and was present but limited at practice this week, leaving his status still uncertain. Every interior defensive lineman is injured or missing from practice at this point, with Christian Barmore still on the practice fields but also remaining on the injury report with a knee issue.
There won't be a lot of options to work around the absences of both Ekuale and Godchaux. Lawrence Guy could shift to more of an interior role, something he's done plenty of over the course of his career. But he's the only big-bodied player available that could theoretically replace Godchaux in the middle. Sam Roberts could alter his role a bit from a defensive end spot, while Keion White seems like the obvious choice to replace some of Ekuale's sub-package pass-rushing role.
The team did sign second-year defensive tackle Manny Jones to their practice squad to help pad their depth a bit but as Bill Belichick pointed out, options are limited at this point.
"Well, I wouldn't say there's a lot of Hall of Fame defensive linemen walking around right now that just aren't with a team," said Belichick. "We'll manage the position and we'll do the best we can, whatever that is."
8. Attacking Dallas Banged-up O-Line
Dallas' offensive line has long been among the league's best but last week against the Cardinals they were down three starters and it had a significant effect on their offensive output. Left tackle Tyron Smith, center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Zach Martin continued to battle injuries this week as it appears all three could be again in doubt for another contest.
Though New England has defensive line concerns of their own, they must find a way to attack Dallas' back-up-laden front that allowed two sacks last week. The Dallas offensive line had only allowed one sack through their first two games.
Cowboys Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones said this week it's still possible they'll get everyone back for Sunday.
"You've just got to take each guy week to week," Jones said via DallasCowboys.com. "We know how Zack Martin is - he rarely misses anything and is always available. Tyron is working through something with his knee, so all of those things are something we monitor as the week goes "Is it possible? Yes. Do we know for sure? Absolutely not."
9. Zeke Heads Home
A big storyline this week will be the return to Dallas by Zeke Elliott, with rumors swirling that the team will honor him with a pregame ceremony of some kind. Elliott had a bit of a breakout game last week, picking up 80 yards on 16 carries, with three carries of over 10 yards. Against a Dallas defense that allowed over 200 yards rushing last week, the Patriots will look to get Elliott and Rhamondre Stevenson going. A potent ground attack would do wonders for the continued improvement of the passing offense.
"What I've learned about Zeke is that he is an extremely hard worker," said running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri this week. "He's passionate about the football game. He loves to play the sport, comes in every single day with a great attitude. He's great to work with. He has added veteran leadership to our room. He talks to Rhamondre, talks to Kevin [Harris], talks to a lot of people in the room and the whole offensive unit. So, he's a pleasure to be around. I'm glad we have him."
"Zeke's] great," said Mac this week. "Obviously, it has to be interesting going back to your old team, but I know he did a lot of great things there and we're just trying to focus on how we can get him the ball and make him make plays like he did there. So, I know they have a lot of respect for him."
10. OL Continuity?
Despite finally getting some continuity along their offensive line this week, the Patriots allowed pressure on over 40 percent of Mac Jones' dropbacks, a season-high with a share of the credit going to the Jets' disruptive front. Cole Strange played only about three quarters, as his return from injury continues to be a process, similar to Michael Onwenu, who went wire-to-wire for the first time this season and was removed from the injury report this week.
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm acknowledged it would be a process with Strange. "He's getting better each week, and you know, it's one thing to practice, but another thing to go through a full game and get in the game shape and condition. He's always up for it and he's a competitor. I think for the most part, he did a good job [against the Jets]. You know, it's just being consistent and that comes with the more reps he gets and the more time he spends on the field in live action."
Vederian Lowe started on the right tackle side as the team appears to have locked in on a starting five to move forward with, however, he was credited with allowing six pressures against the Jets, a team-high.
"[Lowe's] picked up things pretty quickly here," said Belichick this week. "He has a lot of experience at tackle, both in college at Illinois and in Minnesota with the Vikings. So, I think he's coming along. Tough matchup with the Jets and last week against Miami, but he's hung in there pretty well, playing on the left side, this week on the right side. So, we'll see how it goes moving forward here, but glad that we have him, good guy to work with. He works hard, and he's getting better."
Dallas' front seven will provide another extremely challenging task for the Patriots defense and it all starts up front for the offensive line. A solid day from them could be the spark that the Patriots need to pull off an impressive road upset.
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