FOXBORO — This weekend’s matchup between the Patriots defense and Cowboys offense is a classic strength-on-strength battle.
The two sides of the ball, which are carrying their respective teams, lead the league in the following key categories: Defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), total yards, yards per play, and third-down efficiency. And Dallas is second in points per drive while New England’s defense is first.
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Dallas’s rushing attack led by Ezekiel Elliott is tough. But it’s their passing attack led by MVP candidate Dak Prescott, who leads the NFL in passing yards, QBR, and expected points added, that’s pacing the Cowboys offense to the top of the league.
This season, Prescott and the Cowboys are opening up opposing defenses with a variety of downfield concepts that have Dak leading the league in air yards as well.
Despite old narratives on the Cowboys quarterback, he’s now winning with his arm better than just about any passer in the NFL through the first 11 weeks of the season.
And his abilities as a ball carrier are now a supplement to his skill as a thrower.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an inordinate amount; they mix a few in from time to time,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Dallas’s usage of Prescott’s legs in the offense.
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(Prescott running a zone-read play with Elliott. If the backside end crashes, Prescott will keep. If he stays, he gives to Elliott.)
“They have a few plays – you know, the read-zone plays, they have some option plays, things like that, couple moving pocket plays. Just another thing to bother the defense, just another thing that you have to worry about and defend. Just another rock on a big pile of rocks,” Belichick continued.
Patriots fans shouldn’t worry about a repeat of what Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens did to the New England defense by running the football with the threat of a quarterback keeper.
In all, Prescott has only carried the ball nine times on designed quarterback runs, and the Cowboys rank 11th in the NFL in the usage of run-pass options, a far cry from Jackson and the Ravens.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett downplayed the impact of Baltimore’s game-plan on Sunday’s game as well, saying, “we typically play our best when we do what we do. We focus on what we’re doing. You know, they have a unique collection of personnel on their team and they’re doing a great job with that group, but we like our guys too, and we like what we’re doing offensively. So, that’s really what we’ll continue to stay focused on.”
Baltimore’s W-Ting meets the old-school veer offense is not easily replicable unless you have certain personnel and ample practice time to drill the techniques.
However, the Dallas offense is arguably the best in the NFL because of the things it does well, which involves a lot of vertical flood concepts and motions against man coverage.
As a result of the scheme and his talent, Prescott has the highest Pro Football Focus grade on first-read passes among the 34 qualified starters.
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Prescott has a 90.5 elite grade and is completing over 70 percent of his passes on throws to his first read, and he’s making impressive throws from the pocket regularly.
Along with Prescott completing tight-window throws, Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is taking the league by storm in his first season at the helm of the Dallas offense.
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Here, the Cowboys utilize pre-snap motion on third down to get Amari Cooper open on a jerk route. Dallas ranks fifth in pre-snap motion frequency, and the short motion by Cooper towards the formation gets the Lions corner thinking about an inside release. Then, Cooper stems to the inside, forcing the Lion defender to overplay an inside-breaking route, leaving the Dallas wideout wide open in the flat to move the chains.
Prescott is also at the point where he’ll manipulate coverages with his eyes to make downfield throws within the framework of the offense.
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On this touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, Prescott sees the slot corner playing with outside leverage with the safety on the far hash shaded towards Michael Gallup at the bottom of the screen. The Cowboys QB knows that if he can hold the deep safety, he’ll have Cobb working the post in a favorable situation. Prescott stares down the left side to hold the safety and then unleashes a dart down the middle to Cobb for the score.
The Prescott-Moore duo, coupled with a trio of productive receivers for the Cowboys are proving difficult to defend for any defense, but there’s one glaring weakness in Prescott’s game.
Taking a look at the tape and analytics, Prescott becomes a much worse passer and decision-maker when the defense forces him to make throws to his secondary reads.
As noted earlier, Prescott is the best passer in the league on first-read throws, but he ranks 33rd out of 36 qualified quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus grade when he comes off his first read.
Plus, his turnover worthy play percentage increases from 2.5 on first-read throws to 7.4 percent on passes past his primary read in the progression.
Here’s an example from last week against Detroit. The Cowboys have a flood concept set up here on third down with Prescott’s first-read being Cobb, the outside slot receiver to his left, on the stick route. The idea of the play is to get the clearout by #3 (inside slot) to attract the attention of the slot defender to keep him away from Cobb.
When Prescott gets to the top of his drop, the coverage changes from a post-safety structure to an inverted cover-2 scheme. With the invert, there’s now a hole player to take #3, which allows the safety to slide underneath Cobb’s route, taking that option away from Prescott.
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As we roll the play, Prescott comes off Cobb with the safety in good position and throws a wild attempt towards the backside slant. Luckily for Dallas, he sailed the throw. Otherwise, this pass has interception written all over it against the Patriots secondary.
There’s no easy way to slow down the Dallas passing, but the tape and numbers suggest that forcing Prescott to hold the ball and hit his secondary receivers gives you the best chance.
Along with the non-primary read numbers, Prescott’s statistics decline across the board when defenses force him to hold the ball in the pocket before he makes a throw.
The expectation here is that Dallas will use more of their built-in option plays to force the defense to defend Prescott’s running abilities, who wouldn’t after seeing the Ravens game?
But the key for the Patriots defense on Sunday will be stopping Prescott through the air.
OTHER FILM NOTES ON THE COWBOYS
1. How Will the Patriots Match Up on the Cowboys’ Wide Receiver Trio?
To slow down Prescott, the Patriots will also have to defend Dallas’s wide receivers that currently lead the league in receiving yards by wideouts (2,308). The leader of the pack, of course, is three-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper. Cooper is one of the best route runners in football with fantastic setups into his breaks and moves at the top of the route.
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The Cowboys love to throw comebacks or stop routes to Cooper along the sideline, as shown here at the bottom of the screen, and he’s excellent at breaking off his routes, forcing defenders to fly by as he comes back to the quarterback. He’s also unstoppable on slant routes.
Along with Cooper, second-year pro Michael Gallup is having a breakout season, averaging over 84 yards per game. On the opposite side of the spectrum, veteran Randall Cobb is having a career renaissance.
Patriots All-Pro corner Stephon Gilmore will likely draw Cooper with Jon Jones on Cobb in the slot, which leaves Jason McCourty or JC Jackson to track Gallup. Jackson’s physicality and ability to track the deep ball seem like New England’s best option on Gallup, but McCourty is more disciplined with his technique, and Gallup could draw a lot of penalties against Jackson.
2. Defending Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Rushing Attack
We would be remiss not to mention the Cowboys rushing attack and Ezekiel Elliott. Both Elliott’s explosive runs and rushing yards per game are down this season, but Dallas still ranks third in DVOA on the ground. Elliott is a game-changer, and the Cowboys offensive line is as well, although they’ll likely be without starting right tackle La’el Collins.
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Along with the talent, the Cowboys feature a diverse running game, leaning on both zone and gap schemes to move the ball. Elliott, who was a big-play machine in his first three seasons, has only one run of 20-plus yards that went for 27 back in Week 2, but he still ranks eighth in rushes of ten or more yards (22).
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Furthermore, you can’t sleep on Dallas’s backfield duo of Elliott and rookie Tony Pollard in the passing game. They’ll throw screens and dump-offs to Elliott, but Pollard is a versatile weapon that will flex out and play some receiver. Last week against the Lions, both Elliott and Pollard found the end zone as receivers.
3. Scouting Dallas’s Defensive Fronts and Michael Bennett’s Impact
As Belichick noted on his weekly conference call, the Cowboys run a Seattle-style defense harkening back to the days of the legion of boom. Although they run a wider variety of coverages than those Seahawks teams, their fronts are nearly identical.
“There are definitely some similarities to the Seattle 3 scheme from a front standpoint, not so much from a coverage standpoint. The coverage element is a little bit different, but it’s still heavy zone-based,” Belichick said.
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With their aggressive fronts, Dallas will typically align in a 4-3 in either an over or under look. On the play above, the Cowboys are in an over front, and top pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence goes to his favorite move, a leaping cross-chop, to beat the right tackle and get the quarterback hit on Kirk Cousins.
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Along with Lawrence, the Patriots will also see old friend Michael Bennett on Sunday. Bennett is back at home in a Seattle-style scheme that fits his skill set much better than New England’s system. Dallas lets Bennett align as a penetrating three-technique on passing downs and rush the passer. Bennett uses a snatch move here to get to Cousins.
The Dallas defense only ranks 20th in DVOA this season and has regressed compared to a year ago, but they have a few disruptive players in their front seven.
4. Get Ready for More Screen Passes by the Patriots Offense
Although Patriots fans might be sick of seeing screen passes, expect to see a heavy dosage of them against the Cowboys on Sunday.
This season, the Cowboys defense, which likes to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage, is statistically the worst in the NFL at defending screen passes. The Patriots need to clean up their execution of screens to take advantage, but opposing offenses have a 63 percent EPA success rate when they throw screens against Dallas. We’ll see if they test the Cowboys defense early with similar concepts that have plagued them in the past.