Previously we broke down the offenses for each team of the upcoming Week 4 game between the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. Now we dive back into the position battleground, this time looking at how the defensive positions and special teams stack up against each other.
This Dallas Cowboys defense was deemed one of the elite units before the Arizona Cardinals game. From the start of the game they allowed the Cardinals offense to take take control and make explosive plays. The chunk plays the Cardinals had last week was a key factor for them coming away with the win. Previously the Cowboys defense had been one of the best teams in prohibiting explosive plays this season. The biggest weakness on this defense is its inability to stop rushing quarterbacks. It’s now a glaring problem for the Cowboys with no obvious answer on the defensive line to help fix this issue.
We all hoped this defensive line was turning a corner on run defense, but after allowing the Cardinals to get 222 rush-yards last week, maybe we need to continue asking questions. New England run for 107 yards-per-game, that ranks 14th-most. They don’t score a lot from the ground game, with only one rushing touchdown so far this year. Hopefully this Cowboys line can reestablish a level of dominance and put faith back into Cowboys fans. As for the pass rushing outlook against the Patriots, they have given up the third-most pressures this year and eighth-most sacks. So holding up against this Cowboys pass rush will be important to secure a win for New England.
Conversely, the Cowboys offensive line is giving up the fourth-fewest pressures. They will be facing the likes of edge rushers Matthew Judon and Josh Uche, they have combined for 25 pressures and five sacks so far this year. From the inside, the Cowboys need to keep Christian Barmore in check, who is their Osa Odighizuwa equivalent. He’s susceptible to go missing in the run game, but as a pass rusher from the inside defensive line position, he can be very efficient. The Cowboys have totaled more sacks and pressures than the Patriots. How much success the Patriots get this week will be based on the Cowboys offensive line starting lineup that has three starters working hard rehabbing in practice.
Leighton Vander Esch/Damone Clark
Ja’Whaun Bentley/Jahlani Tavai
Last week wasn’t a great week for the Cowboys linebackers. Damone Clark made a great play early in the game to stop the goal-line try by Arizona, but after that he struggled getting to the ball carrier. Leighton Vander Esch had a bad day last week taking bad angles and getting stuck on blocks. A lot of big plays that the Cardinals had in the run game was due to the offensive line getting to the second level or using the RPO (run-pass-option) to force the Cowboys linebackers out of the game. This week they will face Ezekiel Elliott, who is a master of getting extra yards when he gets to the second level, and also Rhamondre Stevenson who can flash when given enough space or running around the edge.
Over on the Patriots side, they have a very capable run stopper in Ja’Whaun Bentley. Last year he finished in the top-25 in defensive stops among linebackers. This year he’s currently in the top-ten. But Bentley also ranks high on missed tackles. He has the 11th most missed tackle rate among starting linebackers, which is something the Cowboys running backs may look to exploit. Also for the Patriots is Jahlani Tavai, who is a very able tackler who never missed a tackle last year. You will easily find Tavai on the field due to his size and solid frame. He plays with good play strength and is a very aggressive tackler. But he’s not overly explosive or very fast. That means he can struggle when in pursuit which can make him susceptible to faster backs.
Both linebacker corps have a tough task this week. But the Patriots offensive line struggles at times in run blocking. If the starters play for Dallas on the offensive line, they can create more push and hit linebackers in the second level with more frequency.
What in the world happened to the Cowboys defensive backs last week? Sure, the loss of Trevon Diggs is huge and will take time for this defense to adjust, but his loss still cannot account what happened last week. The spacing, angles and play-calling all contributed to last week’s struggles, and you can be sure Dan Quinn will be losing his temper re-watching tape on his corners and safeties. Jayron Kearse had a bad day, so did DaRon Bland and Donovan Wilson. There was a number of broken coverage plays where Cardinals receivers were wide open with no defenders anywhere near them. Against this Patriots wide receiver corps, it will require the defenders to remain patient and allow the underneath passes, then close on them quick.
The Patriots have rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez. He’s an athletic freak and very capable of playing the position at this level in his first year. He’s already registered an interception and he’s allowed a completion rate of 68%. He’s getting targeted a lot at the moment and he’s about to face a Cowboys receiver corps that can use their experience and good technique to counter his lack of instincts and bad anticipation. Their best safety, Jabrill Peppers, is great in run support and will help his linebackers mop up any running backs coming through the middle. They have Jonathan Jones at the moment on injury report and has missed the last two games, so keep watch on his designation. Defending the slot for the Patriots is Myles Bryant. This is the best place to attack in the passing game. Bryant is allowing a completion rate of 79% with a passer rating of 101.5.
This Cowboys defensive back group will look to make a point and tighten up after last weeks major disappointment. Bland will have more time practicing this week as an outside corner and working with Stephon Gilmore. The biggest challenge the Cowboys safeties will face is the Patriots tight end corps. The New England tight ends have the majority of receiving yards on the team, so shutting that part of the Patriots offense is an important factor. The primary factor though will be supporting the run defense that leaked so badly last week.
While everyone talks about the failures of the Cowboys redzone efficiency, one part that has been highly consistent is Brandon Aubrey. Through the first three games, the Cowboys have one of the best kickers in the NFL. Aubrey did something that nobody has ever done in the Super Bowl era last week. He is the first rookie kicker in the Super Bowl era to be perfect on his first ten field goal attempts during his first three games. Granted we would prefer that not to be the case and score touchdowns, but for the purposes of talking special teams, that’s an impressive start.
For the Patriots, they have Chad Ryland who has missed two field goals off five attempts. Both misses came last week against the Jets, with one being a bad miss at 48 yards.
When pitting these two kickers against each other right now, one guy has double-digit field goal attempts without a miss, the other has two misses in one game.
Bryan Anger is one of the better punters in the league. He is punting for an average of 50.4 yards, which is eighth-best. He also has a hang time of 4.44 seconds, which is the 15th longest. Both of those key punting statistics far outscores the Patriots punter, Bryce Baringer. His average punt distance of 43.5 yards ranks 28th. And his hang time of 4.15 ranks 30th, both contribute to a lot of yards returned against him.
KaVontae Turpin had a huge return for 64 yards last week, only to get called back due to a holding penalty. That penalty was easily the most disheartening foul to the Cowboys as it not only took them out of scoring position, it put them all the way back inside their own 20-yard line. The Patriots have a number of players that take on return duties. Both Jabrill Peppers and Demario Douglas took on punt returns last week. Both have a longer yards-per-return average than Turpin currently, but last year Turpin was better statistically.
Call this battle three wins out of four for Dallas if we add the punt coverage efficiency of both teams.
Which team has the better defense?
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New England Patriots