The ten matchups you need to watch in Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Cowboys at Gillette Stadium:
The Patriots pass defense against Jason Witten: Through the first five games, New England has done an excellent job slowing down elite tight ends -- against a combination that includes Antonio Gates, Kevin Boss and Dustin Keller, they have yielded 14 catches for 187 yards and one touchdown, an average of three catches for 37.4 yards per game. (For more on that, check out our story here.) But Witten will likely provide the biggest challenge. Look for New England to at least try and get physical with the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder, who is the Cowboys' leading receiver with 27 catches through the first four games of the season. The Patriots have varied their coverage against elite tight ends this season, but look for safeties like James Ihedigbo and Pat Chung to play a sizable role in trying to contain the seven-time Pro Bowler.
New England’s uptempo offense against Dallas’ speed on defense: This is going to really tell the whole story: Can the Patriots continue to effectively utilize their no-huddle offense against a Dallas defense that has little familiarity with defending such a scheme? New England has run the no-huddle almost 22 percent of the time in 2011, and on almost every series where they’ve gone no huddle, they’ve come away with either a touchdown or a field goal. On the other side, the Cowboys’ defense hasn’t faced a team that’s run the no-huddle with any real regularity in 2011 -- Dallas’ opponents have used the no-huddle on just over 10 percent of the snaps, including one game against San Francisco where the 49ers offense used it only once all afternoon. (For more on this matchup, check out our story here.)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis against the Dallas run defense: New England’s No. 1 option on the ground will go up against the top-rated run defense in the league. Green-Ellis, who ran for a career-best 136 yards last week against the Jets, has 333 yards through five games, but his consistency (he averages 4.3 yards per game, and has yet to fumble as a pro), durability (he has yet to deal with a major injury) and ability to stay out of negative plays (he has just four negative plays on 80 touches this season) continue to make him invaluable to the success of the New England offense. This season, no member of the Patriots offense has more touches than Green-Ellis (80 through five games). One of our favorite stats from this week’s edition of Nuggetpalooza: The Patriots ran for 152 yards last week and joined Jacksonville, Minnesota, Oakland, and Philadelphia as the only teams that have put up at least 90 rushing yards in every game this season. In fact, New England now has 90+ rushing yards in its last 13 games.
Bill O’Brien against Rob Ryan: O’Brien has New England on a regular-season streak of 13 games where they’ve scored 30 or more. The last time they didn’t break 30 in the regular season? Last November against the Browns ... whose defense at the time was led by Ryan. (For more on Ryan, check out our story here.) Ryan took the job as the Cowboys defensive coordinator this past offseason, and has the Dallas defense at or near the top of the league in several categories -- the Cowboys are No. 1 in the league against the run (allowing just 61.8 yards per game) and fourth in the league in total defense (yielding just 291.8 yards per contest). One thing to watch for: Dallas is a very fast defense that’s prone to possible over-pursuit. In the past, the Patriots have used a lot of play-action, some reverses and other sorts of misdirection in an attempt to use that aggressiveness against their opponents.
Devin McCourty against Dez Bryant: McCourty’s numbers the last three weeks have improved, but he and the other members of the New England secondary will face a huge challenge this week in trying to slow down Bryant and Miles Austin. (We talked about that in-depth here.) According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty has been targeted 45 times and allowed 30 receptions, both of which are league highs. Two things gleaned from talking to players this week: One, the Cowboys could use that size and strength to their advantage this week by throwing some screens in hopes of overpowering the New England defensive backs. Two, one of the points of emphasis for the Patriots’ defensive backs this week is a need to be physical and “rally to the ball” in the words of one cornerback, as Bryant and Austin are the sorts of big, physical receivers that often require multiple tacklers to bring down.
Vince Wilfork against Phil Costa: The young Dallas center called out the Patriots defensive lineman on Twitter -- after being asked if he was ready for “Mount Wilfork,” Costa referred to Wilfork as “more like a speed bump.” Wilfork laughingly dismissed things on Friday, but Costa, who has struggled through the early stages of the 2011 season, will likely be reminded of his statements on Sunday.
Matt Light against DeMarcus Ware: The Patriots’ defense has always approached every game with the priority of stopping the opponents’ No. 1 offensive option. If you flip that around, Dallas’ No. 1 defensive option is Ware, a 6-foot-4, 247-pounder who is one of the league’s best pass rushers. The 29-year-old out of Troy has five sacks through four games, ahead of his typical amazing pace (he’s had five consecutive seasons of at least 11 sacks). No wonder that Bill Belichick compared Ware to Lawrence Taylor this past week. Expect Light to get lots of help from newly re-signed tight end Dan Gronkowski as an extra blocker -- Gronkowski will either stay in to help block Ware or try and get a chip on Ware before heading on his route.
Wes Welker against Orlando Scandrick: Scandrick is the Cowboys’ nickel cornerback who usually handles the slot receiver, and while it’s unlikely he’ll be in single coverage for much of the afternoon with Welker, he figures to play a large role in trying to slow down the NFL’s leading receiver. The last two weeks, the Raiders and the Jets have played more man coverage in trying to stop Welker (of course, New York felt pretty good about their chances because they were using the best corner in the league in Darrelle Revis in trying to stop him), so it’ll be interesting to see if the Cowboys try and change things up at all against Welker. One thing that’s important to remember is that Welker is running more vertical routes this season (as we saw with his 73-yard gain against the Jets, as well as the 99-yarder earlier in the season against the Dolphins), and so Scadrick could end up getting lots of help over the top from Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh.
Tony Romo against himself down the stretch: The Dallas quarterback has a knack for making the worst possible decision at the worst possible time. (If it wasn’t for a few poorly-timed throws against the Jets and Lions, the Cowboys are 4-0.) If the game is close late, history tells us that Romo will be the one who blinks first. Over the first four games of the season, in the first half, Romo’s numbers compare favorably with any quarterback in the league, but when the second half rolls around, his numbers take a colossal drop. (His completion percentage and passing touchdowns decrease, while all of his five picks this season have come in the third and fourth quarter.) Comparing his fourth-quarter numbers with the rest of the league, he’s 12th in the NFC with a 73.9 quarterback rating with one touchdown and two interceptions in the final quarter of play. (In that same vein, Dallas has committed 12 fumbles, tied with the Jaguars, Rams, and Cardinals for the most in the league.)
The Patriots defensive front seven against Felix Jones: Entering Sunday’s game, New England is 13th against the run, allowing an average of 106.4 yards per game. The Patriots have kept four of the five teams they’ve faced under 100 yards rushing (only Oakland broke the century mark with 160), and at least on paper, it looks like Dallas could be the fifth of six teams to be under 100 on the ground against New England. The Cowboys' young offensive line has struggled when it comes to run blocking, and Dallas’ 86.6 yards per game on the ground is 26th in the league. (In addition, the Cowboys are toting the rock at just 3.4 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL.) Jones has had his moments this season, including a 115-yard output last month against the Redskins, but don’t look for too much out of the Dallas running game on Sunday, even with Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo unlikely to play.