There’s been a ton of talk this season about the Patriots offense, led by their passing game. That’s fine – it’s well deserved. Tom Brady once again looks to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
But here’s a stat that will surprise you: The Patriots rank sixth in the NFL in rushing yards, averaging 128.6 per game. The main reason for this is the strong play of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, especially over the last two weeks when the Patriots have elected to even out the offensive attack.
Green-Ellis ran for a career-high 136 yards on 27 carries last week, finding the end zone twice. He has 333 yards and five touchdowns on the year, and has some help from rookie Stevan Ridley (161 yards, one touchdown), and Danny Woodhead (115 yards) this season.
A lot of Green-Ellis’ yards come after contact, as he’s a north-to-south guy, unlike former Patriots running back Laurence Maroney.
“He’s always been a good guy that gets yards after contact, has a good forward lean, has good balance, he’s strong, he’s not an easy guy to tackle,” Bill Belichick said of Green-Ellis. “He runs at a good pad level for the most part.”
But here’s the catch.
As good as the Pats running game has been, the Cowboys run defense has been better. Dallas ranks first in the league in opponent rushing yards, giving up a measly 61.8 per game through four games. Those games include going up against Shonn Green, Frank Gore, and Jahvid Best – no slouches, by any means.
Belichick points to a number of reasons for the success of Dallas' run-stoppage, but one of the main ones was the speed of their defense in closing gaps and getting to opponents.
“They don’t give up many plays,” he said. “You look at a lot of plays and the play starts you think, “There’s a hole, this looks like a pretty good play’ and all the sudden four guys hit him for a two-yard gain. They close very quickly. [Anthony] Spencer and [DeMarcus] Ware on the edge, I mean they’re a problem. The inside linebackers especially [Sean] Lee runs well. Their defensive linemen are active. They really run well. They have good team speed.
“They have a lot of team speed – it’s the fastest team we’ve played this year.”
The Patriots were able to run all over the Jets last week, and essentially run out the clock in the 4th quarter. That could be harder to do this week with the defensive pressure on the line. DeMarcus Ware will be a major pain in Brady’s side today.
Bigger in Texas
The Patriots' relatively diminutive secondary has had to deal with a decent number of big receivers this season – Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson, David Nelson and Plaxico Burress, to name a few. But the biggest challenge, by far, will be this week against Dallas.
Whether it’s Miles Austin who looks to be healthy and ready to go, Dez Bryant or Jason Witten, the Patriots secondary is going to have to work extra hard to take these guys down.
Bill Belichick talked about dealing with all types of receivers throughout the course of the regular season, including the big guys.
“It seems like we have one every week or more than one in some cases,” Belichick said. “I mean, look, through the course of the season or even through preseason, by the time you get through preseason you’ve probably seen the fast guys, the quick guys, the big guys, the run after catch guys, the guys that are real good blockers, crack blockers, things like that, the reverse guys.”
“Those matchups, they definitely change and you certainly learn that one thing that works against one player, there may be a better way to attack a player who has a different set of skills. Equally good player, but it’s a different matchup. We emphasize that a lot.”
Asked about Bryant, Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, who has picked up play over the last two weeks after a rocky start, was quick to comment on his athleticism and how hard he is to cover out in the field.
“He’s able to play [anywhere] on the field,” McCourty said. “He can go deep. When he catches the ball short, he’s able to break tackles. I think he’s really, even if you watch on his punt returns, when he gets the ball in his hands he can go the distance. Good speed and good strength. He’s a guy even when he catches the ball short we really have to rally to him and gang tackle him and try to get him on the ground as soon as possible.
The Patriots got lucky last week, especially without Jerod Mayo. For whatever reason, Rex Ryan opted against attacking the secondary on the outside, or deep at all. Tony Romo won’t be so kind. Mayo practiced on Friday, but it would be a shocker if he played today. Look for Romo to air it out early and often, as usual.
Don’t be surprised if the Patriots end up with a pick-off or two, but guys like Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher and Patrick Chung will need big games to limit the big-time yardage that the Cowboys can easily rack up, especially in man-to-man coverage with the Patriots cornerbacks.
Three keys for the Patriots
Aaron Hernandez: Hernandez made a somewhat surprise showing last week, and was targeted a team-high nine times. It's clear Brady trusts him, and with another healthy week under wraps, look for Hernandez to catch a few deep balls out of the WR position.
Brandon Spikes: Spikes had a solid outing last week, but he'll need to be even better this week against a much stronger offense, and likely without help in Jerod Mayo.
Albert Haynesworth: The Patriots can obviously win without him, but it'd be nice to see him show a few signs of his former dominant self this week. All his talk of being a "perfectionist" has got some people's hopes up.
Three keys for the Cowboys
Tony Romo: Not much a surprise here, but Romo is the Cowboys' gift and curse. There are times that he's brilliant, and there are times he gets too aggressive and careless with the ball. In order for the Cowboys to survive, he'll need to keep the turnovers to a minimum.
Felix Jones: For all the talk about the Cowboys' receiving corps, Jones is a guy that the Cowboys absolutely need to be able to count on. Through four games he's been subpar, totaling 241 yards and just one touchdown. If the Cowboys get out to a lead, giving the ball to Jones would be smart -- if he can deliver.
DeMarcus Ware: He's one of the best linebackers in the league, and one that Tom Brady will be well aware of all game. If he can get to Brady early -- and get in his head -- it could make a huge difference going forth.
- PHOTOS: What's Brewing in Steamy Hallows, the Harry Potter-Inspired Cafe19 Pictures
- PHOTOS: Frida Kahlo at the Brooklyn Museum doesn't hold back23 Pictures
Jimmy Toscano's pick
Patriots 31, Cowboys 27