The Cowboys come into their road game against the Patriots with a defense that’s in need of some fixes. They currently rank 20th in defensive DVOA, which accounts for strength of schedule and overall efficiency. Luckily, the offense they’re about to play hasn’t been great themselves. Still, this is Tom Brady at quarterback playing at home, so the defense can’t afford to take them lightly. Here are five defensive changes the Cowboys should make against the Patriots.
1. Have Jourdan Lewis cover Julian Edelman
The Cowboys rarely have specific cornerbacks matchup against and follow receivers, but every now and then they’ve shown a willingness to do so. Of course, Jourdan Lewis was used in such a manner against Saints running back Alvin Kamara last year, and it worked very well.
This week, though, Lewis should draw a tougher matchup against Julian Edelman. In many ways, Edelman is exactly what you’d get if Lewis played wide receiver: small, quicker than fast, and always making an impact. As such, Edelman has become Brady’s top target, easily leading the team in all receiving categories.
With Edelman’s shifty route running and ability to make guys miss in coverage, the Cowboys need to use Lewis’ skill set to try and counter that threat, especially since Brady is targeting Edelman an average of seven times per game. If they can limit Edelman’s impact, things will only get tougher for the Patriots offense.
2. Put Byron Jones on N’keal Harry
The Patriots are likely going to be playing without Mohamed Sanu and potentially without Phillip Dorsett, so first-round draft pick N’keal Harry, who returned from injured reserve to make his NFL debut last week, should see an even bigger role.
Last week, Harry only played on 4% of the offensive snaps but saw his usage increase as the game went on. Brady targeted him four times for three receptions and 18 yards. As Harry steps up in lieu of injured players, his reputation as a jump ball receiver could pose problems for Dallas.
At 6’4” and 225 pounds and running a 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine, Harry is the opposite of Edelman: big, physical receiver with solid straight line speed. Enter Byron Jones, whose long frame and track star speed can keep up with Harry for sure and take away any shot of the rookie having his first big game.
3. Introduce some 2-gap techniques to the defensive tackles
The biggest weakness of this Cowboys defense thus far has been its relative inability to stop the run. The addition of Michael Bennett has helped some, but the fact remains that opposing teams know they can use trap blocks and counters to bait the Cowboys’ aggressive upfield defensive line play.
Thus far, Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard have done little to address this, but against the Patriots they should consider using some two-gap techniques with their defensive tackles, specifically Antwaun Woods and Christian Covington.
This would allow the defensive tackles to read and react to the Patriots’ run game while the edge rushers collapse the pocket. And if New England comes out trying to run the trap blocks and counters, the defensive line should be able to effectively shut it down.
4. Keep the linebackers at home
In recent weeks, the Cowboys have been getting a bit more creative with their linebackers, whether it’s bringing out three linebackers at a time or using them in coverage more or showing more blitzes. While that’s been nice, it has to change this week.
The Patriots have operated a good chunk of their passing game this year around screen passes - evidenced by Brady’s average of 7.1 intended air yards, which ranks near the bottom of the league - and those plays have become the Achilles heel of the Dallas defense, especially against Minnesota.
By keeping the linebackers out in front rather than dropping them back or sending them after Brady, the Cowboys can combine that with aggression at the line of scrimmage from the defensive backs (a common trait of this defense) to try and snuff out the screens better.
5. Limit the blitzes
The Cowboys don’t really blitz that much, but as with the linebacker usage, they’ve changed that up a bit in recent weeks. Their reason for the lack of blitzes is because both Marinelli and Richard generally prefer to create pressure with just their defensive line. Recently that hasn’t happened as easily, hence the increase in blitzes.
But this week is different. The Patriots have issues with pass protection, ranking 24th in pass block win rate. Their protection on the edge has been particularly problematic, which is good news for DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn, who rank fifth and third respectively in pass rush win rate off the edge.
This creates a very favorable matchup for the Cowboys’ top two pass rushers, as well as Maliek Collins, who’s third among defensive tackles in pass rush win rate. This is a situation where Dallas really can create pressure with just their defensive line, which allows them to use the rest of their defense on stopping the things New England does with their passing game.