The Cowboys vaunted defense is still reeling from a dreadful performance against the Cardinals in which they surrendered 28 points and 400 yards of offense. They now return home in hopes of getting back on track, and they’ll be doing so against a Patriots offense that is very much in flux right now.
A year ago, the Patriots went through a change on offense. Longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels left for the Raiders head coach job, leaving Mac Jones after his incredible rookie season. In a surprise move, it was recently-fired Lions head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia who took over play-calling on offense, a first for him.
The results were predictably terrible. An offense that had ranked 10th in offensive DVOA and EPA/play dropped to 23rd in DVOA and 24th in EPA/play. The poor offensive production squandered a great year from the defense and saw the Patriots miss the playoffs with an 8-9 record. Once the season wrapped up, Patricia was out and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, at the time holding the same position at Alabama, was in.
O’Brien has brought more cohesion to the offense just by the simple virtue of being a real offensive coordinator. He’s returned the team to the typical structure of a Patriots offense while also sprinkling in some concepts he utilized in the college game.
That’s meant a return to heavy utilization of passing concepts that attack the middle of the field, something Jones excelled at in his rookie year. Already Jones has seen just under half of his attempts this year targeting the middle of the field at various depths, and he’s completing 77.4% of those passes. Receiver Kendrick Bourne and tight end Hunter Henry, the leaders on the team in both targets and catches, have seen the majority of their work come over the middle of the field.
Another O’Brien staple is tempo, and he likes to run his offenses fast. O’Brien makes frequent use of one-word plays to get the call into Jones and the rest of the offense quickly and deprive defenses of time to rest or substitute. Through three games, the Patriots have the fastest pace in the NFL at an average of 24.48 seconds per play. O’Brien has also expanded the team’s use of RPO’s and spread formations, though not to a significant degree just yet.
The fingerprints of O’Brien as the new play-caller are quite obvious, but the success hasn’t fully followed to this point. New England is currently 13th in offensive DVOA and 23rd in EPA/play, both of which are improvements from last year but not by a large margin. Some of that has to do with facing three really good defenses (Eagles, Dolphins, and Jets) but it also has to do with the changes in personnel around Jones.
The aforementioned Bourne and Henry were with the team last year, as was DeVante Parker, but there are a lot of new faces this year. JuJu Smith-Schuster was added in free agency alongside tight end Mike Gesicki, and rookie receivers Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas are also in the fold. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson is now joined by former Cowboy Ezekiel Elliott, as well.
Most of the new pieces have yet to be fully integrated into the offense. Smith-Schuster is in a bit of a time share with Parker, who never really developed much chemistry with Jones a year ago, while the two rookies are getting mixed in gradually. Gesicki, who was a dynamic receiving threat for several seasons in Miami, is hardly breaking 50% of the offensive snaps thus far and has just nine targets on the year.
That’s one area where the Patriots could really look to attack the Cowboys this week. Jayron Kearse has earned a reputation as a tight end eraser, but the Patriots have two really good receiving tight ends in Henry and Gesicki, the latter of whom is basically just a really big slot receiver. If O’Brien decides to go with a heavy dose of 12 personnel, the Cowboys will have a hard time figuring out which one Kearse gets assigned to and who takes the other one. Gesicki is primarily lining up as a slot receiver when he plays, but it would be a bad idea to have the 5’10” Jourdan Lewis cover the 6’6” Gesicki as if he were a regular slot receiver.
There’s also the running game and, specifically, Elliott. New England’s rushing attack hasn’t gotten going yet, largely due to a myriad of injuries across their offensive line. They rank 19th in rushing DVOA and 22nd in EPA/rush, though Elliott himself is leading the team with an average of 4.4 yards per carry. Stevenson is the lead back, but it’s more of a tandem so far. Elliott has been at his most effective in this offense when running power run plays where he can just get downhill and run through a gap instead of working the perimeter and looking for a spot to cut.
Those offensive line issues, by the way, are going to be the biggest spot for the Cowboys to attack this offense. Jones has been pressured at the eighth-highest rate this season, though he’s only been sacked six times. While he’s displayed great sack avoidance, Jones has also proven largely incapable of keeping things moving when he’s under pressure. Dallas already plays a ton of Cover 1 and Cover 3, which aims to take away the middle of the field, Jones’ favorite spot. If they can plug up those throwing lanes, it’ll buy enough time for this pass rush to get back to what they do best and makes Jones’ life miserable.
The caveat, though, is that this offense will go fast if they get any positive momentum. That could prove problematic for a defense that loves to rotate players, especially on the defensive line. It’ll be an entertaining chess match between O’Brien and Dan Quinn, two former head coaches who offer plenty of skill and expertise as coordinators. And their clash could prove the deciding factor in this game.