Last season, Rob Ryan had the bye week to prepare for the New England Patriots. Cowboys fans hope he finds the same success this season as the new defensive coordinator in Dallas again prepares for the Patriots during a bye week. While with the Browns, Rob Ryan's defense managed to hold the juggernaut offense to only 14 points in a season that the Patriots averaged 32.4 points per game. This season the Patriots have increased their offensive production to an even 33 points per game. Even in their single loss the Patriots scored over 30 points. Even more impressively, Tom Brady currently has an incredible 30-game regular-season win streak at home.
The Dallas Cowboys 2011 defense will face their toughest challenge to date, made even more difficult by traveling to New England, but there are reasons to believe the Cowboys can break the 30-points /30-wins streaks the Patriots and Brady have set. The greatest reason, of course, is the new Cowboys defensive mastermind Rob Ryan.
Coach Ryan not only has the recent experience of beating the Patriots in 2010 while with the Cleveland Browns, he was also on the Patriots coaching staff (2000-2003) and has personal insight on Coach Bill Belichick. There is also a strong brotherly bond that will be of benefit. Certainly conversations with his twin brother, and head coach of the Patriots division rival, will provide copious amounts of information to help. And in another advantage, the Jets just played the Patriots and even in defeat Rob Ryan can still study how the defensive philosophies shared with his brother worked against the Patriots 2011 offense. Also, it appears Rob Ryan has already created a defense that is well suited for the job.
Let's take a closer look at why the Cowboys Rob Ryan defense can attack and break down the dominant Patriots offense...
Step 1: Stop the Run
Even against the Patriots pass-happy offense, Rob Ryan will make sure the Cowboys defense will continue to stop the run. It may surprise some people that the Patriots offense currently ranks 6th in the league in rushing yards, tied for 5th in the league in rushing average, and even though they lead the league in passing are still 10th in rushing attempts. Now, this is not to say their offense is predicated around the running game. The Patriots certainly use their passing attack first and foremost, and Tom Brady still throws far more often than he hands-off the ball. But watching the Patriots offense it becomes clear that the rushing attack is routinely used to sustain their high-powered offense.
If the Patriots offense was a boxer, it would be best known for knocking out opponents with game-changing head shots. The passing attack a combination punches: relentless jabs (quick passes), a mighty cross (Wes Welker slants and crossing routes with yards after the catch), and dangerous left and right-hook (tight-ends gashing the seams). But while their opponents are brutalized and knocked out with shots to the head, the Patriots also deliver punishing blows to the body with a power-run game to force opponents to drop their guard (coverage) and keep them at bay (slow pass-rush).
To keep defenses honest, the Patriots run the ball. It helps slow down the blitz (something aggressive teams do often to get Tom Brady uncomfortable in the pocket) since runs can often get to the second level as soon as they get past the point of attack due to all the defenders committed to the blitz. The running game can also stop teams from keeping two safeties in deep coverage all day, Brady confusing them further with his ability to make good play-fakes. The Patriots often utilize play-action passes out of their two tight-end sets, a formation that has become quite formidable with the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (basically two top 10 tight-ends based on stats). And of course, with the Patriots usually leading in the game, a powerful rushing attack helps close out victories and chew-up clock in the second-half.
But one statistic may be quite telling in how integral this running game is to the Patriots high-powered offense. In their only loss of the season, the Patriots had their worst rushing attack to date.
(Stats from NFL.com and include only Patriots running backs)
|Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Rushing Average|
In their sole defeat, the Patriots rushing average dropped by over a yard compared to their four victories. It should be noted that the rushing attempts also show a minor difference between the number of runs in the four victories with big leads versus the attempts during their close loss. Even though the rushing attack wasn't working well, the Patriots continued to try and establish their power-run game against the Bills, but it didn't work. In fact, because the Buffalo Bills had the ability to stop the run without forcing more people in the box, they were able to keep more defenders in coverage. This led to the biggest factor in the Patriots loss. Against the Bills, Tom Brady threw four interceptions though was never sacked. While the Bills defense did pressure Brady, they managed to do this while rarely blitzing. Because they were able to both stop the run and make Brady uncomfortable with only the defensive-front, the majority of the defense was able to stay back in coverage.
Another example of the Patriots use of the running game was last week's victory over the Jets. While the Jets offense did very little to help the team win, the Jets defense was of little help as well. The Jets were out of the game early when they were unable to score points, and simply couldn't pressure Tom Brady. Rex Ryan eventually had to rely on more blitzing and the Patriots and BenJarvus Green-Ellis took advantage (27 rushes, 136 yards, 5.0 average). While the Jets were throwing everything they could at Brady, the Patriots gashed the blitz packages with the run.
There's a good article by Pat Kirwan that also helps explain this offensive success of the Patriots, the sense to make the shotgun formation two dimensional.
Against the Jets, the Patriots ran the ball eight times out of shotgun with great success - 44 yards and two touchdowns. While the Jets were pinning their ears back and trying to get to Brady, the Patriots landed devastating body shots with the power-run game.
The Dallas Cowboys currently have the best run-stopping defenses in the league, both in yards and average. It may sound unexpected, but the ability to stop the Patriots ground game will be a necessity for Ryan to take the next necessary steps in building his game-plan to stop the unstoppable offense.
Step 2: Confuse and Harass Tom Brady
If the Cowboys defense can continue the trend of stopping the run and pressuring quarterbacks with exotic schemes and blitz packages while still keeping enough guys in coverage, they should prove a serious challenge for the Patriots. This will be paramount to complete Ryan's defensive plan. If Rob Ryan goes about attacking the Patriots offense like he did with the Browns in 2010, the Cowboys will be blitzing from every conceivable angle and formation, all the while using organized chaos prior to the snap to make reads more difficult for Brady.
The Cowboys defense currently averages over three sacks per game, New England averages less than two allowed on Brady per game. This will be a crucial step in the defensive game-plan. Tom Brady is completing nearly 68% of his passes, but it is clear that the only way to make Brady less confident and accurate is to constantly have people at his feet and/or pressuring him out of the pocket. The trick will be doing this without making coverage schemes susceptible to hot routes and quick reads by Brady and Welker.
With a bye week to prepare, I expect to see more formations and schemes from the Cowboys defense than in the first part of the season. However, I expect to see fewer all-out blitzes. I think Ryan will ease back his starting corners by keeping more people in coverage (especially since the Patriots will spread out the defense) and rushing only four or five in his exotic schemes. The biggest question will be which four? Ryan will attempt to confuse Brady with where the pressure is coming while also disguising which players are dropping back to cover under the slants and crossing routes that are common to the Patriots offense.
The New England offensive-line has played well this season, but this is partly due to how quickly Brady can read defenses and get rid of the ball. I expect the Cowboys to try to take advantage of Dan Koppen's absence in the middle of the line, especially since it would also be the quickest path to flush Brady out of the pocket. I wouldn't be surprised to see the outside linebackers (and middle backers) on delayed blitzes into the middle gaps, or defensive-line stunts with the nose tackle and ends. Without their starting center, the Patriots should have a hard time making adjustments at the line with Ryan's organized chaos making life difficult.
Even if the Cowboys do not manage to sack Brady three times, they must be able to pressure him with quarterback hits and hurries. If the Cowboys can routinely do so sending only a few rushers, the secondary should get the help it needs to slow down the league's best passing attack. If the game-plan succeeds and the Patriots rushing attack and Tom Brady are consistently hard-pressed while only committing a handful of the front-seven, then the final step in the process can be achieved.
Step 3: Contain Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez
The New England offense leads the league in passing yards and average per reception. They are also tied for 4th in passing attempts. Clearly the biggest piece to the puzzle is for the Cowboys defense to slow down the high-power passing attack. Oddly enough, I think they match-up well in these efforts. The return of Orlando Scandrick and the extra time for Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman to get healthy couldn't come at a better time. But while Newman and Jenkins will be vital in slowing down Wes Welker's career season, the safeties may be the most vital piece to the defense against the Patriots.
While Wes Welker is clearly able to make plays downfield, his specialty is still running after the catch which makes him such a great fit in the Patriots offense. Welker is currently the only wide receiver on the list of the Top 8 players with yards after the catch. While running backs often dominate this statistical category, for obvious reasons, Wes Welker currently leads the league with 303 yards after catch. While he has a mind-boggling 16.4-yard average per reception, it drops below a 10-yard average if you remove all the yards after receptions. It will take more than a corner to contain Welker from breaking a big play and this will usually mean having a smart and competent tackler at safety to be there if Welker gets away from the corner. It will also mean the defense will have to be very sound in their zone coverages when Welker is crossing the field or slanting into the middle. I expect Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh to be very active against the Patriots, and not only while trying to keep Wes Welker from amassing yards after the catch.
The Patriots other most dangerous receivers are actually their tight-ends. Even though Hernandez missed a couple of weeks due to an injury, the Patriots tight-end duo accounts for 41 receptions, 548 yards, and seven touchdowns. While defenses shade a safety over-top Welker and another plays closer to the line to help support against the run, the tight-ends take advantage of mismatches and actually account for many of the Patriots deep passes. Gronkowski and Hernandez account for virtually one-third of the Patriots passing offense, and it will be the safeties that are again most challenged by the match-up. While Sean Lee will certainly have his hands full, it will be Elam, Sensabaugh, and Barry Church that will often be responsible for this dangerous duo.
There is good news. The Cowboys bend-but-don't-break defense is built on not allowing teams to beat them deep. The defense is supposed to keep everything in front of them while the defensive-front attacks the offense - sometimes with the help of some members of the secondary. If everything goes to plan, the Cowboys should be able to force Brady into quick throws and then have the defense ready to collapse on the receiver before they can get yards after the catch. If Ryan can fool Brady enough pre-snap, these shifting coverages should also help force an interception or two if the zone blitz is disguised well-enough to even fool the great Brady...especially with DeMarcus Ware bearing down on him.
It will not be an easy task. The Cowboys defense will be facing a juggernaut offense (30+ points per game) under the pressure of playing an away game in a very hostile environment (30-home-game personal Brady win-streak). Yet the Cowboys defense is designed to stop the run, create pressure on the quarterback, and not allow the big play while confusing and harassing the quarterback. The Cowboys defense is designed to do the things that will most hurt the Patriots offense, and the man with the plan has plenty of experience against them. With Rob Ryan's knowledge and schemes, and the more talented defense under his command, the post bye-week match-up could lead to a déjà-vu moment for the Pats...perhaps even a loss with only 14 points of offense.