The Patriots defense is playing on another level this year. They’re first in the league in yards and scoring, second in passing defense, and first in DVOA. They’ve rarely given up touchdowns and are excellent at taking the ball away, with their 19 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries contributing to the team’s +18 turnover differential.
A lot of this has to do with the man behind the curtain, Bill Belichick. Revered as one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history, Belichick’s shape-shifting defense has been able to conform to whatever it needs to be in order to shut down opposing offenses, with the lone exception being the Baltimore Ravens.
Granted, New England faced the Ravens on the road in Baltimore, but they lost to Lamar Jackson and the purple birds after the Ravens offense put up four touchdowns on the dominant defense. In the Patriots’ other nine games, they’ve allowed just five total touchdowns on defense.
A big reason for the Ravens’ ability to score on what had been an impenetrable defense is their strength in the running game. Against the Patriots, Baltimore had four different runners (including Jackson) combine for 210 rushing yards and three touchdowns. It’s worth noting that New England also ranks 13th in run defense DVOA, only four spots ahead of the Cowboys’ much maligned run defense.
This highlights one of the oft-overlooked weaknesses of a Belichick defense, which is having multiple options in the running game. This much was confirmed by Pepper Johnson, who played and coached under Belichick for a total of 26 years, in an interview from August of 2018:
So if you put two running backs out there at the same time, how much of a nightmare is that going to be for Belichick? Bill never likes two running backs. He never liked playing against two skillful running backs. It’s a problem because he can’t really cover them with his different combination of coverages with the secondary. The linebackers have to get them. And you need good linebackers.
Enter Tony Pollard. Everyone knows what Ezekiel Elliott is capable of, and as it stands he’s eighth in the league in rushing and second in both DVOA and DYAR. But Pollard adds a unique element if used properly. The Dolphins and Lions served as good practice runs in preparing for Belichick’s varied defense, and it’s encouraging that Pollard had his two best games of the year so far against those teams.
Against Miami, Pollard ran 13 times for 103 yards and scored his first touchdown, also adding three catches for 25 yards. This past week in Detroit, Pollard only had two carries for 12 yards but saw greater usage as a receiver, especially with the effective touch-pass play, as he racked up four catches for 44 yards and a touchdown.
If what Johnson, a longtime Belichick confidant, said was true, then the Patriots head coach should be concerned while scouting this offense. As Johnson also alluded to, New England’s linebackers aren’t great this year either. While there’s a lot of substitutions going on in this defense, the three linebackers that see the most snaps are Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Dont’a Hightower.
Based on their combine 40-yard dash times, the fastest linebacker is Collins, clocking in at 4.64 seconds. Compare that to Zeke and Pollard, who ran a 4.47 and 4.52 respectively. These running backs have the talent, skill, and speed to take advantage of New England’s slower linebackers, much in the same way that Baltimore did.
The Cowboys also have a mobile quarterback like the Ravens did. Sure, Dak Prescott isn’t anywhere near as fast as Jackson, but he’s certainly a threat to scramble. He’s only carried the ball 33 times but has amassed 193 yards and three rushing touchdowns. Suffice to say, Prescott is a threat in the running game in addition to Zeke and Pollard.
If Kellen Moore can identify this weakness, which he should easily deduce if he watches the Ravens-Patriots tape, then he can come up with a game plan that heavily features both running backs, utilizing them in both facets of the offense and exploiting the slow linebackers on this defense. If Moore can do that, the Cowboys have a chance to upset the Patriots on Sunday.